Caravaggio: A life in light and darkness

2017/07/01 - Written by Jesper Storgaard Jensen
Caravaggio Italian renaissance painter biography light and darkness
Bacchus, Oil on Canvas 95 x 85 (1596-1597)
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Great talent and lack of moderation. Artistic greatness and dissolute lifestyle. In 2010, the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death is celebrated all over Italy.

2010 is going to be a great Caravaggio-year in Italy. Turin, Milan, Padua, Bergamo, Rome, Naples, Florence and Genoa are some of the places where one of Italy’s most famous painters is being celebrated with some very important exhibitions. In addition to this, several books on the famous artist are being published and TV-transmissions are being broadcasted. Who was Caravaggio, and why does this artist remain so fascinating?

Difficult first period in Rome

Michelangelo Merisi, his true name, was born in Milan on the 29th of September, 1571. At the tender age of six, his father, Fermo Merisi, died during the plague. Shortly thereafter the Merisi family moved to the tiny Lombard village of Caravaggio, which later gave its name to Michelangelo Merisi.

At the age of 13, the young Michelangelo starts an apprenticeship in Milan with the painter Simone Peterzano, fond of a kind of naturalism, a style which caught young Michelangelo’s attention (a learning period that would last four years ending in 1588). In 1592, at the age of 21, Michelangelo moves to Rome where he scrapes through life by means of odd jobs. He has a sickly constitution because of recurring malaria fever and he must be hospitalized several times. But the first time in Rome is also difficult due to Caravaggio’s bellicose character. As a result of his passionate and quarrelsome temper, he is often involved in scuffles, fights and duels, and gets to know several of the city’s detentions from the inside.

After some time, he ends up working with Giusepe Cesari Bottega, known as Cavalier d’Arpino, who at that time was a personal friend of Pope Clement VIII. Here Caravaggio begins to paint flowers and fruits. At that time, Nature Morte (still life) is a relatively new art form which was not highly valued. Curiously enough it is in this very genre that Caravaggio had his breakthrough. From 1593 to 1594, he paints both Boys with a basket of fruit and Bacco and in 1596, the famous Basket of fruit. All of these three paintings contribute to revolutionizing the existing perception of what art - and nature - is. Until that time painters in the late 16th century had primarily idealized nature. Caravaggio, however, went in the opposite direction, since he choose to paint nature exactly as it is, like apples with spots of mold and branches with withered and crumpled leaves.

Actually this is to become Caravaggio’s first trademark: to paint what he sees, everything natural, everything real, nothing artificial. He often finds inspiration in Rome’s streets and alleys, which you can see (for example) in The Cardsharps (1595), where two card players are about to cheat an innocent looking youngster, and in The Fortune-Teller (1594) where a gypsy is trying to remove a gold ring from an adolescent’s finger.

Rome 1596-1606, a fertile period

After Caravaggio’s revolution of the Nature Morte genre, his name starts to circle increasingly in Rome’s artistic community and towards the end of 1596 his immense talent is finally discovered by the Venetian cardinal Francesco Del Monte, who places Caravaggio under his protective wing and introduces him to the Roman aristocratic world. This would soon lead to important commissions. It is also the beginning of Caravaggio’s most fertile period lasting from 1596 to 1606 where he will paint the magnificent Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-99) and Supper at Emmaus (1601). Both works rely on the excellent use of light and darkness, which would become the Caravaggio trademark.

The light which Caravaggio uses in his paintings is diagonal coming from a specific source, usually located at the top left of the painting. His scenes frequently take place in darkness and the light falls on certain parts of the painting where Caravaggio wants the viewer’s sight to focus. Shadows and darkness define the paintings’ composition. Actually, very often it seems as though the paintings’ characters have stepped out of the darkness. This original play on light and shadows contributed to cementing Caravaggio’s fame and at the beginning of the 17th century, a stream of young artists from all over Europe started to travel to Rome to get acquainted with this new and revolutionary style.

Meanwhile Caravaggio continued to work on his triumphal procession painting, the magnificent Entombment (1602-03) whose six people constitute one great “block of pain”. It is one of his many masterpieces. About ten years later, the great Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens paints what seems to be an almost identical copy of the Caravaggio work.

