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The Triumph and Tragedy of Caravaggio

Caravaggio, an artist of staggering talent and troubling temper, was the enigmatic genius behind the Baroque period.

Originally named Michelangelo Merisi, the maestro’s popular moniker comes from Caravaggio, the town of his birth in Lombardy, northern Italy.

At 21 years old in 1592 he was drawn to the temptations of Rome, heralded as the centre for cultural learning in its classical architecture and art.

Like many aspiring artists throughout time, the early stages of Caravaggio’s career were slow.

For his first years in the Eternal City, he hawked his still-life pieces of flowers, fruit arrangements, and half-length figures on the street. In a fairy-tale twist of fate however, his luck soon changed after Cardinal Francesco del Monte was struck by his talent.

From 1595 Del Monte took Caravaggio under his wing, and into his network of influential peers. The cardinal’s patronage propelled the young genius into almost instantaneous fame. Passionate and innovative, Caravaggio’s dramatic flair revolutionised the art world of his time.

The drama imbued in the stroke of his brush creates a visceral experience for its audience. Utilising the contrasting forces of light and dark (chiaroscuro), Caravaggio rendered settings that were not only theatrical, but challenged conventions of his time.

In fact, many historical pundits claim that Caravaggio was the definitive influence over the Baroque period.

Characterised by exuberance, contrast, and tension, the 17th century movement was a pronounced step away from the classical aspirations of the Renaissance period.

The Renaissance, which took place between the 14th and 16th centuries, was inspired by intellectual and artistic movements in ancient Greece and Rome. Art, architecture, science, philosophy, and literature strove to emulate the classical world of Europe’s ancient history.

Derived from the French term for ‘rebirth’, the Renaissance represented innovation, change, and enlightenment after the rigid rules and conformity of the medieval Europe.

In works such as paintings, this theme is noticed in the increasing aspirations towards of realism. Artists made a concentrated effort to break away from the symbolism of the Middle Ages, and depict predominantly Biblical themes in a more life-like fashion.

Just as the Renaissance abandoned the conventions of preceding times, so too did the Baroque period free itself from pre-existing standards.

The pronounced and impressive swing towards the realism was further explored by Caravaggio.

Earlier Renaissance works created a distinct divide between the narrative and the audience by including sweeping backdrops of nature behind the main figures. This technique, although visually captivating, ultimately serves to separate the viewer from the piece.

Caravaggio on the other hand, channelled his rebellious spirit by applying the opposite approach.

The settings of his paintings feature intimate spaces that push his central characters together. Oftentimes he would render an encroaching wall as the backdrop to pull the perspective closer to the edge of the canvas.

His use of dark browns, grey and black further accentuated his treatment of closed spaces, while a vertical shaft of light would cut through these sombre hues for dramatic effect and contrast.

The resulting chiaroscuro is not only sharp and emphatic, but also forces the audiences to participate in the narrative as opposed to being passive viewers.

Furthermore, much to the horror of his traditional and conventional critics, Caravaggio would use everyday people as models for his works. This preference made his pieces accessible to ordinary people outside of the nobility and the church, thus heightening his reputation as a radical artist.

In light of his revolutionary talents however, sources describe Caravaggio as a controversial figure of both sweeping artistic genius, and violent passions.

In conjunction with his rising fame, Caravaggio was also known for being impulsive and dangerous.

Contemporary accounts report how “’after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with his sword at his side and with a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or argument, with the result that it is most awkward to get along with him”.

Wanted for murder in 1606, Caravaggio left Rome to escape justice.

It’s not entirely clear whether the artist had meant to kill his opponent, but the ensuing death saw him abandon the Eternal City. During his fractured tenure as a fugitive Caravaggio fled between Naples, Sicily, and Malta.

He first made his way to Naples, where he was protected by the Colonna family, Roman nobles with deep historical ancestry. His year-long sojourn there saw him produce The Flagellation of Christ, and The Seven Acts of Mercy. In 1607 however, he left the shelter of his patrons and settled in Malta.

Home to the Knights of Malta, the independent sovereignty provided safe-haven for Caravaggio in return for the painting known as the Beheading of St John the Baptist.

The work also granted him membership into the Knights of Malta, a strategic move that improved his chances of receiving a papal pardon for the murder.

Unfortunately, Caravaggio’s time in Malta was short-lived.

His explosive temper embroiled him in an altercation with a fellow knight. The unforgivable blunder stripped him of his knighthood, and expelled him from the protection of the order. They attempted to imprison him, but Caravaggio went on the run again, this time to Sicily where a friend took him in.

Yet by 1609 the troubled genius was traveling back to Naples.

The darker aspects of the artist’s character tragically led to his early death.

After receiving a papal pardon through the help of influential friends, Caravaggio was injured and disfigured in yet another fight. For reasons that are still cloaked in mystery, he was further thrown in jail while awaiting a ship that would take him back to Rome.

The ship ultimately left without him, bearing away his possessions and livelihood. Upon his release from jail, Caravaggio supposedly caught malaria, and died on the coast alone. At only 38 years old his brilliant yet tempestuous life came to an early and tragic close.

However, Caravaggio’s legacy lives on in the vibrant power of his works. Audiences today can still wonder at his dramatic compositions, and experience inclusion through his intimate treatment of perspective.

To discover his works of art and learn more about his brief yet passionate life, follow Joy of Rome’s On the Trail of Caravaggio tour or visit the Galleria Borghese!

The experience is also available withouth travelling to Rome: check our virtual tour experiences page!