The Late Renaissance artist Caravaggio was raised during the importune times in Milan, Italy. It may be due to this kind of environment that he was often described by his rivals as rebellious and proud. Although he was such kind of man, his artistic talents soared past these prejudices that he became among the most celebrated artists of the Italian Baroque period.
Caravaggio, on a lighter note, was popular for his controversial yet influential paintings. His works were re-discovered during the 20th century which provided evidence to his significant contributions to introducing Baroque style of painting into his students and contemporaries. For instance, Caravaggio’s influence can be observed on the works of Rembrandt, Rubens and Bernini.
Caravaggio was given the birth name Michelangelo Merisi. His alter-nick was derived from the name of his home town, Caravaggio, which was one of the towns in Lombardy, Italy. He was born on September 29, 1571 in Milan before they left the city to leave in a small town. He came from a middle class family in which his father Fermo Merixio was an architect and his mother Lucia Aratori a propertied woman.
However, unfortunately, Caravaggio was born and raised during a time when Milan was ravaged by the plague and internal conflict brought by the advances of King Philip II’s army. Other problems like poverty and famine were widespread that Caravaggio would have witnessed all these despite living a comfortable life.
In fact, biographer Giovan Ambrogio Popolano went as far as describing the events in 1570 as “there was great famine, with no food to be found… after the famine, the death rate soared, and more died among those who did have food than among those who did, and suffered hunger, and this was the year 1571.”
Another societal condition that Caravaggio would have likely exposed to was the extreme religiosity of the Milanese. In 1565, Cardinal Borromeo returned to the city to assist the other officials in preparation for the establishment of the Council of Trent which further promoted (religious) zeal all over the republic.
It can’t be helped that at that time, the plague was killing the people and as they could no longer go out of their houses, Cardinal Borromeo conducted enthusiastic prayer and penitence from their windows and entranceways. Unfortunately Caravaggio’s father and grandfather died from the plague in 1577, when he was just six years old.
In 1576, Caravaggio’s family found refuge in Lombardy, a province in Northern Italy. His family had kept in contact with the influential families of Colonna and Sforza, which made an impact onto the painter’s life later on.
At the age of 13, Caravaggio was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano, who was a student of Tiziano. During his apprentice years it is believed that the young painter could have traveled to Venice to study some works of Titian and Giorgione. It is also possible that he have seen the works of the highly celebrated Milanese painters like Leonardo da Vinci.
In 1592, the 21-year old painter retreated to Rome as he escaped from a violent brawl that he got into with a police officer. He was in a bad condition when he arrived in the said city and tried to make a living out of doing hack-work. He served as a worker for Giuseppe Cesari, who was working for Pope Clement VIII at the time and was also famous for painting still-life figures like flowers and fruit.
Under the wings of Cesari, Caravaggio learned of painting ordinary people with inanimate objects as his subject. He painted a small portrait of Boy Feeling a Fruit, a Boy with a Basket of Fruit and a Young Sick Bacchus. The latter painting is thought to be his self-portrait, depicting his sickly condition that he had to resign from working for Cesari.
These series of paintings displayed the sheer brilliance of Caravaggio in painting vivid, lively and unique figures and landscapes. His coloring skill was also at a high level, showing his very promising future in Rome. This gave him enough self-confidence to took off from the wings of Cesari and become a would-be renowned freelance artist.
In 1594, Caravaggio became an emerging painter due to the popularity of his Cardsharps art work. It was copied over several times and through which captured the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a wealthy art patron. Del Monte bought the Cardsharps and The Fortune Teller paintings and then summoned Caravaggio into his household.
Since then, Caravaggio received major commissions by Del Monte under which he had completed The Musicians, The Stigmatization of Saint Francis and The Lute Player. It went successful and received another commission by a public organization in 1599. He was contracted to paint a number of paintings that depict St. Matthew’s life for the Chapel of Contarelli in the San Luigi dei Francesi Church.
Thus far, Caravaggio enjoyed the attention of the people because of the intrigue and interest that his paintings affect to them. His works could be described as bold, quite surreal and morally questionable. For example, he once executed a Death of the Virgin painting which the character was modeled after a corpse of a prostitute. Consequently, this painting was rejected by the Carmelites sister in 1606, when it was supposed to be placed in the private chapel of the Santa Maria della Scala church.
However, art historian John Gash believes that the reason behind Carmelites’ rejection of the painting was more of theological in perspective rather than judging it by its aesthetics. It is believed that the Caravaggio failed to interpret the idea that the Virgin was assumed into Heaven, based on the Assumption of Mary doctrine, and thus she did not have an ordinary death.
Caravaggio then had come up with newer versions in order to satisfy his art patron, while his Death of the Virgin work was bought by the Duke of Mantua, and then acquired by King Charles and finally until 1671 when it went into the hands of the French Royal Collection.
Caravaggio would finish his work as quick as he loses his temper. He had minimal ritual and preparation time before painting because he was efficient when painting spontaneously. This however would sometimes result to abandoning what he started and then paint new figures over the top, which was an unconventional way of painting.
His quick temper led to a sword fight against a young man named Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1606. The duel went too far that Caravaggio killed his opponent, which he presumably had no intention of doing so right after the man got stabbed in the groin. He was accused of murder but decided not to face the charges before the trial court so he went into exile and found himself in Malta.
Caravaggio retreated to Naples and then moved to Malta, which enjoyed independent sovereignty at the time. The island was also the base of the Knights of Malta and if he would become one of the Knights there was a good chance that he would be given the Papal pardon.
He gave his Beheading of St. John the Baptist painting in exchange for his membership. He was an acknowledged high-ranking official in the group as he got himself a couple of slaves. He would stroll through the island with his sword beside him while his slaves were walking behind. He was somewhat arrogant as his critics would put it. And this may prove to be true as he got into a brawl with another knight that sentenced him imprisonment.
However, he managed to escape from the prison which rendered him expulsion from the group. Caravaggio just improved his number of enemies that chased after him even in Sicily. On the island, he had done a few commissions alongside his friend Mario Minniti. He completed some altarpieces while at Palermo like the Raising of Lazarus, Burial of St. Lucy and the Adoration of the Shepherds.
However, one night somebody tried to kill him in his sleep but the murderer only succeeded in damaging his face. This event made him even more violent and sensitive to some things that would provoke him. Caravaggio moved on with his life by painting and in some cases; he would send his creations to potential patrons like Alof de Wignacourt and Cardinal Borghese in his hope to receive a commission while working on his pardon. In 1610, his pardon was granted by Pope Paul V and this meant that he can now finally return to Rome.
As he embarked his belongings into the ship to go back to the city, he was arrested for unknown reasons. So the ship went off without him and because he had no possessions to support himself, he presumably fell ill and died on July 18, 1610. He met his death in Porto Ercole near Tuscany, and according to researchers and forensics, the human remains that they had found in Porto Ercole church in 2010 belong to Caravaggio. So, the painter died alone and penniless.