The Italian painter Caravaggio (1573-1610) depicted insolent boys and rough peasants in the guise of Roman gods and Christian saints. They are often portrayed as if emerging out of darkness, with part of their faces and bodies strongly illuminated.

Michelangelo Merisi is called Caravaggio after the tiny town in Lombardy where he was born on Sept. 8, 1573. His father, Fermo Merisi, who was a master builder for the local lord, died in 1584, and the young boy was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano, a mediocre painter in Milan. Caravaggio's contract with Peterzano ran until April 1588. He probably stayed on in Milan for another year, studying the paintings in his native Lombardy. By about 1590 he was in Rome.

During Caravaggio's first year in Rome he was desperately poor. For a brief period he worked for a certain Pandolfo Pucci, whom he called "Mr. Salad" since he said that was all Pucci ever gave him to eat. We know too that during his first years in Rome Caravaggio worked in the studio of Giuseppe Cavaliere d'Arpino as a painter of fruits and flowers.


Turbulent Life

From 1600 on it is easier to follow Caravaggio's career since his name appears with a certain regularity in the police records. That year he was arrested for a sword fight in which he wounded a captain of the guards at Castel Sant' Angelo. It seems, however, to have been a good-natured contest between two lovers of the sport, and there was a formal reconciliation in court. In 1603 Caravaggio was sued and jailed for libel for writing sarcastic and offensive verses about the painter and writer Giovanni Baglione. Prominent friends, who presumably recognized Caravaggio's great talent, secured his release. In January 1604 he was hailed into court for throwing an artichoke in the face of an insolent waiter, and in November he was jailed for stoning the police.

The police records for Rome of 1605 contain entries regarding a notary called Pasqualone, who reported that he had been wounded by Caravaggio in an argument over a girl named Lena "who stands in Piazza Navona." Following this incident Caravaggio fled to Genoa. But in 3 weeks he was back in Rome, where he and Pasqualone were formally reconciled.

During all these years Caravaggio was painting daring, revolutionary works unlike anything ever seen before. Such paintings naturally aroused a great deal of controversy. Some attacked them as being vulgar and indecent, but a few critics and connoisseurs praised them highly.

In May 1606 Caravaggio was playing tennis with one Ranuccio Tomassoni. There seems to have been an argument over the score, which turned into a brawl and then into a sword fight. Tomassoni was killed, and Caravaggio was badly wounded. Aided by friends, Caravaggio fled Rome. For a brief period he remained near the papal city, hiding in the Sabine Mountains. From there he set out for Naples, then under Spanish rule. By May 1607 his friends were already at work in Rome trying to obtain a pardon so that he could return.

Early in 1608 Caravaggio was on the small Mediterranean island of Malta, then ruled by the Knights of Malta, an aristocratic military order. Because of the portrait he painted of the head of the order, Alof de Wignacourt, Caravaggio was made a knight of Malta, a most unusual honor for a person of his modest background, and received a solid-gold chain and two Turkish slaves. A few months later he was again involved in a sword fight, this time with his superior officer, and was jailed. In some way that is still not explained, Caravaggio escaped from prison.

By Oct. 6, 1608, Caravaggio had reached Syracuse in Sicily. From this point on he was pursued by agents of the Knights of Malta, who sought to avenge what they considered an insult to their order. A hunted man, Caravaggio fled to Messina and then to Palermo. Somehow through it all he continued to paint. By fall 1609 he was back in Naples, where the Maltese agents trapped him and beat him so badly that he was disfigured almost beyond recognition. Reports reaching Rome said that he was dead, but he was still alive.

By summer 1610 a papal pardon appeared imminent. For this reason Caravaggio took a boat to Port'Ercole, a small Spanish outpost just north of Rome, where he was arrested in a case of mistaken identity. The Spaniards released him from jail after a few days, but the boat had sailed and with it, so he thought, the painting he carried with him and all his possessions.

Raging along the shore under the hot July sun, Caravaggio came down with a fever. As Roger Hinks (1953) wrote: "There was no one to care for him and in a few days it was all over. He died, as he had lived, alone. It was July 18, 1610. He had lived thirty-six years, nine months and twenty days, as Marzio Milesi records with the pious exactitude of a devoted friend. Three days later, by a tragic stroke of irony, his pardon arrived."


Revolutionary Paintings

The early works of Caravaggio show him in full revolt against both mannerism and classicism. He rejected the elongations and formal curvilinear shapes of the mannerists and ridiculed the concept of the classicists that the subject of a painting should be idealized and carry a moral message. What Caravaggio shows us in his Bacchus with a Wine Glass (ca. 1595) is no Roman god but a pudgy, half-naked boy draped in a bedsheet, who is identified as Bacchus by the vine leaves in his hair.

