Four presumed self-portraits of Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio. Try to find them among his works as you follow his biography.
Caravaggio's life during the 17th century is certainly among the most
adventurous ever led by the world's great creators.
His life story takes place between shadow and light: a man of a passionate nature, he ran the gamut from provocation to murder. A reward was offered for his capture, sending him into perpetual flight and hiding. Yet none of this transpires in his oeuvre, which is doubtlessly the most profoundly fervent oeuvre in all of Baroque painting. This is the miracle of Caravaggio, the miracle of the sacred portrayed in dimensions he alone mastered.
Michelangelo Merisi was born on September 29, 1571, in the little village
of Caravaggio in northern Italy. He was named after his birthplace, a
procedure not unusual for the times. Enjoying a double status as both
architect and majordomo to the Marquis of Caravaggio, Michelangelo
Merisi's father was firmly ensconced in that noble household. The
Marquis, a patron in the Renaissance tradition, had several artists
at his beck and call. This tradition was quite common: Raphael, for
instance, was also majordomo to the pope, as well as the latter's
antique dealer, archaeologist, in addition to being in his employ as
All too often, 19th-century art historians have portrayed Caravaggio as being of humble origin, when in fact, he came from an excellent family of artists. A family, moreover, whose social welfare was in the hands of an excellent marquis, who, in turn, considered himself a patron in the spirit of the 15th century rather than his own 16th.
As was the fashion, Caravaggio began studying painting at an early age. Indeed, Renaissance and Baroque painters were often destined from birth to be artists, so that already during earliest childhood they learned how to grind pigments. Hence, as young adults, they knew their profession inside out. When Caravaggio was 13, the family decided he would devote himself to painting. He was sent to the painter Peterzano's studio, one of the good studios in Milan. "Good" in the sense that, because Peterzano himself was a poor painter, his apprentices had ample occasion to learn. Unlike talented painters, who tend to impose their vision of the art onto their pupils, the poor painter has nothing to impose. This allows his pupils to blossom out on their own, and to achieve a personal vision. Certainly, a poor pupil will become a poor painter, but the geniuses will accomplish their apprenticeship without suffering damage or influence, and having gained a command of the technique involved. This is the sort of education Caravaggio received.
In 1592, Caravaggio arrived in Rome. Obviously, he would have been better off fulfilling
some important local commissions first, so as to have a letter of recommendation from
someone important, and to arrive in Rome at a more mature moment of his career.
But Caravaggio decided to settle in Rome immediately, at the age of 21: the age of his first paintings. Unsurprisingly, these met with little success. Rome was crawling with painters, ornamental decorators. Who needed this young man, an unbearable person on top of it all? Someone who openly professed to find the painting being done by his peers unacceptable, who was not impressed by the recognized masterpieces, who boasted he could do better than other artists. The life of misery that stretched out before him seemed romantic during his first years in Rome. A recommendation from his venerable master Peterzano won him employ with the Mannerist painter Giuseppe Caesare, also known as Cavaliere d'Arpino, an even less talented painter than Peterzano, but endowed with two features that were keys to his success: he worked dressed to the hilt, complete with lace cuffs and a sword at his side, and he worked at an incredible speed: two hours for a Saint Cecilia! Cardinals travelled from far and wide to see this phenomenon, as if off to a fair. Cavaliere d'Arpino took advantage of Caravaggio, obliging him to do all the boring work - the flower wreaths, the mascarons, the caryatids - and not paying him a cent for any of it. Caravaggio was totally destitute; rumor has it that he did portraits of the innkeepers to eke out a livelihood. Stealing to eat, squatting to sleep. But he did get lucky. One night, at Piazza Navona, the artist's district, he met a singular person, half French and half Italian, who went by the name of Valentin. Now this Valentin had a brilliant idea: the people who want to buy pictures are people with high-flown names and expensive clothes, and therefore loathe to come into contact with the dusty studios of artists. Why not use an elegant apartment, nicely furnished, where the work of a young painter could be put on display for contemplation by potential patrons? Valentin had invented the art gallery!
Among his first victims - for, obviously, he picked up the paintings for a song and then resold them at high prices - was the young Caravaggio, from whom Valentin commissioned light and charming subjects, sweet and gentle, nothing too brazen, of the sort so popular at the time.
In this fashion, with Valentin as middleman, Caravaggio developed quite a substantial clientele. His customers included a certain Cardinal Del Monte, an enterprising individual said to be the most boring of prelates, but the most well-informed of art lovers. The Cardinal lured Caravaggio away from Valentin's stable of artists, offering him room, board, and a salary. But just when everything was going so well for this artist, comfortably installed under the wing of a generous patron, Caravaggio's passionate nature got the better of him and he began acting in most unruly manner. The first "scandal" dates to 1600. Of course, we art historians tend to speak of the greats as impassioned by their art, to which they devoted themselves day and night. But the truth of the matter is that Caravaggio was a drinker, a womanizer, a pugnacious individual who frequently ended up at the police station.
