Caravaggio Biography

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (29 September 1571– – 18 July 1610) was an Italian artist active in Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily between 1593 and 1610. His intensely emotional realism and dramatic use of lighting had a formative influence on the Baroque school of painting. His innovative use of chiaroscuro inspired other artists such as Rembrandt and ushered in a new era of art. Caravaggio painted everything from Biblical themes to ordinary people he brought in off the street. Despite his turbulent personal life and frequent brushes with the law for fighting, he was in great demand as a leading artist of his day.

St Matthew Commission

CaravaggioCaravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi or Amerighi) was born in Milan, Italy in 1571. Aged six the family moved to the town of Caravaggio, but shortly after his father and grandfather died from a plague which swept through the region. Caravaggio was apprenticed to the Milanese painter  Simone Peterzano, where he learnt his trade. He would have come into contact with the work of Leonardo da Vinci and other Lombardy painters. In 1592, after being involved in a disturbance with the law, Caravaggio left for Rome where he began to develop his career as an artist. In Rome, he found artists were in demand as the Catholic Church was seeking to use art as a means to counter the popularity of the Protestant Reformation. The impetus of the Counter-Reformation gave artists greater freedom to explore more innovative styles to catch the public’s attention


The Inspiration of Saint Matthew

In 1599, Caravaggio was contracted to paint suitable pictures for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

His three works making up the commission were the ‘Martyrdom of Saint Matthew’, the ‘Calling of Saint Matthew’ and the ‘Inspiration of St Matthew.’

The Chapel was quite dark so Caravaggio made use of these dark shadows to highlight the characters who shone with an almost divine light. There were very well received and cemented Caravaggio’s fame as one of the greatest artists of his generation.

Although an exceptional painter, he developed a wild reputation and would often get involved in drunken brawls. He would go from tavern to tavern drinking and gambling, with his sword by his side. He would frequently start fights and was often taken to court by fellow drinkers. His court records give substantial amounts of information about his life. In 1606, he killed a young man and fled Rome with the law chasing him. He fled to Malta and then on to Sicily, hoping to receive a papal pardon for his sentence. In 1609, he returned to Naples but once again got caught up in a violent fight, which left his face severely injured and disfigured. Increasingly his mental health deteriorated and rumours about his death spread. He died in 1610 in mysterious circumstances – possibly from fever, but also possibly from a violent death.

The Calling of St Matthew


The Calling of St Matthew

Caravaggio is often referred to as the father of modern painting. He was a key artist in shifting art from the rather dry mannerism to the new Baroque style which influenced the Renaissance period. Caravaggio made important developments in the use of chiaroscuro – light and shadows.

Caravaggio’s style was to paint his subjects as close as possible to how he viewed them. This avoided the idealised view of how people should look, but by conveying the truth, his paintings managed to convey a deep emotion and spirituality. He said that he sought to give as much attention to painting a dew drop on a piece of fruit as he did for painting figures from the Bible. He once said:

“When I paint a picture of a flower, I take as much trouble as when depicting human figures.”

At times his ‘naturalism’ was too much for his patrons. It was felt his depiction of religious figures sometimes bordered on the ‘vulgar’. He gravitated towards painting scenes of violence, such as the decapitated head of St John the Baptist on a plate. But despite his temper and controversial style, for a time in the early 1600s, Caravaggio was the most famous and sought-after artist in Rome.

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