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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

The Italian painter known as Caravaggio, a talented and passionately troubled man, was born Michelangelo Merisi on or about 29 September 1571 in Milan.

He was the eldest of four children born to Fermo Merisi and, his wife, Lucia Aratori.

The young Caravaggio lived a life of relative comfort. His mother was distantly related to the local aristocracy and her family owned property, and his father was a well-respected employee of Milan’s distinguished Sforza family. The Merisis were also connected to the powerful Colonna family which had great influence over the political and Church leaders of the day.

The family moved to the less populated area of Caravaggio, 40 kilometres east of Milan, in 1576 when a major outbreak of the bubonic plague swept northern Italy. Unfortunately, fleeing Milan was futile. In 1577, Caravaggio’s father, uncle, grandmother, and grandfather died of the plague. By the outbreak’s end, one fifth of the population of northern Italy had succumbed.

Caravaggio was only six years old. To have witnessed the horrors of the bubonic plague: agonizing suffering as the body destroyed itself from within would have been incredibly traumatizing. Family members were beset by fevers, chills, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Most hideous would be the buboes, attacking the lymphatic system, and leaving hideous purplish black lumps in the necks, armpits, and groins of the dying and the dead. Such horrific imagery, etched into the mind of a small child, undoubtedly impacted the adult Caravaggio’s work.

Perhaps it was these early tragic losses that inspired the sometimes unrelenting realism (known as naturalism) found in Caravaggio’s paintings and his own inappropriate and often violent reactions to adversity. It seems apt that his professional name is linked to the area where he suffered the greatest sense of loss.

In 1584, when he was 13 years old, Caravaggio began a four-year long apprenticeship with a rather unexceptional local artist by the name of Simone Peterzano who had reportedly studied under Titian. Here he learned the traditional techniques of Renaissance painting: how to draw, mix paints, and construct frames. None of his early drawings exists any longer, and he seemed to have a decided dislike for many of the conventions he learned with Maestro Peterzano. At this same time, he would have been exposed to the works of Leonardo Da Vinci such as The Last Supper (1495-98) and the Lombard painters.

Little is known of Caravaggio’s life post-apprenticeship and before he arrived in Rome. It is assumed that he spent a great deal of time in Milan which was a hotbed of violence and crime which suited the rather irascible young man.

By the time he was 19, his mother had become ill and died. Caravaggio left most of the inheritance to his two surviving siblings, cut ties with them, spent his share within the year, and in 1592, following an altercation with the law, he moved to Rome.

Getting established within the Roman art community was no easy feat. For a time, Caravaggio worked as an assistant to lesser artists. He painted backgrounds and ran errands for them in order to pay for his living expenses. The competition was fierce with so many aspiring painters living in close quarters, socializing in the same circles, and vying for the same jobs. Caravaggio’s temperament made maintaining employment difficult, but he did manage to secure employment with the famous Italian Mannerist painter, Giuseppe Cesari, and his brother Bernardino.

Exciting opportunities were to be had in Rome in the 1590s and early 1600s, a natural fit for a young artist. It was the Italian birthplace of the Baroque style. In his renowned History of Art, H W Jansen asserts “that the Baroque style expresses the spirit of the Counter Reformation” wherein Catholicism was striking back against popularity of the relatively new Protestant Reformation. The papacy supported the artists of Rome in an attempt to win back those who had strayed to Protestantism. Certainly, the Church figured prominently in the day to day lives of late sixteenth century Romans.

But there was a duality to Rome during Caravaggio’s time there. Artists tended to live in the more violent district where crime and prostitution were rampant and the illegal carrying of weapons was necessary, if forbidden.

By 1595, after leaving the employment of the Cesari brothers, Caravaggio was able to make a living from his own work. And one of his favourite models was the beautiful prostitute named Fillide Melandroni who inspired some of his religious works such as Martha and Mary Magdalene (1598) and Judith and Holofernes (1598-99).

It was in 1600 when his publicly commissioned works, Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, and The Calling of Saint Matthew, garnered great praise within the artistic community. At this point, considered a success among the elites, he received steady work for the next several years. Known for his innovative use of light and shadow, later known as tenebrism, his work was also uniquely realistic. He sought to present his subjects with all of their faults, preferring to disregard the idealism of most Renaissance artists.

