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CARAVAGGIO; the Italian Baroque Tempest


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the enigmatic Italian Baroque master with far more than his share of drama, on the canvas, and off. In an altogether too brief life span of thirty-eight years, he painted boldly and introduced art lovers to chiaroscuro. Caravaggio embedded his own dark, hot blooded, brooding countenance, into the canvas he painted and when we study his art, it is as much his own energy that has sustained his works fascination as it is his subjects. 

Michelangelo Merisi spent part of his childhood in Caravaggio. Caravaggio is in northern Italy in the Province of Bergamo, just east of Milan. By Italian tradition, having arrived in Rome he became known as Caravaggio, or one who hails from Caravaggio. A contemporary, in the first published account of his life, called him "Amerigo;" Roman court documents have him listed as Merisio. There are countless transmutations of his name, alongside fifteen recorded surnames, but the painter himself signed his work "Marisi."


~ A man that dressed more than not completely in black, carried a black cloak, and traveled with a black poodle.

" . . . using as he did the noblest cloths and velvets to adorn himself, but then once he'd put on an outfit, he never left it off again until it'd fallen off him in tatters...." (Robb)

"This painter is a young bloke about twenty or twenty five years old, with a little black beard. He's stocky with heavy eyebrows and dark eyes. He goes around dressed in black, a bit untidy, and wears black stockings that are a bit torn. He wears his thick hair long in front". ( description given by a barber 1597), Robb.

~ Dark complexion, dark eyes and black hair, he loved swords and was considered an expert swordsman, seldom seen without one.

". . . when he's worked a fortnight he goes out for a couple of months with his rapier at his side and a servant behind him, moving from one tennis court to another and always looking for fights or arguments, so he's impossible to get on with..." (Robb)

~ Hot-tempered, the firebrand's leit-motifs were Respect & Loyalty.

"Caravaggio was overly passionate and a bit wild. He sometimes looked to get his own neck broken or put someone else's life at risk. Quarrelsome men hung out with him..." (This written by an enemy 1601/ source Robb.)


A colorful image, the black and white figure who painted black backgrounds. Caravaggio was born in 1571, and died a disputed and still researched death in 1610. As author Peter Robb, whose incomparable biography, M The Man Who Became Caravaggio, states; Caravaggio did not die but rather went "missing'" and disappeared in an unknown location leaving no body to bury. Those who knew what had happened—had nothing to say. Buy Robb's book; he devoted a decade, maybe two, to his singular research.

Caravaggio was apprenticed on 6 April 1584, at the age of twelve, to Milanese painter Simone Peterzano. Robb on the state of Milan when a young Caravaggio arrived there; in 1583 the governor of Milan made a proclamation declaring that the "intolerable misery" of the city was to be attributed to an excess of "louts and vagabonds." A rough frontier, each man fended for himself and survived, or did not. After learning to paint in Milan, and to wield a sword and stand his own in brawls, Caravaggio went to Rome, arriving in 1592 or 1593.

I like timelines of historical contemporaries. Caravaggio was born seven years after Shakespeare, Marlowe, Galileo and Michelangelo. Monteverdi the creator of opera was four years his senior. Montaigne was twenty-one years his senior. It was a stage that saw the birth of original thinking, set against repression, coercion, and bans imposed by the advent of the Counter-Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church and its control over every aspect, or so they hoped of people's lives. (The Roman Catholic Church had instigated control seven years before Caravaggio's birth.) One of the "first modern painters" was born within the perameters of a lock-down on human expression. The inquisition made life so utterly intolerable that Italians found themselves living lives directed at keeping to themselves—the antithesis of Italian nature. Original thinking was severely punished. Art existed within the confines of decorum and gravity; humor, nudity and the erotic were banned.

CHEATS, 1594, (Caravaggiio)

Caravaggio believed one painted from life. His canvas shows no drawing set below; he never drew, he worked directly from the brush as he saw it. Vermeer is said to have done this as well. But then I am reminded of the documentary Tim's Vermeer(2013), directed by Teller of Penn & Teller fame, in which tech geek Tim Jenison creates his own camera obscura and over the course of a five year study creates a Vermeer copy good enough to fool experts, with zero previous painting experience. There is a great deal of debate out there about the use of the camera obscura by 17th c. painters, Vermeer and Caravaggio included.  I doubt Caravaggio ever had the patience to dicker around with a fussy, exacting apparatus. A recorded account of his studio made by Guilio Mancini a 17th c. friend, art collector, art dealer, writer, atheist and physician stated; "characteristic of (Caravaggio's) school is lighting from one source only, beaming from above without reflection, as would occur in a room with the walls painted black." Mancini wrote one of the three early biographies on Caravaggio. It was Mancini again, who said that Caravaggio's "great understanding of art went with weird behavior."