Caravaggio's life was spent in permanent exile. He was obliged to flee Rome, despite
the protection of the Cardinals Del Monte and Scipion Borghese. Murder had taken place.
Bellori narrates: "Caravaggio, although occupied by his painting, still found time to
keep up his troublemaking. After spending several hours of the day at his painting,
he would swagger along the city streets, with a sword at his side, clearly proving he
had other interests beyond his art."
In one brawl in the midst of playing a game of racquets (royal tennis), he ended up stabbing and killing his young opponent, sustaining some injury himself in the process. Numerous documents testify to the fact that Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni da Terni on the Campo di Marzo, May 6, 1606.
He fled Rome, penniless and barely out of pursuit's reach; he found sanctuary in Zagarolo, under the protection of Duke Don Marzio Colonna, for whom he painted a Christ at Emmaus and and a half-length portrait of Mary Magdalene, works since lost. He next set off for Naples, where, having already made something of an artistic reputation for himself, he received several commissions. But his behavior kept getting worse, and he again committed murder - not once, but three times. Caravaggio had become a murderer. His life was fraught with danger despite attempts at his protection, and would, from then on, be spent in constant flight.
Commissioned to paint the ceremonial shield for an armor destined for the Grand Duke
of Toscany, Caravaggio depicted a Medusa Head
(detail) exuding violence and passion. His was
the first Medusa head to inspire fear.
Caravaggio's early works were secular. At the time, the public was tired of all the grand mythological and allegorically pietist scenes typical of the late Mannerist period. Art lovers were attracted to restful works. To meet this new demand, artists began working in a pre-Rousseau style, implying a return to fresh and truthful feelings. Valentin excelled at selling this sort of "genre painting".
Caravaggio's contributions were:
-Boy with Basket of Fruit
-Boy Bitten by a Lizard
These were small paintings ("tableautins") suitable for the period habit of filling in the spaces between large-scale mythical works with such small pictures, turning picture walls into a frame-to-frame mosaics. Caravaggio's works fit right in with this fashion. Bacchus (detail)
This painting is what we can probably label as the first real "Caravaggio". His earlier works followed a relatively easy traditional format, executed rather dryly. But then he began seeking his models along the river banks, among the dregs of Roman society. With a subject such as Bacchus, the public felt uncomfortable with his choice. They felt even more ill at ease when it came to his use of such models to portray Jesus. An important point here is that Caravaggio repudiated what was considered good form at a time in his life when he could hardly allow himself to do so. To get his career underway, he should first have provided what was in demand, works in keeping with the taste of his times, and have waited until later before introducing inventions of his own. But this he refused, and his refusal turned each work he produced into a revolution. The results were a far cry from genre painting; rather, his painting represented a play on genre painting, underscored in each new work in an ever more brutal and impassioned manner. Finally, he asked Valentin to free him of the obligation of producing works on genre subjects. The real Caravaggio was in the process of being born, and Valentin, realizing this, asked for ever more works of the sort. In a fit of resentment, Caravaggio provided Sick Little Bacchus.
Michelangelo Merisi began replacing the solitary figures produced during his years
of apprenticeship by compositions on a vaster scale. He created works with two,
even three, figures, but still focusing on subjects light in spirit:
At this point in his career, Caravaggio set out, at first quite discreetly,
on what would be a lifelong quest: the search for light that, born from nowhere,
represents a revelation of divine origin. His oeuvre outstripped genre painting
or even pure chiaroscuro painting, gradually turning into the most mystical
painting possible by the hand of man. The light in his oeuvre, taking its
source in the divine, not only portrays reality but helps us understand
the reality being depicted.
Basket of Fruit Narcissus Clearly, between his first genre painting and what we now see, the artist's intention had changed. The subject matter is new, reality is apprehended differently. Nonetheless, there remains a certain charm linked to paintings of genre subjects. Caravaggio would lose no time in erasing such facile seductions, turning out works less and less "pleasing" in the real sense of the word. These works would have fewer and fewer touches of bravado for bravado's sake, would come to depict the essence of their subject.
Caravaggio did not remain an industrious artist-toiler in the pay of a gallery dealer, but became the protegé of a cardinal. This would lead the artist to religious paintings.
Rest During the Flight into Egypt
Judith Beheading Holofernes.
