I cannot claim to be an art critic, or even a serious art lover for that matter. I enjoy visiting galleries and like reading analysis by others but I find it difficult to come up with my own commentaries. In fact my own interest in Caravaggio stemmed from a film I watched years ago centred on the stealing of one of his great paintings, The Taking of Christ. The paintings struck me straight away with their filthy faced subjects and their contrasting light and dark; Caravaggio’s impressive use of light is clear to even a layman like me. I suppose there is also an element of naive wonder at his life, one filled with violence, sleaze, and murder, basically perfect storytelling fodder. You might even learn a bit about art, though that’ll probably take a bit more reading… elsewhere.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was around 21 when he first got to Rome from Milan in 1952. He was penniless, had no reputation, and both his parents were dead. Rome was a scary place at the time, packed with street beggars, thieves, prostitutes, pick pockets, and all manner of hustlers. Caravaggio would fit right in, taking his place amongst the criminals.
Rome was also overrun with painters; despite Caravaggio having trained under a pupil of the great artist Titian the apprenticeship held no weight in Rome due to the sheer amount of fellow artists looking for a chance to make some money. People were selling art in the streets for quick money and Caravaggio soon joined them, reportedly producing up to three paintings a day to sell for next to nothing.
Caravaggio was producing paintings which clearly showed his extreme talents with light and physical structure but as yet had not attracted any real attention. Fortunately his work was seen by the influential Cardinal Del Monte; Del Monte was kindly, rich and, more importantly, an art collector. Del Monte, along with some of his important friends, begin to commission early works from Caravaggio including Bacchus, a work showing the Greek god of grape harvest and winemaking Bacchus holding a glass of wine as though to invite you to join him. Caravaggio definitely would’ve done.
It was Del Monte who also got Caravaggio his first big commission. He was asked to paint for the Contarelli Chapelm just two minutes walk from Del Monte’s house and created The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Calling of Saint Matthew, both of which are still hung in the chapel to this day. The paintings proved to be very popular and would end Caravaggio’s struggles, or at least his money woes.
Caravaggio quickly became notorious for his antics as much as his paintings: his court records are extensive. He was known for carrying a sword by his side whilst walking the streets and sometimes brandishing it at those who dared to say anything to him. He was often getting in fights and threatening people. There are records of him beating up a waiter because he didn’t cook his artichokes properly. Basically he was a thug, just one with a rare artistic talent.
It is no wonder that his friends were into similar sorts of criminality. Caravaggio hung around in taverns and brothels with the hustlers, card sharks, and prostitutes. However this is one of the things that make his paintings so realistic and innovative; it was these places Caravaggio would use as backdrops, and it was these people he would use as models. If you look closely at the feet of many of the subjects you see the grubby, worn feet of a street walker. Caravaggio was depicting saints and apostles as ordinary people and it was this that spoke to people. The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew shows the murder taking place in a common bath house. He would often also use his own image, twice as John the Baptist’s severed head on a plate by way of apologising for another one of his misdeeds.
As his fame grew it didn’t seem to change his attitude, it could probably be argued that the fame gave Caravaggio a new level of arrogance and superiority. Whatever the case in May 1606 Caravaggio would become embroiled in his biggest scandal yet. After an escalating argument, apparently over a game of tennis, two gangs confronted each other in the streets of Rome. One led by Caravaggio and one by Ranuccio Tomassoni. Swords were drawn and, probably owing to the practise he’d had, Caravaggio managed to get there first. He fatally stabbed Tomassoni and immediately fled Rome to Naples fearing arrest and reprisal.
Even whilst living as a fugitive Caravaggio continued to create commissions for wealthy buyers thanks to his connection to an important family in Naples and the fact that Naples fell outside of Rome’s rule. Despite this he would travel on from here to Malta where he managed to get himself in trouble again, this time with the Knights of Malta. Information is scarce on just how but he managed to offend them and had to escape from a prison they’d sent him to from where he went on to Sicily.
In Sicily there are numerous accounts of Caravaggio’s increasingly paranoid behaviour and temper. However as always, he continued to paint despite his feverish personality at the time. It must have all become too much for the artist to handle as after little under a year he decided to return to Naples under the safety of the family that had protected him there. It would seem that wouldn’t be enough to save him.
In Naples he would soon find more trouble and he was attacked quite severely upon leaving a tavern - his face sliced open (common revenge for an insult, at the time). He started to send paintings to influential people as way of apology and hoping he could secure a pardon. He twice painted his own severed head first in Salome with the Head of John the Baptist and then is David with the Head of Goliath. He must have felt sure a pardon was waiting as he set off to Rome, but what happened next has never really been agreed upon.
In 1610 Caravaggio was pronounced dead, it was long assumed the Tomassoni family had finally caught up with him. He’d also been feverish and could’ve been suffering from syphilis or, due to the high levels in the paints used, lead poisoning. Whatever the cause of death, it is his life and his work that remain so important today: the madness in glorious light.