At one point in his tribulations, Caravaggio fell behind on rent and the landlord had a lawyer enter his apartment; there they recorded a list of his possessions and in the list was a large mirror. This seemed to state that mirrors were still important to him in his work. Robb tells us Caravaggio had been fascinated by the affect of light on glass and through glass in his early years of painting. Leonardo's praise for a FLAT mirror as an invaluable painter's tool was unerring;

"When you want to see if your painting corresponds overall to the thing painted from life, get a mirror and reflect the living thing in it, and compare the reflection with your painting... {and if you've done it right} your painting too will look like a natural thing seen in a big mirror."—Leonardo da Vinci


PILGRIM'S MADONNA, 1604, (Caravaggio)

The model was Lena Antognetti whom Caravaggio had a complicated affair with that ended violently—how could it not—on the part of her would be suitor. Lena was a controversial model because of her notoriety as the consort of prominent clerics. Perhaps her two-year-old son was the child Christ model. This was a radical Pilgrim's Madonna on many levels. A contemporary rival artist Giovanni Baglione wrote of the painting:

". . . he did a Loreto Madonna painted from life with two pilgrims, the man with muddy feet and the woman in a dirty torn bonnet. Because he trivialized the attributes that a major painting ought to have, the lower classes made a huge fuss over it."

Caravaggio's common people pilgrims, or vagrants, visiting with a Roman housewife depicting the Madonna—caused a sensation. Living people were not to be identifiable as Saints, and Lena was a familiar face. (Robb)

Set against rigid and threatening constraints, Caravaggio resisted, and never painted archangels. His San Luigi paintings, Matthew Called, and Matthew Killed, jettisoned him into the international world of 1600, with what Robb calls "rock star fame." At just thirty-years-old, Caravaggio was the universal idol of young painters in 17th c. Rome. He had quite a bit to say about anyone who tried to emulate his style.

" . . . the most famous painter in Italy—the biggest of the art superstars and hunted like a dog." 1609 (Robb)

" . . . there's a man called M who's doing wonderful things in Rome...he's already famous...he's got no respect for the work of any master, not that he openly praises his own... says everything's triviality and child's play, whatever it's of and whoever painted it, if it hasn't been done from life..." (Robb)

At the same time, his art was sought by collectors and modern thinking churches, the priests pushed it away. As if to thwart his own rising position, Caravaggio repeatedly made appearances in Roman courts. It adds depth to envision Rome in the 1600's as a city of 10,000 artists set into a population of 100,000, mostly all males... Rome was rowdy, overcharged, virile and ripe with a throbbing throttle of its own.  In 1606, Caravaggio was involved in an ugly street fight near tennis courts, and badly wounded on the head. His opponent, Tomassoni, bled to death. M had to get out of town, once again, this was the second exodus related to violence in Rome and it would be the last time he saw the city

" . . . one of those who push themselves forward boldly and fearlessly, and everywhere seek their advantage."

His art pushed buttons, his personality lit fuses, his homosexuality—some say bi-sexuality (and I concur)—enraged even his inner circles. Caravaggio was a man against his times, constantly falling in favor, and out, with the church, waiting for pardon or seeking exile. After the death of Tomassino, a bando capitale was imposed which meant that anyone in the Papal States was free to kill M with impunity. Caravaggio left for Naples, where he painted furiously. In one Naples year, ten paintings are suspected to have been produced. From Naples he left for Malta. In Malta he worked what charms he had remaining, and over the course of a year, obtained a knighthood, being knighted would overturn the bando capitale. It would, as well, place him back in favorable stead with the church. Living alongside the Knights of Malta he won their approval, only to blow it by engaging in a brawl with a fellow knight shortly thereafter, forfeiting his knighthood. He didn't know how to tone it down.

Professor Maurizio Marini, an expert on Caravaggio, has his death occurring on Port Ercole, Tuscany after fleeing Naples wounded, whereby he contracted typhoid from his wound. After his death, the Caravaggio groupees moved their easels to the northern reaches of Italy and into Spain where they continued the frontier into modern art.


Caravaggio_Baptist_Galleria_Doria_Pamphili _Rome

John The Baptist (Youth With A Ram) 1602, (Caravaggio)

Caravaggio held John the Baptist as a favorite subject, painting at least eight related paintings. This one, a playful/ pagan John the Baptist, wasn't tolerated by the Counter-Reformation Church. The model is Cecco, Francesco Boneri, thought to be from the family of artisans working in Bergamo Province. Cecco was apprenticed to Caravaggio at twelve years of age; the same age that Caravaggio entered his apprentice. Cecco went on to become an admired painter in his own right, working in the late Caravaggio style. He would become the most important person in Caravaggio's life. (Robb)

" . . . feeling for the drama of the human presence." Peter Robb

"To me the term "good man'" means someone who knows how to do things well—that is knows how to do his art well—so in painting a good man knows how to paint well and imitate natural things well."


Further reading:


CARAVAGGIO by Howard Hibbard