Michelangelo Merisi (1571 - 1610), better known as Caravaggio, is one of my favorite artists. If you like paintings by Rembrandt, Velzaquez, Rubens or any of handful of other painters of the 17th century, you have Caravaggio to thank. He invented the art style known as chiaroscuro (pronounced key-are-os-koo-row, literally: that which obscures), which features a heightened contrast between light and dark in the painting. Certain portions of the painting are often given a glaring, "third-degree interrogation" kind of lighting, while the rest of the painting slips into deep, brown shadows. An example of this is the Calling of St. Matthew (right), a fresco in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
Typical of Caravaggio, the painting takes a classic theme -- when Matthew, a tax collector (the worst kind of sinner) is called to become a follower of Christ -- and uses light, shadow, and a scene in motion to heighten the drama and change the focal point. Our eye first falls on the men around the table, huddled over the coins they are counting (anachronistically dressed in 17th century clothes). One of the men seems to be looking up in surprise and asking "who, me?" It's only after following their interrupted gaze that we notice, mostly obscured and deep in shadow, the figure of Christ motioning to one of the men. "You. Follow me."
Caravaggio's figures are often brutally realistic, as here in the Crucifixion of Peter. Caravaggio painted from life, using models, props and natural light, in contrast to his contemporaries, who often painted fanciful scenes they had created entirely in their heads. While the accepted way of depicting saints was to show them as beautiful, clean people, dressed in the finest silks, Caravaggio often showed them dressed in rags, tired and dirty but dauntless in their faith in Christ. More shocking still, in an age when modeling was not yet a profession, he often hired drunks and prostitutes to model for him. His Virgin Mary could well be recognizable to everybody in Rome as the hooker who worked the corner near Piazza Navona.
In modern times, Caravaggio has ended up being more influential than famous, partly because he died young. There's no question that he was a bad, bad boy during his time in Rome. He made a show of walking around the city armed with a sword. He had a lengthy arrest record for fights, public indecency, and even wounding a police officer. Caravaggio's powerful patrons, including the nephew of the Pope, were able to protect him for awhile, but eventually Caravaggio killed someone (reportedly in a disagreement over a bet on a tennis match).
He fled Rome and made his way through Naples, Sicily and Malta, spending a few months in each place, but always one step ahead of the law. Oddly, he did some of his best work while on the run. Eventually he made his way back to Naples, and through contacts in Rome was working to arrange a Papal pardon. He was headed back to Rome to accept the pardon when he died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole, a small port just north of Rome. His bones were recently exhumed, and scientists will be studying them to see if they can determine a cause of death.
For more on Caravaggio, I highly recommend M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio
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