Michelangelo Merisi was an Italian artist active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily between 1592 and 1610. His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, had a formative influence on the Baroque school of painting.
Caravaggio was born in Milan where his father, was a household administrator and architect-decorator to the Marchese of Caravaggio, a town not far from the city of Bergamo. It is assumed that the artist grew up in Caravaggio. In 1584, he began his four-year apprenticeship to the Milanese painter Simone Peterzano, described in the contract of apprenticeship as a pupil of Titian.
Caravaggio left Milan for Rome in 1592, in flight after "certain quarrels" and the wounding of a police officer. He arrived in Rome extremely needy without fixed address and without provision. A few months later he was performing hack-work for the highly successful Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII's favourite artist, "painting flowers and fruit" in his factory-like workshop. His earliest known painting is a small Boy Peeling a Fruit, a Boy with a Basket of Fruit, and the Young Sick Bacchus, supposedly a self-portrait done during convalescence from a serious illness that ended his employment with Cesari.
Caravaggio left Cesari, determined to make his own way. The Fortune Teller, his first composition with more than one figure, shows his friend Mario Minniti being cheated by a gypsy girl. The theme was quite new for Rome, and proved immensely influential over the next century and beyond. The Cardsharps is even more psychologically complex, and perhaps Caravaggio's first true masterpiece. It attracted the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. For him and his wealthy art-loving circle, Caravaggio executed a number of intimate chamber-pieces — The Musicians, The Lute Player, a tipsy Bacchus, an allegorical but realistic Boy Bitten by a Lizard.
In 1599, presumably through the influence of Del Monte, Caravaggio was contracted to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The two works making up the commission, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew, delivered in 1600, were an immediate sensation. Caravaggio's tenebrism brought high drama to his subjects, while his acutely observed realism brought a new level of emotional intensity. Opinion among Caravaggio's artist peers was polarized. Some denounced him for his insistence on painting from life, but for the most part he was hailed as a great artistic visionary.
Caravaggio went on to secure a string of prestigious commissions for religious works featuring violent struggles, grotesque decapitations, torture and death, most notable and most technically masterful among them The Taking of Christ for the Mattei Family, recently rediscovered in Ireland after two centuries. For the most part each new painting increased his fame, but a few were rejected at least in their original forms, and had to be re-painted or find new buyers. The essence of the problem was that while Caravaggio's dramatic intensity was appreciated, his realism was seen by some as unacceptably vulgar. It happened the same for the Grooms' Madonna, and the Death of the Virgin. The last one was rejected because Caravaggio had used a well-known prostitute as his model for the Virgin.
The realism returned with Caravaggio's first paintings on religious themes, and the emergence of remarkable spirituality. The first of these was the Penitent Magdalene. It was followed by others in the same style: Saint Catherine; Martha and Mary Magdalene; Judith Beheading Holofernes; a Sacrifice of Isaac... The works, while viewed by a comparatively limited circle, increased Caravaggio's fame with both connoisseurs and his fellow artists. But a true reputation would depend on public commissions, and for these it was necessary to look to the Church. Already evident was the intense realism or naturalism for which Caravaggio is now famous. This allowed a full display of Caravaggio's virtuosic talents.
Caravaggio led a tumultuous life. On 29 May 1606, he killed, possibly unintentionally, a young man. He, outlawed, fled to Naples. There, outside the jurisdiction of the Roman authorities and protected by the Colonna family, he became the most famous in Naples before leaving for Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, presumably hoping that the patronage could help him secure a pardon for his murder. Yet by late August 1608 he was arrested and imprisoned by the knights and managed to escape. Caravaggio made his way to Sicily where he met his old friend Mario Minniti. In Syracuse and Messina, Caravaggio continued to win prestigious and well-paid commissions. After only nine months, Caravaggio returned to Naples waiting for the pardon from the pope in order to return to Rome. There, he painted The Denial of Saint Peter, a final John the Baptist, and his last picture, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula.
In Naples an attempt was made on his life. He was alive, but seriously disfigured in the face. He painted a Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, showing his own head on a platter, and sent it to de Wignacourt as a plea for forgiveness. He painted also a David with the Head of Goliath, probably a gift to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of the pope, who had the power to grant or withhold pardons. In the summer of 1610 he took a boat to receive the pardon. What happened next is the subject of much confusion and conjecture. A recent researcher claims to have discovered a death notice showing that the artist died on that day of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany. Human remains found in a church in Porto Ercole in 2010 are believed to almost certainly belong to Caravaggio. Some scholars argue that Caravaggio was murdered by enemies and poisoned.
Famous while he lived, Caravaggio was forgotten almost immediately after his death, and it was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. Despite this, his influence on the new Baroque style was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the "Caravaggisti" or "Caravagesques", as well as Tenebrists or "Tenebrosi" ("shadowists").
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