Caravaggio was an Italian painter who was active in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He is one of the most influential artists of the Baroque era, known for his dramatic use of light and shadow and his realistic depictions of religious and mythological themes. Caravaggio’s work was a departure from the idealised style of the Renaissance and instead embraced a more naturalistic approach that emphasised the physicality of his subjects. Despite his groundbreaking style, Caravaggio had a tumultuous life and was often in trouble with the law. Many of his later years were spent as a fugitive from the authorities, yet his impact on European art continues today.
Early Life and History | Caravaggio
Michelangelo de Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, was born in Milan in 1571. When he was five years old, he and his parents fled to their hometown to escape the plague. Caravaggio began his painting career under the apprenticeship of Peterzano, where he had the opportunity to interact with wealthy and successful businesspeople and potential clients. In 1592, Caravaggio received a major career boost when Cardinal Del Monte took an interest in his work and introduced him to several projects. One of the most important commissions of his career came from the Cardinal when Caravaggio was asked to paint three murals in the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, depicting scenes from the life of Saint Matthew. Caravaggio’s use of light and dark in these works is striking, emphasising the central characters.
Despite his artistic success, Caravaggio had a tumultuous life, marked by his temper, drinking habits, and involvement in several violent incidents. He even ended up killing a man and was forced to flee to Malta for refuge. One of his most famous paintings from this period is ” The Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist.” However, Caravaggio’s troubles continued, and he was eventually imprisoned for injuring a priest. He managed to escape and was on his way to Rome to seek pardon for his murder when he was attacked by someone seeking revenge for his actions in Malta. He sustained a serious injury and died before he could reach Rome at the age of 39.
Art Style and Focus
Although his life was short, Caravaggio had an impressive journey with his art. He experimented with still-lifes, portraits, and hackwork as he moved from workshop to workshop. Despite being destitute, Caravaggio caught the attention of the public years after he arrived in Rome. One of his most famous works from the early part of his career is “The Boy Bitten by the Lizard”.
At the time, still-lifes were not highly valued, but Caravaggio believed in painting real-life scenarios, using whatever was in front of him. He could not afford to hand-pick models, so he painted faces of all shapes and sizes, even if they did not conform to traditional ideas of beauty. This piece has been interpreted in many ways as an allegory of touch, pain and love, study and suppression. Caravaggio’s still-lifes are characterised by their realism.
As Caravaggio took on commissions, he often painted for private residences. His art was displayed in public for the first time with “The Calling of Saint Matthew” and “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew,” two pieces for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome. In these works, the use of light and dark creates emphasis and realism. For example, Matthew is depicted in the light while Jesus stands in the shadows, pointing towards him.
The 1600s were a key moment in Caravaggio’s public career. In 1601, he lived with three wealthy banker brothers in the Piazza and painted “The Supper at Emmaus,” considered the height of his career due to his improved ability to place models in the scene. The focus in the foreground is intense, with the fruit basket almost spilling into the viewer’s hands. The light is used to underscore the picture’s meaning; here, it depicts the moment when the disciples recognised the Messiah. The light represents the realisation, while the innkeeper remains in the dark, unaware of what is happening.
Caravaggio used his perspective to tell the stories of the Bible through his paintings. His works are like historical paintings with a twist, with subdued palettes and emphasis on cropped views. One of his last paintings, “The Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist,” showcases his use of foreground, emphasis, and overall balance. The expressions in the painting convey more than just a story and have a theatrical quality to them. As with other works, the focus is on the central element, in this case, the head.
Recognition After Death | Caravaggio
Of Caravaggio’s 39 years of life, only 18 years of his work are documented. Despite most of his work staying within Rome, his influence spread throughout Europe. Different regions drew different types of inspiration from the artist. However, it was not until many years after his death that Caravaggio began to receive recognition for his work. Despite his influence during his lifetime, his innovative use of light and shadow, and his ability to capture the essence of the human condition, Caravaggio was greatly overlooked and underappreciated in the years following his death. It was in the 20th century that his work began to be reexamined, and he was finally given the recognition he deserved. Art historians and critics praised him for his dramatic use of light and his ability to create intense emotional experiences in his paintings.
Today, Caravaggio is considered one of the greatest painters of all time, and his works are widely studied and admired. Though his life was short, Caravaggio left an impressive legacy that continues to captivate and inspire artists, art lovers, and audiences worldwide.
Caravaggio: His life and style in three paintings | National Gallery (2013) Youtube . The National Gallery. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KcdgFxmnb4&ab_channel=TheNationalGallery (Accessed: February 4, 2023).
Dixon, A.G. (2022) Caravaggio, Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Caravaggio#ref215751 (Accessed: February 5, 2023).
NowYouKnowAbout (2017) Who was Caravaggio and why is he such a great painter? Youtube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkRfrmN163A&t=369s&ab_channel=NowYouKnowAbout (Accessed: February 8, 2023).