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.




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.

If you are interested in Caravaggio, please check out our eBook series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

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Jorge Sette






Caravaggio Fun Quiz: how much do you know about the artist?

How much do you know about Caravaggio, the painter? Take the quiz and find out:


Caravaggio's The Fortune Teller

Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller


  1. Where was he born? a. Rome, b. Naples, c. Milan


  1. What was he like? a. Volatile and abrasive, b. Calm and peaceful, c. Cold and calculating


  1. What kind of painting style is he famous for? a. Romantic, b. Baroque, c. Impressionist


  1. What was the most original trait of his paintings? a. Tenebrism (chiaroscuro), b. Idealization of reality, c. Emulation of the classical models


  1. How did he die? a. Not clear, b. Hanged in Rome, c. Of old age


  1. Was he famous while he was alive? a. Not at all, b. Only after he turned 70, c. Pretty much


  1. Was he ever married? a. Never, b. Twice,  c. Once, but he became a widower soon


  1. Did he have powerful patrons? a. No,   b. Only near his death,  c. Yes, especially Cardinal del Mondo


  1. What’s the historical context he lived in?  a. The Industrial Revolution, b. The Counter-Reformation,   c. The Renaissance


  1. Which one is not a Caravaggio painting: a. The Death of the Virgin, b. Las Meninas,  c. Young Sick Bacchus



Caravaggio's quiz. Answer key.

Answer key


Note: the quiz above is from the ebook: TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: CARAVAGGIO. For further info on the series please CLICK HERE:  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

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Jorge Sette

Teaching English with Art: Caravaggio

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Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath

Most of you will be familiar with the biblical story of David, the young shepherd boy who offers to defend Israel against the Philistines, their greatest enemy, by battling single-handedly their champion, the giant Goliath, more than 3000 years ago.

The confrontation took place at a valley separating opposing hills, where each army lay. Both armies were in a deadlock as, to reach the enemy, they would have to come down the mountains where they were perching, cross the valley below and climb the opposite hill, thus making themselves vulnerable to the enemy on the higher ground.

David with Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, 1610

David with Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, 1610

Goliath proposed then that the battle should be decided by two warriors alone coming down at the same time from their respective camps and confronting each other at the bottom of the valley.

Nobody on the Israeli camp felt they were up to the challenge. Goliath was, after all, a fully armored giant armed with a spear and a sword, ready for heavy infantry combat. David, however, surprised Saul, the king of Israel at the time, by asking for permission to battle the Philistine himself. David refused the armor and weapons offered by Saul, explaining he was not used to them. He was a shepherd and his successful method for defending his flocks against lions and wolves had always been a simple sling to throw stones.

Both warriors came down. Goliath was expecting a physical fight. David, from a distance, simply put a stone on his sling, rotated it as fast as he could and threw it at the giant, hitting him right in the most vulnerable spot between his eyes. Goliath fell down and David cut his head off with a sword. The Philistines ran away.

Caravaggio was on the run for having killed a man and had been banished from Rome at the time he painted this work. So it seems obvious that he could easily relate to the theme. He was also trying to get an official papal pardon for his crime, and the fact that this painting was given as a gift to Cardinal Borghese, the papal official who could help him with this, seems like a useful strategy to meet his objective.

In the painting, we can identify clearly the main characteristics of the style of the artist, a combination of tenebrism (or chiaroscuro) and naturalism. Such characteristics are: the use of a biblical/mythological theme in which the characters portrayed ara painted from contemporary models; the theatricality and dramatization of the representation (this could be a scene out of a play or a movie); the strategic lighting of the painting, focusing harshly on the subjects and darkening everything else; the brutal realism of he scene.

This painting has been interpreted in many different ways. My favorite interpretation, though,  is the one that says this is a double self-portrait. David would represent the younger Caravaggio, whereas Goliath, the contemporary one. The fact that David does not look like someone who is celebrating a victory, but looks depressed and worried instead, can mean that the older Caravaggio regrets the fact that all the potential he had in his youth for realizing great things was wasted and destroyed by his volatile and abrasive personality. Food for thought.

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

To purchase the available titles of our eBooks series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART:

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1. Teaching English with Art: Matisse  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1kP

 (30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Henri Matisse)

2. Teaching English with Art: Picasso  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lA

(30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Pablo Picasso)

3. Teaching English with Art: Caravaggio  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1mL

(30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Caravaggio)

Au revoir

Jorge Sette