Sometimes the subject is a scene from everyday life. The Fortune Teller (ca. 1595) shows an elegant young dandy with a sword at his side having his palm read by a gypsy girl. He looks away with almost ostentatious boredom as she slips the ring off his finger. As in most of Caravaggio's paintings, the figures are hard, sculptural, and intensely three-dimensional. The realism is reinforced by the great clarity of detail, for instance, the hilt of the young man's sword and the seams of his glove.

Many of the paintings of this period have a momentary quality, as if Caravaggio had isolated a single instance in the midst of flux. In Boy Bitten by a Lizard (ca. 1593), for example, a wonderfully affected young man with a small girlish mouth and a rose behind one ear squeals with fright as a lizard comes out from behind a flower and bites him on the finger. In these works and others like them Caravaggio developed a new, totally secular iconography.

When Caravaggio did paint religious subjects, and he often did, he employed an immediacy and directness that has few equals. In the Calling of St. Matthew the saint, who was a tax collector in the ancient Roman Empire, is shown in contemporary Italian dress sitting at a table counting money. Around him at the table, as if in a gambling den, are a group of young swordsmen of the kind we associate with Caravaggio. In these years (ca. 1600-1606) Caravaggio's paintings are filled with deep shadows that absorb and conceal parts of the figures. At the same time the figures remain solid and powerfully three-dimensional where the light strikes them. This use of strong dramatic contrasts between light and shade is called tenebrism. In the Calling it is especially daring. Christ is far over to the right, almost totally lost in darkness, and all that emerges into the light is part of his face and one beckoning hand. They express his words to Matthew, "Arise, and follow me."

Here and elsewhere Caravaggio makes the scene look as if it is taking place before our very eyes. In his Crucifixion of St. Peter, for example, we catch sight of the saint at the moment when the executioners are just beginning to raise up the cross to which he has been nailed upside down. His bare feet are thrust toward us so we can see and almost feel the spikes that cut through them. The aged but powerful apostle lifts his head up from the cross in defiance.


Influence of Counter Reformation

Scenes such as these reflect the drive of the Catholic Counter Reformation to appeal directly to the masses through their emotions. It was chiefly the Jesuits who directed the Counter Reformation. Their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, laid great stress on the immediate perception of religious experience in physical terms. This he emphasized repeatedly in his famous, widely read Spiritual Exercises. In it, for example, Ignatius urges Catholics to imagine hell and in so doing to use all their senses: to see the flames, to hear the screams, to smell the smoke, to taste the tears, to feel the fires.

Other paintings by Caravaggio are quiet. In the Madonna of Loreto (1604) the Virgin, holding the Christ Child, miraculously appears before two peasants who have made a pilgrimage to her shrine. As the old man and woman, their gnarled hands clasped in prayer, kneel before the Virgin, their bare, dirty feet stick out toward the viewer. Again we see the influence of St. Ignatius but, even more, that of St. Philip Neri. While the Jesuits tended to align themselves with the powerful, Philip was especially concerned with the weak. He wished religion to be simple, joyful, easily understood, and expressed in the most common and natural terms. Above all he wanted it to be open to the humble and the poor. Pompousness and lavish display he ridiculed. Philip died in Rome in 1595. During Caravaggio's lifetime the saint's living presence seemed to hang over the city, and it can certainly be felt in Caravaggio's art.


Late Works

In Caravaggio's last works, painted when he was fleeing from one southern Italian town to another, his style changed. The modeling is softer; the paint is thinner and applied more rapidly; and the shadows are less profound. The expressive content is deeper. All this can be seen in the Resurrection of Lazarus, painted in 1609 at the very end of the artist's life. In it a small crowd huddles around the dim figure of Christ, which is almost phosphorescent where the light strikes it. The whole upper half of the picture is left dark and empty to serve as a sounding board that reverberates the shadowy moments between death and rebirth.

Though Caravaggio was never truly famous in his own lifetime, many who knew his work realized that they were seeing something amazingly new. His style spread rapidly throughout Europe. Without Caravaggio it is not possible to understand countless artists who followed.


Further Reading on Caravaggio

The fullest work on Caravaggio is Walter F. Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies (1955). It is especially valuable for an understanding of Caravaggio in his own era and above all for the influence of St. Philip Neri on his art. A much shorter book, Roger P. Hinks, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1953), provides the most sensitive interpretation of the expressive content of his painting, especially the late works. The best color plates are in Roberto Longhi, Il Caravaggio (1952).

Additional Biography Sources

The Age of Caravaggi, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: Electa/Rizzoli, 1985.

Bissell, R. Ward, Orazio Gentileschi and the poetic tradition in Caravaggesque painting, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.

Moir, Alfred, Caravaggio, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1989.