Caravaggio is regarded as one of the greatest Italian painters ever. Not just today, but many of his contemporaries also counted him among the best. He received countless assignments and his work was in high demand among private collectors. Our own Carel van Mander, one of Caravaggio’s contemporaries and author of ‘Het Schilderboeck’ (The Book of Painting), wrote the following about him:
“There is also one Michel Agnolo of Caravaggi, who does wonderful things in Rome (…) This Michel Agnolo has acquired great fame, honour and a great name with his works.” Source (Dutch scroll down).
For some high-quality images of the paintings in this chapel click here or Wikipedia. A fairly recent monography with good illustrations is C. Puglisi’s ‘Caravaggio’, London 1998. The latest biography, from 2010 (original), is definitely worth the expense: Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’, W.W.Norton, 2011. There is also a comic book about Caravaggio made by Milo Manara. In the English translation titled as: ‘Caravaggio Volume one The Palette and the Sword With dows and palette‘
Caravaggio had multiple biographers: Mancini, Baglione, Bellori. However, none of them were as enthusiastic as Carel van Mander. They accused Caravaggio of not mastering the fundamentals of his art, i.e. ‘ínvenzione’ (solving a problem), ‘disegno’ (draughtsmanship); ‘decorum’ (dong things the proper way) and ‘arte’ (knowledge of the rules of art). His lack of disegno was allegedly evidenced by his always placing his figures against a dark background with a single light source; he never did a landscape or cityscape.
Bellori called ‘The Conversion of St Paul’ a ‘storia senza azzione’, a story without any action. This too was regarded as a lack of technique. Bellori did appreciate the fact that Caravaggio painted ‘al naturale’ but argued that he took this much too far; his failure to adhere to the rules made him guilty of ‘superbia’, pride and hubris. However, he was highly praised for his ‘colore’, i.e. the way he used colour to bring his figures to life.
What makes Caravaggio’s work (despite these criticisms) so remarkable is his down-to-earth interpretation of the supernatural. He painted real people and used beggars and prostitutes as models. His paintings caused an uproar, particularly among the common people. In his book on Caravaggio, Hibbard says: “He must have been the talk of the town.” His pictures appear to be set on a stage; he created three-dimensional figures and placed them in a space without defining it. He knew how to play with artificial light to create depth, emphasize an action or create a certain mood. Author Alberto Manguel in his book ‘Reading Pictures: What we think about when we look at art’ devotes a chapter to Caravaggio entitled The Image as Theatre. And that is what Caravaggio’s work appears to be: theatre.
Caravaggio was not just famous as an artist, but also as a troublemaker. Van Mander also knew about that:
“He is neither corn nor chaff / he does not devote himself to his studies / but having worked for a fortnight / he takes off for a month or two / with a sword on his hip / and a servant following him / from one fives court to the next / spoiling for trouble and a fight / so he is very difficult to be with.”
And that’s the way it was: when he had an assignment, he locked himself up and worked really hard, but afterwards left things as they were and took off with his mates, armed and looking for trouble. Shakespeare, also one of Caravaggio’s contemporaries, described this type of person in his play Romeo and Julia as Tybalt and his companions. Mancini, yet another biographer called Caravaggio ‘stravagantissimo’, which loosely translates as ‘bonkers.’ The painter was repeatedly prosecuted for his violent behaviour. One day, he attacked notary public Marino Pasqualone in the Piazza Navona for allegedly calling Lena, one of Caravaggio’s models and a friend, a whore (which she probably was). He fled to Genoa where he stayed for three weeks, but eventually returned and offered his apologies. Many of his offences were overlooked because he was such a great artist, but on 28 May 1606 things got completely out of hand: an argument over money that was allegedly won during a game of tennis. Caravaggio beat his opponent to death, he himself was seriously injured. He fled Rome and eventually ended up in Naples. In 1610 he tried to return to Rome but he was sick and died half way through his trip. He was not quite 40 years old. In 1986, Derek Jarman made a film about Caravaggio’s life.
Caravaggio’s real name was Michelangelo Merisi. He was born in Milan in 1571 and grew up in the town of Caravaggio, 43 km east of Milan. He was named after this town, maybe to avoid confusing him with that other Michelangelo. At age 13 he became an apprentice to a Milanese painter called Peterzano. From him Caravaggio learned to drawn and to paint frescos and oil paintings. Unfortunately, none of his frescos from this period have survived. The technique apparently didn’t suit Caravaggio, because he – as far as we know – never used it. He didn’t make any drawings either.
