Youth years and training

Michelangelo Merisi was born in Milan in 1571, probably on 29 September and spent his early years there.

His father Fermo was a master architect, but when the terrible plague hit the city in 1577, the family was forced to return to his home town of Caravaggio, which soon became the nickname of the young Michelangelo.

He was only 13 when, after the epidemic, he moved back to Milan to work as an apprentice in the workshop of Simone Peterzano, a disciple of Tiziano Vecellio. In the four years spent in the workshop, Caravaggio will familiarize himself with the style of the great Lombard and Venetian masters.

The Roman years and fidelity to reality

With the early death of both parents and the division of the inheritance between the brothers, at the age of 21 Caravaggio left Milan to move to Rome where he immediately found work as a boy. He goes to work in the workshop of the Cavaliere d’Arpino, but the work in the service of a master does not prevent him from painting his own works, which deal with themes dear to him, with the intention of selling them independently from the workshop. Among these early works, one hypothesizes the Boy bitten by a lizard (1595-96), now kept in the Longhi Foundation in Florence.

The works of these early years are characterized by the use of a recurring and exceptional model: Caravaggio himself. It is very probable that Caravaggio executed some paintings in front of the mirror, to better grasp the truth of his figure and his expressions.

The raw realism of his painting, fidelity to reality, the portrait as it is without improvements, the emotional power, the use of models taken from the people, all feed the great interest that forms around his person and his art .

Attention which is admiration and protection from artists and patrons but also criticism and dislike.

Another common subject is the still life: the artist is, in fact, considered the first to paint this genre in Italy: inaugurated with Basket of fruit (ca. 1594-1598, today in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan). In it, the depiction of things and objects of everyday life becomes the main subject of entire paintings, giving it a new dignity and putting it on the same level as figurative painting. The details of the fruits are perfectly described in the painting: Caravaggio portrays a real nature, rotten and not beautiful, with even an apple eaten by a caterpillar, the dry leaf of the fig and dust on the grapes.

Already with the Canestra di Frutta Caravaggio established relations with Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte who, over the years, was to be his protector and main patron. In fact, it is thanks to him that in 1599 he obtained his first public commission: the large canvases depicting the Calling and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. These paintings strongly contribute to his fame among the local nobility: the raw and real, full of emotion and eccentric painting produced by him was immediately at the center of discussions and controversies, mainly from the use of popular people as models for the sacred characters.

It was 1599 when Caravaggio obtained his first public commission: the large canvases depicting the Calling and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, his patron and client.

The works come to life thanks to the masterful use of light, the characters move spectacularly on the canvas, in an exasperated but real dramatization of the event, the faces of ordinary people, depicted without any idealization: for the first time models taken from the street, popular, they embody sacred scenes, in a need to bring the painted stories into actuality and truth.

The Florentine works: Bacchus and Medusa

Although Caravaggio never set foot in Florence, the city holds several masterpieces including the Bacchus and the Shield with the head of Medusa, commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte and kept in the Uffizi Gallery.

The Bacchus, painted in 1598, once again marks Caravaggio’s pictorial revolution because it highlights the naturalistic rendering of the plant world. The basket of fruit and the cup of wine in the hand of the God demonstrate all the artist’s pictorial skill in creating the sculptural three-dimensionality of the figures. The scene presents the divinity offering the spectator a sip of wine from his glass, as an invitation to friendship and conviviality typical of the parties with Bacchic disguises widespread in Rome, and in which some claim that Caravaggio participated.

Bacchus, 1598

The Shield with Medusa’s head from 1598 was donated to Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici for his collection of armor set up in the Uffizi Gallery. The decision to paint the newly severed head of the Gorgon on a convex support seems to have been dictated not only by the need to create a work intended to coexist with weapons and armor, but by Caravaggio’s desire to recall the original myth as much as possible. In the story, in fact, the head of Medusa is displayed by the hero Perseus on his shield, a trophy that would have had the purpose of instilling horror in his enemies, and subsequently given to the goddess Athena who would have displayed it on her Aegis. The crazy look, the jet of blood at the base of the neck and the wriggling of the snakes in the hair make us imagine that it is almost a photograph taken a few moments after take-off. The particular curved shape of the support not only makes the work an encounter between painting and sculpture, but causes the eyes of the jellyfish, seat of her power, to follow the observer.

Shield with Medusa’s head, 1598

The escape from Rome and the fugitive life Turbulent

The fame of a turbulent and worldly man accompanies Caravaggio’s entire life. This fame, however, was not entirely unfounded: in 1600 the artist was denounced for a first attack, but this was followed by others that led him to several arrests. He was tried in 1603, together with his followers Orazio Gentileschi and Onorio Longhi, for defaming a painter, but he was also arrested other times for violent attitudes.

His conflict with justice, in fact, had forced him to flee to Genoa in those years. But in 1606, back in Rome, he mortally wounded a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni during a discussion while they were playing tennis, which is an ancestor game of modern tennis. This crime costs him the sentence of beheading and the definitive escape from Rome.

Helped once again by Roman nobles who took him to Naples, Malta, Sicily and back to Naples in 1609, Caravaggio lived these years on the run. Nonetheless, he continues to paint beautiful canvases that increasingly express his personal turmoil and his gloomy vision of reality, probably aggravated by this condition.

Papal pardon and death

It was July 1610 when the news of the papal pardon reached him in Naples. Ecstatic, he decides to return to the city without calculating the risks well. The return to Rome was premature because the pardon was not yet official and, for this reason, had to be mitigated in some way. Still under the protection of noble Roman patrons, the painter boarded a ship headed for Porto Ercole and which, from the Tyrrhenian coast, would have allowed him to reach Rome on horseback.

But, when in Porto Ercole, ill with fever due to an infection, Caravaggio dies at the age of only 38 in 1610. The three canvases he brought with him to be used as a bargaining chip for his freedom follow the journey and, subsequently, are recovered by noble Roman families who proudly exhibit them in their collection: the Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (1609, now in a private collection but originally given to the Marquis Colonna), the Good Shepherd (1610, today in the Galleria Borghese in Rome) and a St. John the Baptist Reclining (1610, now in a private collection in Munich).

With his sudden death, his enemies certainly enjoyed it, but the Roman artistic environment and not only suffered from it. Caravaggio laid the foundations for modern naturalism, a current that went against Mannerism and which led to the Baroque. Internationally renowned even when alive, the painter’s Roman activity stimulated artists from all over Europe to move to Rome and learn to paint from life.

Cover photo: Caravaggio in a portrait by Ottavio Leoni, circa 1621, Biblioteca Marucelliana in Florence

Dove e quando

Milan, 1571 – Porto Ercole, 1610




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