Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born on September 29, 1571 in Milan, Italy. He is considered the first great artist of the Baroque period. He is known for highly emotional paintings and his dramatic use of lighting. He is considered one of the greatest European artists.
Caravaggio's life was as dramatic and intense as his art. Contemporaries regarded him warily; his reputation was of a rebel - enigmatic and even dangerous. He never lacked for commissions and made a good living with his art. But he was always ready for a fight and others found him difficult to get along with. In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and had to leave Rome in exile. Over the next four years there were other brawls and possible attempts on his life.On July 18, 1610 he died, supposedly from a fever.
Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1592 (after quarrels and a wounding of a policeman in Milan). He arrived with nothing but in a few short months he was working with
a successful painter, Giuseppe Cesari.His earliest known painting is Boy Peeling a Fruit .He was very particular and detailed in his work. The painting Boy with a Basket of Fruit (right)has been analyzed by a professor of horiculture who was able to identify individual cultivars right down to "... a large fig leaf with a prominent fungal scorch
lesion resembling anthracnose.*
In 1594 he went out on his known and met some highly influencial people. His painting The Cardsharps attracted the attention of Cardinaldel Monte, who was one of the leading connoisseurs in Rome. Caravaggio produced several music themed works at the request of the Cardinal and his friends.
He then began a series of religious works. While artists at that time painted the human figure in a sort of perfect or superhuman way, Caravaggio preferred to paint them realistically, as they would be seen walking down the street, flaws and all. His reputation as artist was on the rise.
Caravaggio was now just one step away from the success he was hoping for - public commissions. For that he he needed to be noticed by the Church. In 1599 he was contracted to decorated the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi del Francesi. Two works make up this commission: the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and the Calling of Saint Matthew (see painting at top) which were finished in 1600. They were an immediate sensation.
Most other artists were taken with this new artist. Some faulted him for painting from life and not using drawings but for the most part he was now a star. He began receiving a stream of commissions. They were usually religious works but they featured violent scenes, decapitations, torture, and death. Some were rejected and had to be redone or find new buyers.
While his dramatic execution of a subject was admired, the realistic way he portrayed them was not. His first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel portrayed St.Matthew as a bald peasant in a torn shirt with dirty legs.This had to be redone and was renamed The Inspiration of St. Matthew.
After his exile from Rome in 1606, he traveled from place to place, often beiong forced to leave. In 1608 he spent time in prison for assault. He still received commissions though. His style began to change and more often than not his paintings depicted lonely, shadowy figures. They show the fraility of man while at the same time show the beauty of humility.

While the technique of chiaroscuro was used by painters for a long time before Caravaggio, it was he that perfected it. Chiaroscuro is a term meaning contrast between darkness and light. Caravaggio darkened the shadows and placed the subject in a blinding shaft of light. Somehow through this technique he was able to capture both the physical and the psychological reality of his subjects. For instance, the look on the face of St. Peter shows the guilt and pain of the denial, even before Peter has admitted it to himself. In the Calling of St. Matthew, St. Matthew points to himself as if saying "who me?" yet at the same time there is a look on his face that says he knows he is going with this man. Caravaggio somehow was able to capture this.
Above - The Conversion of St. Paul
Below: left - The Denial of Saint Peter; right - The Supper at Emmaus

Below: Caravaggio's last painting The Martyrdom of St. Ursula

*Caravaggio's Fruit: A Mirror on Baroque Horiculture (Jules Janick, Department of Horiculture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana)

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