His insistence on naturalism in his work meant that a few of his paintings were rejected by his patrons and he had to rework them or find other buyers. Used to the often unrealistic beauty presented by other artists, Caravaggio’s work struck some as incredibly vulgar and distasteful. Of particular note, his The Death of the Virgin (1606) so angered his patrons, the fathers of Santa Maria della Scala, because he reportedly used a prostitute as a model for the Virgin Mary. One of his contemporaries claimed that the Virgin’s bare legs also offended many within the clergy. Because Caravaggio was the most popular Roman painter of his day, the rejected painting was promptly purchased by the Duke of Mantua. However, Caravaggio was so incredibly angered by this rejection that it may have been the catalyst for one of his most fateful mistakes.

Caravaggio was well known for his ill-temper and lack of consideration of others even in a time of brawling and violence.

Annoyed that his studio in Rome was not big enough, he cut a hole in the ceiling to accommodate his larger works. Understandably, his landlady sued him for damages. Rather than realizing the error of his ways, Caravaggio and his friend sought retribution by throwing stones at her window.

Another time, while dining out with friends, he was angered by a waiter he believed was being impertinent. The painter hit the waiter in the face with an earthenware dish, and reached for his friend’s sword as if he were ready to issue a violent assault. Fortunately, for both men, the waiter made his escape (and filed a formal complaint with the police).

Another man who incurred Caravaggio’s wrath was not so lucky. Accounts vary, but art historian and Caravaggio biographer, Andrew Graham-Dixon, gives a more accurate and scholarly account of Caravaggio’s history and interactions with Ranuccio Tommassoni. The men were acquainted with one another from Caravaggio’s early days in Rome. Noted for using prostitutes as his models, the painter often hired the beautiful Fillide, who happened to be the employee of Tommassoni. Tommassoni was not pleased that his most treasured prostitute spent so much time with Caravaggio and feared that Caravaggio was attempting to steal her from him. Thus began a years’ long feud between the painter and the pimp.

The original official police record of the events of 28 May 1606 differed from the actual circumstances. According to that report, money wagered over a tennis match between the two men resulted in a brawl where Caravaggio stabbed Tommassoni in the thigh, likely severed his femoral artery, and caused his death. Another injured man was treated for his injuries and taken to jail.

Caravaggio, who had sustained a head laceration during the altercation, fled Rome as did many of the other participants in the brawl.

By early July 1606, investigators had pieced together the real motivation for the fight.

The long standing conflict between the men, fueled by jealousy over Fillide Melandroni and Caravaggio’s likely mockery of Tommassoni over his wife’s alleged adultery, as well as Caravaggio’s anger over the recent rejection of The Birth of the Virgin, led the men to agree to a prearranged, organized duel. The quarrel over gambling and a tennis match was merely a cover for that duel. Such acts were illegal and the punishment for participating in duels was death. The main participants were Caravaggio and Tommassoni, but the other six men in attendance were seconds and witnesses. Caravaggio sustained his wound from Tommassoni’s brother, his second, who attempted to shield the mortally wounded Tommassoni from further assaults from Caravaggio.

Everyone else involved in the duel was sentenced to exile, but Caravaggio was punished with a "capital sentence." A bounty was placed on his head and anyone finding him was allowed to kill him without fear of legal retribution. As evidence, his entire body was not required, only his decapitated head. Living with a bounty placed on him only encouraged Caravaggio to react violently to anyone he thought might threaten him.

Pope Paul V, whose painting Caravaggio had just finished, issued the death warrant. The painter fled Rome for Naples hoping to one-day return. Somewhat protected by the Colonna family he had known in his youth, Caravaggio continued his career in Naples and produced Madonna of the Rosary (1607) and The Seven Works of Mercy (1607). Clearly the murder of Tommassoni did not impact the church commissions he received in Naples. After several months in Naples, Caravaggio traveled to Malta, Sicily, and other places in search of other patrons. He continued to live a life of violence and was sometimes jailed. He returned again to Naples where he painted his last work, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610). In Naples, he was attacked and disfigured, but lived despite rumours that he had been killed.

One of his patrons, willing and able to grant him a pardon for the murder of Ranuccio Tommassoni, intervened, and Caravaggio set sail to receive that pardon in July 1610. Caravaggio never lived to achieve forgiveness. He died of unknown causes on that trip although a fever was offered as the potential cause. His death occurred at sea near Tuscany and his body was never recovered.

While he achieved fame in life, Caravaggio was not regarded highly again until the early twentieth century. Shortly after his death, his biographers, one of whom was his much lesser rival, shamed and derided him to such a degree for his anti-social behaviour, that his brilliance was greatly minimized. Another abhorred Caravaggio’s departure from the Renaissance ideals of painting and thus disparaged his work. Art critics in the 1920s revived interest in his work and placed him where he belonged: with the great, innovative artists of all time.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (not to be confused with Michelangelo) lived a life of infamy, but from that life sprung works of genius beyond the abilities of his contemporaries.