His powerful and innovative work revolutionized painting in the 17th century. He infused his sometimes brutal realism with the chiaroscuro and tenebrism techniques. He achieved overwhelming success in the early 1600s: working in an environment of cultivated protectors, he received numerous grand commissions and even prestigious collectors sought his paintings.
One of the leading figures of Italian painting during his lifetime, he enjoyed a great deal of fame, but then entered a difficult period of his life due to his poor temper and strong personality. He was banished from Rome for murder and settled in Naples and later Malta. Together with Annibale Carracci, he is considered to be the founder of Roman baroque painting.
He was considered an enigmatic, fascinating, and dangerous man, getting involved in violent disputes and legal proceedings and also imprisoned in Rome and Malta, repeatedly, for insults, illegal possession of weapons and severe physical attacks. He once started a fight with a waiter in a restaurant, that ended up with him smashing the man’s face with a plate and threatening him with his sword. Other episodes showing his aggressive temper include: assaulting a colleague with a stick; threatening a soldier with his sword; insulting a police officer; he was arrested for carrying a sword and dagger without authorization; for offending a lady with her daughter and also for assaulting a notary in a fight; lastly, his landlady accused him of not paying the rent, as well as having the habit of throwing stones out the window. His violent behaviour culminated in a duel with romantic rival Ranuccio Tomassoni, on the beach of Porto Ercole, in Tuscany. Despite fatally stabbing his rival, he too came out injured.
Caravaggio was born in the small Lombard village of Caravaggio, the town from which he later adopted his artistic name. When Caravaggio was only five years old, the city of Milan suffered an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1576. Although he and his family took refuge in the countryside, the plague wiped out 50 almost a third of the population of Venice, including his father, paternal grandparents and uncle, making the poor boy an orphan at the age of 10. In 1592, he moved to Rome, where he worked in Giuseppe Cesari’s studio. He worked in the cities of Rome, Naples, Malta and the Sicilian region, between the 1593 and 1610. He was quick to stand out not only for his original approach to pictorial work, but also for his irregular and violent life, with frequent fights and revealing episodes of his stormy character and his lack of scruples. Amidst troubling times in Rome, his health was shaken due to poverty and hunger. He was admitted to Hospital Santa Maria da Consolação, where he painted pictures for the institution. Having been discharged, he offered to work with Giuseppe Cesari, the Cavaliere d’Arpino, but found himself incompatible with the patron’s painting style and broke the contract. After being convicted of murder, he was forced to flee from Rome. The news of this aggression reached Rome, urging his friends’ efforts to obtain the Pope’s forgiveness. He had the support of Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga, who had bought his painting Death of the Virgin (1606). Upon receiving the news that Pope Paul V was about to grant him grace, Caravaggio left Rome without waiting for an answer to his amnesty. In the following years he travelled through several cities until he reached the island of Malta, where he painted The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608), in the cathedral of La Valleta. Due to the injuries sustained from his duel, he ended up dying years later, either of sepsis or blood infection, triggered by golden staph.
Baroque painting developed quickly in Italy and he became the greatest representative of the style, a master of realism and the contrast of light and shadow, exploring a profound drama. In the midst of the Counter-Reformation, Rome witnessed the growing construction of churches, and each new building required the creation of altarpieces and decoration, which constituted the Baroque works. It was in this context that his reputation among the public was established.
He learned from a ‘second-rate’ painter, Simone Peterzano, and above all from studying the works of other Venetian artists. He spent several months as Giuseppe Cesari’s assistant, a popular fresco painter, where he mainly painted background flowers and fruits. This added to his eye for details and an affection for the nuances of still life paintings evident in the precise execution of fruits and flora in his later works. The Basket of Fruit (1599) is one of the earliest Italian still lifes. With the precision of scientific illustrations, he depicted fruits and leaves in the process of decay. His first creations were in fact genre paintings (still life and everyday scenes), that already use plays of light and shadow, mainly only to create volume and form. In some works he combined still lifes with figures to create masterful compositions.The Supper at Emmaus (1601), marks the beginning of the artists mature period, characterized by the use of dark tones. His most important painterly innovation was the chiaroscuro technique: the light-dark contrast of scenes. In his later works, light and shadow contrasts are used to create dramatic effects in narratives or actions. Primarily in his works of Christian theme, he broke new ground by linking the sacred with the profane. He sought to represent an imperfect reality, which often brought moments of great drama. Openly opting for religious themes and works commissioned by the great patrons of the time, some of his works were rejected because of the naturalism with which he approached the biblical passages. He was accused of using the body of a prostitute found dead on the River Tiber to paint the Death of the Virgin (1606). Some of the paintings were considered unseemly by the Catholic Church – the same piece suffered from more controversy as it was rejected by the conservatism of the priests of Santa Maria della Scala for contradicting the dogma of Mary’s ascension; she was portrayed in a red dress showing part of her legs. The combination of religious themes with his “everyday experience”, integrating pious devotion into sensuality.
