Caravaggio, Biography of the Painter of Shadows

Caravaggio was a renowned painter of the sixteenth century, he painted using contrasting effects between light and dark. But his life, like his work, was also full of light and shadow… do you know what made it so special? Why was it so controversial?

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Caravaggio was an extremely popular painter during the Baroque period. He developed a highly original variant of chiaroscuro: tenebrism.

The tenebrism was characterized by the use of extreme contrasts of light and dark in order to highlight the details of the gesture or facial expression: an open arm, a look of despair or a longing. His influence in the course of Western art has been immense and has not been limited solely to the field of painting.

Caravaggio’s work undoubtedly shaped that of many later artists, from Rembrandt in Holland and Diego Velázquez in Spain to Théodore Géricault in France.

His dramatic sense of staging and innovative chiaroscuro have also directly inspired many leading figures of the cinema, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese.

Childhood and early life of Caravaggio

Caravaggio, who would be one of the most famous Italian painters, was baptized as Michelangelo Merisi, was born on September 29, 1571. The birth took place very close to Milan, Italy. Probably, in the small town of Caravaggio in the Diocese of Cremona, from which, later, it would take its name.

The time in which he was born was violent and, sometimes, unstable. The early life of the artist was divided between his hometown, Caravaggio, and the populated city of Milan, where his father had a workshop.

The artist’s family had connections with the local nobility on the part of Caravaggio’s mother. His maternal grandfather was a collector of land rents in the name of Francesco Sforza I.

Caravaggio’s maternal aunt was the wet-nurse of the children of Francesco Sforza I with Costanza Colonna. Sforza and Colonna were among the most powerful and influential dynasties in Italy.

Caravaggio’s connections with them would be of vital importance in his adult life. Costanza Colonna would be a refuge and constant support during its most problematic years.

In the summer of 1576, when the future artist was only 5 years old, Milan was hit by an outbreak of bubonic plague. Caravaggio’s father dies as a result of the plague.

At the age of 13, in the year 1584, his mother died. Apparently, after his death, the young man became an apprentice to the painter Simone Peterzano.

The precise circumstances surrounding his departure from Milan remain unclear. However, the marginal notes of one of his biographers suggest that he was involved in some type of violent incident related to the murder of a policeman.

It seems that the artist began his career as he would finish it: as a man in trouble with the law.

Beginnings of Caravaggio’s career

At the end of the decade of 1580, Caravaggio traveled to Rome, city in which it worked with varied painters. It impelled the style of the realism on the Manierismo prevailing at the time.

During the decade of 1590, the artist made numerous paintings that had themes related to everyday life. These paintings were not in tune with the spiritual themes that prevailed during that time.

His paintings during that period include Buenaventura, Card Players, Boy with Fruit Basket, Sick Bacchus and Youth Concert.

Finally, he decided to work independently. He created many paintings and even got buyers for those artistic pieces.

A merchant who bought his paintings presented his work to Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who liked his paintings to such an extent that he gave Caravaggio refuge and entitled him to a stipend.

One of the great milestones of his career occurred when he was chosen to decorate Contarelli Chapel in the year 1597. The paintings he made for this chapel led him to controversy, although, at the same time, they served to acquire some popularity.

Because his biblical scenes were populated with the faces of prostitutes, beggars and thieves that he had found in the streets of Rome, a deep chaos was created between the public and the authorities of the Church. His realistic portraits of San Mateo were considered a deviation from the spiritual and religious theme.

Personal life and Resurrection

Throughout his life, he was arrested on numerous occasions. According to what is recorded in the different registers, we can know that Caravaggio never married and did not have offspring either.

The absence of erotic female characters in his work and the abundance of sensual portraits of young men has led, on more than one occasion, to a debate about his sexuality. The experts have tried to make endless homoerotic readings to his work.

This painter is known to have had a tempestuous temper and, apparently, to be promiscuous and quarrelsome. Finally, in 1606, after fighting a duel, he was accused of having murdered a Roman procurator named Ranuccio Tomassoni.

Through a sentence in absentia, Caravaggio is subject to the death penalty. Soon after, to escape punishment, he left Rome and traveled through Italy.

After a conflict with a brother of the Order of San Juan in 1608, Caravaggio goes to jail. The place of confinement was a cell carved into the rock in the Castel Sant’Angelo from where it was considered impossible to escape. However, with the help of an accomplice, Caravaggio escaped evading the guard of the castle, climbing the walls and going down a precipice of 61 meters to a boat that awaited him.

The hope of a pardon: a death assured

In 1610, he decided to travel back to Rome in the hope that, finally, he could negotiate a pardon. Scipione Borghese, the pope’s nephew, was in charge of the papal justice system and was an enthusiastic collector of Caravaggio’s work. The artist traveled by sea loaded with several paintings that he hoped to offer Borghese in exchange for arranging at his request.

For reasons that remain unclear, Caravaggio was arrested and imprisoned in the Port of Palo. A few hours later, the artist left the prison and went to Porto Ercole, the final destination of the boat, in order to recover his precious paintings. But the effort, the heat of the summer and his state of health, unfortunately, played against him.

He arrived in Porto Ercole, but died shortly after his arrival, probably on July 18 or 19, at the age of 38 years. He was buried in a grave with no name or epitaph.

Although Caravaggio was rejected after his death, he eventually became recognized as one of the founding fathers of modern painting. His work had a great influence on many later teachers. In Rome, in 2010, an exhibition of his work that marked the 400th anniversary of his death attracted more than 580,000 visitors.

Legacy of Carvaggio

Caravaggio’s popular depictions of religious figures were innovative in showing biblical characters in a non-idealized way, by adding signs of age and poverty and the use of contemporary clothing.

This served to humanize the divine, making it more accessible to the average viewer. In this way, Caravaggio’s work represented a kind of spiritual populism.

The barefoot and dirty feet of Caravaggio’s figures united the works of the artist with teachings of the church that emphasized the poverty of Christ. Despite this alignment with current dogma, these representations attracted some of Caravaggio’s toughest criticisms.

Although the technique of chiaroscuro was not introduced by Caravaggio, it was the first painter who incorporated the technique as a dominant stylistic element, obscuring the shadows and using clearly defined light rays to highlight the narrative of the image. The style became more frequent in his later work and became the brand in his more mature works.

The artistic legacy of Caravaggio is incalculable, his mastery of chiaroscuro has been studied, imitated and applauded in every corner. His figure, in turn, is one of the most controversial of his time. Everything in him has been object of controversy, from a painting that stood out in its time until its sexual orientation, without forgetting its problems with the law. His life, like his work, is a succession of chiaroscuros.