A Brief History of Caravaggio


Michelangelo Merise was born in Milan in 1571 and grew up in a town nearby called Caravaggio, hence his artistic name.

He grew up in times of severe religiosity, brought about by the Counter-Reformation, whose objective was to stop the advance of Protestantism, having Catholics return to a more austere and simpler form of Christianity, based on the cult of Jesus, Mary, the saints and martyrs of earlier times. They tried to accomplish these objectives through repression (the Inquisition) and propaganda (buildings and works of art). The austere values of the Counter-Reformation deeply impregnated and influenced Caravaggio’s paintings.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio

 

After a couple of years as an apprentice in Milan, Caravaggio moved to Rome in his early 20s, where, alone, hungry and penniless, he had to compete with a great number of other artists who flocked to what was considered the center of the world to make it as a famous painter. His career really took off when he fell under the protection of a very well-connected patron, Cardinal del Monte, who changed his life.

It didn’t take long for Caravaggio to acquire fame. Boosted by his patron’s connections, his network grew steadily. Endowed with a very original and unique artistic style, he was soon considered the best painter in Italy. He became famous mainly for his dramatic use of light and shadows, in a style known as tenebrism (chiaroscuro), in which he painted biblical, mythological and everyday scenes in a very naturalistic way. The mission of a painter, according to Caravaggio, was to represent real life with all its flaws, ugliness, and occasional beauty.

Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, 1601.

Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, 1601.

 

Caravaggio, however, had a very difficult personality. Short-tempered and with a violent streak, he was wild. Roaming the mean streets of Rome after nightfall, he would very often get into fights and brawls. He frequented taverns and brothels, always carrying his sword, which was illegal, and he did not hesitate to use it whenever provoked. Those were hard times and he was the object of much jealousy and envy.

Extremely volatile and abrasive, Caravaggio was eventually involved in murder. He got into a fight over a tennis match and ended up killing his opponent. This probably makes him the only great artist ever to commit murder. Banished from Rome, he fled to Naples, where he started a new life and was soon given commissions by important people to paint again.

From there, he moved to Malta, hoping to become one of the famous Knights of Malta, a combination of military and religious order which was formed to defend Christianity against its enemies. Difficult as it was for most people to enter the order, his powerful connections were at work again here and he managed to be accepted. This was meant to be the first step to get him a papal pardon, which would allow him to return to Rome.

Judith beheading Holofernes, 1598/99

Judith beheading Holofernes, 1598/99

However, the circumstances and his harsh personality again hindered his plans. He got in trouble in Malta, and from then on, lived in the run for over 2 years, moving constantly to places such as Syracuse and Palermo in Sicily, and again back to Naples, where more trouble awaited. Finally he seems to have been stricken by a fever and died alone on a beach in Porto Ercole, supposedly on his way back to Rome. His body was never found.

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Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

5 VERY CURIOUS FACTS ABOUT CARAVAGGIO’S PAINTINGS


Did you know…

Young Sick Bacchu (1593/1594)

Young Sick Bacchus (1593/1594)

1. …that Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus (1593/1594) is in fact a self-portrait. The artist looked at himself in a mirror while he painted it. The reason he looks kind of sick is that the painter himself was convalescing from a disease, probably malaria, at the time, and had just left hospital.  Bacchus’ greenish lips and opaque eyes reflect his unhealthy condition.

 

The Death of the Virgin (detail)

The Death of the Virgin (detail) (1606)

2. …that the Church was shocked at this painting – The Death of the Virgin (1606) –  as they recognized the model Caravaggio used to depict the dead Virgin Mary. She was in fact a well-known courtesan whose bloated body had been dragged out of the river where she had drowned. Caravaggio used common people he saw in his contemporary Rome streets and also at the places these people usually hung out, such as taverns and brothels in the turn of the 16th to 17th century, to represent biblical and mythological scenes which would have taken place centuries earlier. I had a chance to see this painting myself at the Louvre and can attest, from first hand experience, to its fascination.

 

The Supper at Emmaus (1606)

The Supper at Emmaus (1606)

3. …that some people find it strange that Jesus is depicted in this painting – The Supper at Emmaus (1606) – as a much younger person and without a beard at a moment that would have taken place after his resurrection. However, Caravaggio was inspired by the Bible itself to make this choice. In the Gospel of Mark (16:12) we read that the apostles did not recognize Jesus when he first appeared to them after his death, for he had a different form. The painter thought it would be logical to depict this new “form” as a younger version of Christ himself.

 

Lute Player (1596)

Lute Player (159that

4. …that for many years there was doubt about whether the person depicted in this painting – Lute Player (1596) – was male of female. But, by the kind of shirt he is wearing and the fact that it’s open almost down to his bellybutton and yet showing no sign of cleavage, we can be pretty sure it’s a man. The Castrati (castrated, in English) were famous for their beautiful voices and very popular at the time, so this could be one of them. The effects of the hormonal changes that the body of a castrato goes through correspond to those we see in the painting, such as the hairless skin and swollen face.

5. …that experts believe the arrangement of flowers and the fruit depicted to the left on the same painting were not really done by Caravaggio. They differ significantly from his typical style. They believe those elements were added at a later stage by the Netherlandish painter Jan Bruegel.

We will be getting back with more interesting facts about Caravaggio’s stunning paintings in another blog post. Watch this space.

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Teaching English with Art

Teaching English with Art

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Jorge Sette.