Friday, November 16, 2012


Still-Life with Flowers and Fruit
oil on canvas
105 x 184 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy

Michelangelo Merisi (1571 - 1610), called later Caravaggio, was born in either Milan, or a town of Caravaggio near Milan, as the son of a ducal architect. He was active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily. His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, had a formative influence on the Baroque school of painting. Few artists in history have exercised as extraordinary an influence as this tempestuous and short-lived painter. Even in his own lifetime, Caravaggio was considered enigmatic, fascinating, rebellious and dangerous. Caravaggio was destined to turn a large part of European art away from the ideal viewpoint of the Renaissance to the concept that simple reality was of primary importance. Caravaggio was one of the first to paint people as ordinary looking. Almost all of his subjects emphasize sadness, suffering, and death.

Caravaggio, orphaned at age 11, trained as a painter in Milan under Peterzano who had himself trained under Titian. In his early twenties he moved to Rome where many huge new churches and palazzi were being built and paintings were needed to fill them. During the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church searched for religious art with which to counter the threat of Protestantism, and for this task the artificial conventions of Mannerism, which had ruled art for almost a century, no longer seemed adequate.

Caravaggio's novelty was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro. This came to be known as Tenebrism, the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value. He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissioned artwork. Thereafter Caravaggio never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success poorly. Since 1600, because of his violent temper Caravaggio was constantly in trouble with the law and was regularly mentioned in police records, under accusations of assault, libel and other crimes. "after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." (An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously) Caravaggio was jailed on several occasions and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope, when he became involved in killing a young man in a brawl in 1606. He fled from Rome finding refuge with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608 again, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at the age of 38, he died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole, reportedly from a fever while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon from the Pope.

Famous while he lived, Caravaggio was forgotten almost immediately after his death, and it was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. Despite this, his influence on the new Baroque style was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation. Heavily under his influence were called the "Caravaggisti" or "Caravagesques".
"What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting." (Andre Berne-Joffroy)