There is a good chance that during his stay in Milan, Caravaggio did get to see works by Titian, Tintoretto and Giorgione, he may even have visited Venice. He was undoubtedly influenced by these painters; the composition of the Martyrdom of Matthew, which we will see at the San Luigi dei Francesi is reminiscent of Titian, but his loose brush technique is definitely not found in Caravaggio’s work.
In 1592 he left for Rome, where Clement VIII was pope at the time. It was a period of growth, stability and prosperity. New churches and palaces were being built, old ones restored and embellished. In 1600 Rome had about 110,000 inhabitants, with men forming the vast majority. As a result, prostitution was flourishing. About 10 % of the population belonged to the clergy. Many pilgrims visited Rome, in the holy year 1600 about half a million.
There was a lot of work for artists. Cardinals, rich bankers and lawyers commissioned work to start or expand a private collection. The papal court was incredibly rich, even though Clement VIII was known for his austerity. Caravaggio found work in the studio of Giuseppe Cesari, a.k.a. Cavaliere d’Arpino. He was the most prominent painter at the papal court: his style was mannerist, inspired by Rafael’s frescos in the Vatican. In Cesari’s studio Caravaggio initially studied painting still lifes. It is not known how long he worked at Cesari’s studio.
Caravaggio’s earliest works date from this period, for instance his self-portrait as Bacchus (also known as the Young Sick Bacchus, ‘Bacchino malato’, ca. 1593-94) and Boy with a Basket of Fruit (ca. 1593-94), which you have seen at the Galleria Borghese. Both paintings are a combination of a portrait and a still life. They probably also contain some kind of symbolism. Boy with a Basket of Fruit could symbolize the transitory nature of time.
“The Young Sick Bacchus (Italian: Bacchino Malato), also known as the Sick Bacchus or the Self-Portrait as Bacchus, is an early self-portrait by the Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, dated between 1593 and 1594. It now hangs in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. According to Caravaggio’s first biographer, Giovanni Baglione, it was a cabinet piece painted by the artist using a mirror.
The painting dates from Caravaggio’s first years in Rome following his arrival from his native Milan in mid-1592. Sources for this period are inconclusive and probably inaccurate, but they agree that at one point the artist fell extremely ill and spent six months in the hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione.” Source: Wikipedia
“The basket … contains a great many fruits, all in nearly perfect condition and including a bi-colored peach with a bright red blush; four clusters of grapes — two black, one red, and one “white;” a ripe pomegranate split open, disgorging its red seeds; four figs, two of them dead-ripe, black ones, both split and two light-colored; two medlars; three apples—two red, one blushed and the other striped, and one yellow with a russet basin and a scar; two branches with small pears, one of them with five yellow ones with a bright red cheek and the other, half-hidden, with small yellow, blushed fruits. There are also leaves showing various disorders: a prominent virescent grape leaf with fungal spots and another with a white insect egg mass resembling that of the oblique banded leaf roller (Choristoneura rosaceana), and peach leaves with various spots.” Source Jules Janick ‘Caravaggio’s Fruit’
“The analysis indicates that Caravaggio is being realistic. By capturing only what was in the fruit basket, he idealizes neither their ripeness nor their arrangement—yet almost miraculously, we are still drawn in to look at it, for the viewer it is very much a beautiful and exquisite subject.” Source Wikipedia
Read more about The Basket of Fruit? Wikipedia
Caravaggio had to sell paintings to make some money. Through friends, his paintings were put on display at a kind of gallery next to the San Luigi dei Francesi. This is how they caught the attention of Cardinal del Monte who immediately bought two and subsequently added Caravaggio to his household. The cardinal was his main patron until 1601. Through Del Monte Caravaggio came into contact with Rome’s ruling elite and so with two other important patrons: the Marchese Vincente Giustiniani and Ottavio Costa. Both were rich bankers with an eye for new trends in art. He was a made man.
The paintings we’re about to see all have religious themes. Caravaggio also painted mythological themes and genre paintings; some of which you will see at the Galleria Borghese.
First we will visit the Santa Maria del Popolo. There is much to see in this church, but I’m afraid we will only have time for the Cerasi Chapel.