He believed in the power of self-expression, and is known to have claimed that only expression “can invest beauty with supreme and lasting command over the eye.” As a painter, he favored the supernatural, the dramatic and emotions of terror defined his conceptual frame of reference. He painted over 200 works but exhibited only a small number of them, which is a testament to his exclusive nature. His wife, Sophia Fuseli, burned numerous of his erotic paintings after his death – works that were not made for public display. His works, torn between sex, fear and violence, brought to life a series of typically romantic and imaginary beings, such as giants, witches, ghosts, etc. reflecting what Burke had theorized in his book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), in which he saw horror as a source of sublimity. His passion, emotionalism, and subjectivity – what we call ‘romanticism’- took his style towards the irrational. His work has a strong theatrical character, the shapes of his figures depart from the rules of anatomy lessons and give rise to new fantastic and sensual creatures. Thematically, despite his establishment in England, Fuseli represented a fully German sense of romanticism: his terrifying nocturnal world parallels that of the “dark romanticism” of Novalis, Hölderlin, Jean Paul and Hoffmann. All of this places him as a fundamental figure for the transition between neoclassicism and romanticism, and as one of the pioneering artists in the exploration of the irrational, a reason why some art historians compare him to Goya.
His sketches and drawings count around 800, are known to have admirable qualities of invention and design and are often considered superior to his paintings.Despite not being noticed as a colourist, he was also described as a master of light and shadow. His works lie, above all, in the expressiveness of the faces, as evidenced in his drawing of Three Crouching Girls (1782), in which the bodies of three women are simply hinted at by a line, while the faces are much more elaborate as they are the center of the expression of horror. In a later work, Titania and Bottom (c. 1790), the traditional system of Renaissance perspective is replaced by an indeterminate space of gloomy lighting in which Titania, the queen of the fairies, has conjured a legion of gnomes, fantastic creatures and pixies, with the intention of submitting them to the service of Bottom. In this work it can be seen that Fuseli, almost a contemporary of the Marquis de Sade, entered the same areas of passion and sex. Similarly, Titania’s Awakening (1794) demonstrates that romantic mix of voluptuousness, eroticism and fatality.
Judith and Holofernes (c. 1598-1599).
The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) by Caravaggio.
Because of his clumsy pigment preparation, he didn’t paint with oil until the age of 25. Instead of methodically defining his palette like most painters, he simply distributed the colours randomly. He often used pigments in the form of a dry powder, which he quickly combined at the end with oil, or turpentine, in unmeasured quantities, depending on the accidental effect. In his drawings, as in his paintings, his method included setting everything up on an ideal scale, deliberately exaggerating the proportions of the human body and throwing his figures into contorted positions, believing that a certain amount of exaggeration was necessary in the higher branches of historical painting.
Despite his public statements about artists – both his contemporaries or predecessors – sounding simplistic and rude, he used to study the art of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rafael and the great Venetian painters in secret; it’s also likely that he started his artistic career after having seen their works. At the time, artists outside Italy, such as Rembrandt and Diego Velázquez, incorporated the dramatic lighting effects in their works as a reference.
Portrait of a young woman (16th century) by Raphael. (CC BY-SA 2.0 FR – Rama)
Caravaggio’s style quickly gained devoted followers, impregnating their compositions with the same qualities as the master. “Caravaggism” would later refer to his style of strong contrasts and violent light, as well as the inspiration in the daily life in which some of his followers were inspired. Centuries later, the theatrical elements of his paintings – lighting and drama – make an easy transfer to the silver-screen. Directors like David LaChapelle and Martin Scorsese cited him as an influence – they channeled the power and objectivity of his images, through representations of imperfect bodies and creating a narrative from the climax to immerse viewers within their own narrative medium.
The exact number of paintings Caravaggio created remains ambiguous, but it’s estimated to range between 40 and 80 works. It is known that he frequently looked for models among musicians, street vendors, gypsies and prostitutes, using ordinary men and women as models and portraying their simplicity in a natural environment.
“I am always learning.”
“All works, no matter what or by whom painted, are nothing but bagatelles and childish trifles… unless they are made and painted from life, and there can be nothing… better than to follow nature.”
“I bury my head in the pillow, and dream of my true love… I am rowing to you on the great, dark ocean.”