Who is Caravaggio?

Bernini, Raphael, Botticelli are all names which people can associate the high Renaissance period with. But what about Caravaggio? Most people would be surprised to realise that they do know of this Italian artist…

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, mostly known as Caravaggio, was one of the most inspiring artists in Italy from the 1590s right through to 1610. His artworks were famous for their realistic accuracy of the human figures he painted. Mainly illustrating stories from the Bible, Caravaggio aimed to depict human suffering and poverty in his work, as well as the humanity of Christ. He also developed an original technique called chiaroscuro, which used extreme contrasts of light and dark to emphasise the emotional and physical dramas.

Early Life of Caravaggio

Born in 1571, Caravaggio suffered a traumatic life starting from childhood. By the time he was 6, he had lost almost every member of his family to the plague, including his father. He was orphaned at age 11 and soon became an apprentice to the painter Simone Peterzano, a minor Milanese master. However, it was documented that he was not an avid student during his training. Taking to the streets and falling in with a group containing both painters and swordsmen. They followed the motto ‘nec spe, nec metu,’ which translates to ‘without hope, without fear.’ Due to these tragic beginnings, many believe his unruly and fiery temper and troubling adult years stemmed from his deep sense of abandonment and early exposure to violence. Despite his personal battles and the fact that he left school early, it was obvious that Caravaggio had talent and he was soon spotted by Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of the Florentine Republic. Florence at the time was becoming a leading centre of art, producing some of the best sculptors and painters in Europe. Lorenzo himself had his own art collection which exposed Caravaggio to ancient Roman statuary.

Career of Caravaggio

Following the death of Lorenzo di Medici in 1492 Michelangelo remained with relative security in Florence. But when the Medici family were suddenly expelled, the artist moved to Bologna where he received a commission to finish the carving of the Tomb of St. Dominic. And so, despite his disinterest during his early training, Caravaggio was seen as a very gifted painter in his early years. After moving to Rome as a teenager, Caravaggio jumped from one studio to the next, working as an assistant until in 1595 when we started selling his own paintings through the dealer, Maestro Valentino. Valentino showed Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who was a powerful member of the Papal Court. Monte became enthralled with Caravaggio’s work and soon set him up in his own house. Monte was the main reason Caravaggio was commissioned to do the church of San Luigi dei Francesi’s paintings. He painted three separate artworks within the Church, depicting religious scenes from the bible. This project was a key breakthrough for his career, as it made him a quickly celebrated artist within the city, as well as steering him to only focus on traditional religious themes. As his paintings grew in popularity, so did the rumours of his turbulent life. The artist’s impetuous nature was already garnering him a reputation for being one who stubbornly did what he wanted, sometimes ignoring his patron’s wishes or failing to complete work once started.

Pieces worth seeing

Rome is littered with some of Caravaggio’s greatest artworks. By far the most iconic and historic is his work within the walls of San Luigi dei Francesi, the French church just around the corner from Piazza Navona. From the outside, the church is designed in a simple Renaissance-style facade, but inside these walls, lies the incredible 18th-century interior. Head up to the Contarelli Chapel and marvel at the three large paintings that line the walls. Named ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ ‘Matthew and the Angel,’ and ‘The Martyrdom of St. Matthew.’ The works are both dramatic and soft, as Caravaggio uses light to express the human figures beautifully. The art compliments the space, connecting you to the building’s history and culture.

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