The artist tried out several approaches: a bucolic approach in "Rest During the Flight into Egypt", expressionism in "Judith Beheading Holofernes". Here, in Repentant Magdalene (detail), he affects a certain pietism, taking a classical approach to the subject of meditation and, in so doing, discovering his vocation. Caravaggio would paint the great mysteries of our faith, for he himself, deep down, was a believer. But he would do a great deal of soul searching in the process. Saint Catherine of Alexandria Saint Jerome. By this time, the artist had realized a turning point in his self-definition: he knew that he would devote himself to depicting the epic story of Christianity. He sought to work out a suitable vocabulary, a personal language. One aspect very typical of his youthful production, or one could say of this first level of maturity, was the need to repeat certain subjects several times over: for instance, a first version of "David with the Head of Goliath", and then a second version taken to even further extremes.
The theme itself was very popular during this artist's era, and was generally portrayed in grandiloquent fashion, mostly in pale pinks and blues, to match the taste of the day. Striving to transform mannerism into reality, here is what Caravaggio did with the theme:
David with the Head of Goliath. The second version, David with the Head of Goliath is absolutely hallucinatory. Thus it was through repetition of a subject - a subject vigorously pursued, scrutinized, and analyzed - that Caravaggio learned to bring out the most in himself as a painter.
One of his favorite subjects was St. John the Baptist, whom he portrayed five times, each time seeking to outdo the last. Madonna of the Pilgrims or the Madonna of Loreto (detail) Although notorious for drinking, stealing, raping, looting, and murdering, Caravaggio continued to paint through thick and thin. Martyrdom of Saint Peter Conversion of Saint Paul (detail)
Caravaggio had kept on painting during the days preceding the murder he was
about to commit: near Cardinal del Monte's residence, a brawl of four against four
took place over a game of racquets (royal tennis). Backed by Onorio Longo and Captain
Antonio Bolognese, Caravaggio himself was wounded, but managed to kill Ranuccio Tommasoni
de Terni ("Avvisi" di Roma, 31 May 1606).
Hence, no sooner had commissions began pouring in than he was obliged to flee Rome. He found refuge in Palestrina, with Prince Marzio Collona, brother-in-law of Marquis di Caravaggio. October 6th found him in Naples, facing a long period of exile. Here he had to start all over again, but it was for this very reason - deprived as he was of all security, roots, and official protection - that he would produce his most overpowering paintings. What came at this point in his career surpassed all he had accomplished before.
The chronicler Babioni indicates that Caravaggio painted this work very quickly during his time of exile in Palestrina, in order to earn the price of his fare to Naples. Madonna of the Rosary (detail). Seven Works of Mercy (detail). We have, so far, mentioned the main stages in this painter's career: Milan, Rome, Naples. For the usual reasons, he subsequently was obliged to flee Naples; he set sail for Malta, where he became painter for the Grand Master of the Order of St. John who, it is said, admitted the artist to the Order. Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt. Caravaggio's art was now at its zenith. While living peacefully on the island of Malta, under the protection of the Knights of the Order of St. John, he painted one of the most moving portrayals of John the Baptist ever achieved: the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (detail) , for the Cathedral of Valette. The rather worn theme of Salome and this saint, the dialogue between the woman and the severed head, attracted painters from the first primitives of the Roman era on through until Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) of the Mannerist period, but never before had the subject been handled at once so supremely and so damnably.
As chronicled by Baglione, Caravaggio - having gravely offended one of the knights - was imprisoned, managed to escape and flee from Malta. He reached Sicily and settled in Palermo, from where he travelled for temporary stays in Messina and Syracuse.
Raising of Lazarus Adoration of the Shepherds The rumor of his imminent pardon reached Caravaggio. We have followed this artist from site to site and stage to stage, discovering an artist ever more imbued with the religious mystery he so masterfully painted and so fervently conveyed.
Indeed, the works he produced were so deeply mystical and essential, testifying to such a true sense of the sacred and, above all, such a heartfelt comprehension of the message of Christianity, that the Roman people were ready to forgive Caravaggio all. In a happy frame of mind, the artist set off for Naples without remembering to officially declare himself a passenger. In other words, he became a stowaway, and, in order to ensure his fare, was obliged to hand over his possessions as security. This was something he was not prepared to do and, stupidly attacking one of the sailors, he brought down upon himself the wrath of the entire crew. Wounded, he left the ship at Porto Ercole where, furious and desperate, he ran up and down the beach under a scorching sun, trying to pinpoint on the vast sea the vessel sailing off with his belongings. By noon, fever forced him to lie down and there, after three days, without the least human assistance, he died in the same fashion as he had lived his life, namely all alone. This took place on July 18th.