Increasing fame and arrogance

The desire to dare and to provoke started to sneak into his art. He used people from the street in his paintings - including prostitutes - in scenes that depicted episodes from the Holy Scriptures. This was the case in Madonna dei Palafrenieri (1605-06) which was commissioned for the St. Anna Chapel in St. Peter’s Church in Rome. The painting was rejected because of its “lack of dignity”. The Virgin Mary was seen as too daring; his model was Lena Antognetti - a prostitute whom he had fallen in love with. Moreover, the Jesus Child was shockingly naked and the third person in the painting, Anna (Mary’s mother), resembles a toothless and ill-tempered shrew. Caravaggio’s painting radiates an incredible realism, but that realism was definitely too much for the Vatican.

As Caravaggio’s fame and self-confidence increased, so did his arrogance and his conflicts with his surroundings. Nocturnal pranks, acquaintances and friendships with contemptible people and debauchery with the city’s prostitutes were part of his everyday lifestyle during a period in which the church’s police forces had a special eye on the young painter.

Caravaggio very often carried a sword with him, and once, during a quarrel, he was accused of having injured a certain Pasqualone d’Accumulo with this weapon. The quarrel between the two had started after d’Accumulo had proposed to the prostitute Lena, who at the time was Caravaggio’s mistress. After these clashes of waves around Caravaggio actually grew so high, that for a while - three months - he had to go to Genoa.

The long flight from Rome: Naples, Malta, Sicily

The tragic turning point in Caravaggio’s life occurs on May 28th 1606, when both his career and artistic capacity are at a peak. In a game of paume (a French precursor of tennis played without racquets) a scuffle between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tommassoni emerges. Before this incident, there had, however, been several other conflicts between the two men, who both courted the prostitute Fillide Melandroni. In the wake of the paume match the two “fighting cocks” met for a duel near Piazza Navona. Here Caravaggio is wounded, while Tommassoni loses his life.

His influential family had made sure the young Tommassoni’s death was avenged. Caravaggio was condemned in absentia to death penalty by decapitation. The young painter was obliged to flee from Rome and hide for more than 50 months. His first hiding place was an estate south of Rome where Prince Filippo Colonna kept him hidden. After this he went on to Naples and in July 1607 to Malta where he painted several important works. The last years of his artistic activities are, obviously, characterized by much drama, which can be seen in his paintings such as Flagellation of Christ and Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, both from 1608, in which Caravaggio in a very direct way touches issues such as death and torment.

In July 1608, in Malta, Caravaggio was knighted by the Knights of Malta. Yet he came into trouble once again and was soon sent into prison. Somehow he managed to escape to Sicily where he alternatively resided in Palermo, Messina and Syracuse. During his long flight, Caravaggio never gave up the hope of being pardoned and being able to return to Rome. On October 20th, 1609 this hope brings him much closer to Rome, when he arrives in Naples. But just four days after this arrival, he is injured in a brawl, and rumours about his death soon start to spread.

Caravaggio, however, is by no means dead, both literally and artistically speaking. 1610 is the year when he paints one of his most famous and dramatic works David with the Head of Goliath. Here you see a young, sad and slightly melancholic David with Goliath’s head, from whose mouth blood is still running. Goliath is Caravaggio’s self-portrait, which has been interpreted as the confession to his guilt for the murder of Ranuccio Tommassoni.

In July 1610, the pardon of Caravaggio seems to be imminent but due to legal wrangling he cannot travel directly from Naples to Rome. Instead he has to go by sea over the Tuscan port town Porto Ercole. Here he is mistakenly imprisoned, probably because he gets confused with another person. Two days later the error is discovered and Caravaggio is released. But the two days lost means that he does not reach the ferryboat to Rome. On the 18th of July 1610, Caravaggio is instead walking around the beach on Porto Ercole. Here he again suffers an attack of malaria fever, from which he had never been properly healed, and later the same day - at the Santa Maria Ausiliatrice hospital in Porta Ercole - he dies, only 39-years old.

Art and lifestyle intertwined

Caravaggio had an incredible talent and achieved a fame which only few painters - and artists in general - are able to match. He remains especially appealing because his art and complex life are closely intertwined. Talent, lack of moderation, artistic greatness and dissolute lifestyle are all mixed together. Their interplay is a source of great attraction, as thousands of visitors will be reminded throughout 2010, a year to truly celebrate a man’s artistic genius.

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