Both in life and his art, Caravaggio expressed his passion. He lived the artistic life of an avant-garde, liberated from traditional conventions. Yet, however wild and impetuous his own life appeared, there is nothing undisciplined in his painting. The work of Michelangelo Caravaggio is characterized by an overwhelming beauty and an honesty about the entire spectrum of life (from the physical beauty of plump cheeked musicians to the death and decay of religious figures). Caravaggio has turned the truthfulness about life into a thing of beauty on canvas. Adding to that is his remarkable use of light, a style that was to be copied by the great master painters for years to come.
CARAVAGGIO’S EARLY YEARS
Michelangelo Merisida Caravaggio (1573-1610), one of Italy’s most original painters, was born in Caravaggio (near Milan), and was apprenticed to a Lombardi painter in his youth. At 20, he moved to Rome, where he lived amongst that city’s poor and worked a variety of jobs. His career as a painter truly began when Cardinal del Monte, an influential art collector of the time, noticed Caravaggio’s talent and commissioned several works by the young painter.
Despite this attention from the Cardinal, who said of Michelangelo Caravaggio that he possessed “a most eccentric brain,” he rebuked the conventions of the High Renaissance, of which he was a product. He had little use for the classical heroic style of Leonardo de Vinci and Raphael, and instead sought to bring the truth of the world into his paintings, and not without considerable controversy.
Once in Rome, in his early years, Michelangelo Caravaggio concentrated largely on “genre paintings” (paintings depicting everyday life). He was a great proto-realist, painting famous works such as “The Lute Player” (1596) and “Bacchus” (1590s). In “The Lute Player,” the youthful musician might easily be mistaken for a girl, so richly lush are his curls, so delicate his hands, his soft lips poised in song. Characterized by an air of pleasure and decadence, Caravaggio also captures an underlying sadness and imparts a message about the rapid decay of those things that bring pleasure (as seen in the carefully placed fruit, flowers, and fading music).
Decay is also an under-note for “Bacchus,” a painting in which the youthful god of wine offers viewers a cup of wine, to partake in pleasure, even while corruption and decay lay close by. Within his canvas, Michelangelo Caravaggio uses worm holes in an apple and an overripe pomegranate to remind us of the transience of life and pleasure.
MODELS FOR THE WORK OF CARAVAGGIO
A unique source of controversy for Caravaggio was his choice of models for his paintings. Instead of employing traditional painter’s models, Michelangelo Caravaggio used the street peddlers and workmen he knew so well from the poor neighborhoods. Placing these figures into Biblical narratives raised eyebrows. In his painting, “Conversion of St. Paul,” painted for Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, for example, Caravaggio used a common soldier for the figure of St. Paul and modeled the horse on one from a nearby farm.
Potential clients were scandalized by such flouting of convention, and never more so than when he used the bloated body of a prostitute (who drowned in the Tiber River) as the model for the Virgin Mary in “Death of the Virgin” (1605-1606). This was akin to heresy; luckily for Caravaggio, his magisterial compositions and fresh painting style gradually silenced his critics. By 24, he was already being referred to in the art community as “famous.”
PATH OF SELF-DESTRUCTION
The story of Michelangelo Caravaggio, however, is one filled with dramatic events, and in the case of his personal life story, the last 10 years of his life can be viewed from the notations in his police record. By 1606, Caravaggio had been arrested and/or jailed for the following actions:
* stabbing a papal guard with his sword
* serving under house arrest for writing offensive verse
* attacking a waiter in a local tavern
* being jailed for hurling stones at the police
* insulting an officer who wanted to view his permit to bear arms
* wounding a lawyer in a fight over a prostitute
By 1606, Caravaggio had accelerated this self-destructive path by fatally stabbing a companion in a brawl and fleeing. Two years later, Caravaggio turned up in Malta (the location of the Fortress of St. John), where he was received into the Order of St. John and completed yet another magnificent painting, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.”
Within weeks, however, Michelangelo Caravaggio had landed in jail for insulting a Maltese official. He managed to escape somehow and fled again, this time to Sicily. Because of his fierce talent, he was able to secure a papal pardon and was on his way back to Rome when Caravaggio was attacked in Naples and left for dead.
In fact, he was still alive and arrived at the Port d’Ecole (100 miles northeast of Rome). There, however, he was mistakenly arrested, jailed then released, and died a few days later of a fever that was thought to be from malaria…a sad ending to a life of passionate self-destruction.
LIGHT AND DARKNESS
Like his own life, Caravaggio’s work was characterized by passion, by the contrast between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. As a painter he developed a unique painterly way of using light (and its absence) to convey these same life emotions on the canvas.
Caravaggio was famous for chiaroscuro (“light dark” in Italian), a technique that suggests a three dimensional figure by the varying use of tones of light and dark paint. Caravaggio was a master at this technique. In “Death of the Virgin,” for example, the light strikes with brutal honesty upon the old, plain face of the corpse that once was the mother of God. Contrast this scene with the normal depiction of the Virgin Mary ascending in bright light into the heavens, and the shocking sense of death becomes even more intense under Caravaggio’s brushstrokes.
It is almost impossible to overstate this striking break with the past. Michelangelo Caravaggio had shown something new to the world through his paintings. For the first time in history, Caravaggio had examined the reality of life in all its contrasts, showcasing both the glory of life and its sordid decay, sometimes within the same painting. Not only by conveying a brutal truthfulness, but also by using light itself to help convey these powerful emotions, Caravaggio offered a new way of using art to see the world.
Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro was to have a dominating influence on European artists for many years to come. After Caravaggio, a new emphasis on reality, on the drama of nature, and on the infinite fluctuations of light all became fundamental principals of artistic rendering.