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.
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.
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.
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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