Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Un Genio dell'Arte
An Artistic Genius
Caravaggio is a town in the north of Italy, close to Milan. It is here where a boy called Michelangelo Merisi grew up.
Later, the boy became a famous artist known as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, with the last two words of his name meaning 'from Caravaggio.'
Eventually, this long name became a simple, short version:- Caravaggio. That is to say, just the name of the town.
Michelangelo Merisi was born in Milan in 1571. His father was called Fermo and his mother was Lucia. They were well-to-do.
In 1576, the family moved to the town of Caravaggio to escape a terrible outbreak of la peste (the plague). Unfortunately, even though they were living away from the dreadful sickness in Milan, the plague reached the town of Caravaggio and even killed some of Michelangelo's family.
In 1584, Michelangelo Merisi began to train as an artist in the Milan area but he fled to Rome in 1592 after a quarrel.
Very soon, he was painting in a particular style:- fruit and flowers.
The painting below is called: Fanciullo con Canestra di Frutta meaning 'Young Boy with a Basket of Fruit.' He created this oil painting between 1593 and 1594. It can be seen in la Galleria Borghese, Rome.
The boy in the painting is actually Mario Minniti: a friend and fellow artist who often posed for Caravaggio.
At first glance, the fruit painted by Caravaggio seems very beautiful, but when you look at it closely, you can see that he has painted it realistically with blemishes and imperfections. Just like real fruit!
Another interesting style of Caravaggio's painting is the portrayal of people being dishonest and cheating! Below is a famous painting called 'The fortune teller'. In Italian it is named 'La Buona Ventura', (1593-1594). It is visible at Musei Capitolini, Rome.
Once again, it is Caravaggio's friend Mario Minniti who is the young man in the painting below! If you look carefully, you will see that the gypsy girl is stealing the ring from the young man's finger whilst pretending to read his palm.
The painting below depicts a card game where there is some cheating taking place. It was painted around 1594 and can be seen in the Kimbell Art Museum, Texas.
Caravaggio is known for how real the people seem in his paintings. He used models who were often friends and acquaintances so that he did not have to pay for expensive models. Sometimes, you will notice the same person in different paintings.
An interesting fact:- Caravaggio is known to have included his own image in his work! In the painting below, the bearded man standing behind Saint Ursula is in fact Caravaggio himself! This painting is called The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610) and it can be seen in La Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples.
Another interesting fact:- Caravaggio signed only one of his paintings: the painting of St. John the Baptist known as 'La Decollazione di San Giovanni Battista.'
Usually, the characters in Caravaggio's paintings are moving and doing things. They are not simply still and posing. Every painting is telling a story or is part of an event. If you observe carefully, you will see lots of interesting, little details every time you look.
Caravaggio created many Christian paintings. The Biblical characters he depicted seem like real people. They do not appear distant or different to ordinary human beings.
Below is a Christian painting of Mary Magdalene. In Italian, this work is called Maddalena Penitente (1594-1595) and it is visible at La Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. In this portrayal, Mary Magdalene is thoughtful and sorry. Her jewels are on the floor. She has just washed her hair. Her clothes are made from fine materials.
In the painting of Mary Magdalene above, there is a big area of darkness in the background. The girl seems natural, rather than an important character from the Bible and you really do wonder what she is thinking. With her wet hair, sorry expression and jewellery not yet put on, it seems that someone has taken a snapshot when she wasn't aware.
Caravaggio's dramatic use of light and shadow is called 'chiaroscuro.'
In Italian, chiaro = light, scuro = dark.
Some people criticised Caravaggio for painting saints and Biblical characters in such a realistic and normal, human way. However, many people loved this new style.
Caravaggio earned the nickname 'the most famous painter in Rome.'
Painting above: San Giovanni Battista - Saint John The Baptist. This painting is kept in Il Palazzo Corsini, Rome.
John the Baptist (above) is portrayed in a very relaxed and informal way. He looks like a young man who is resting after a hard day's work. There is the strong contrast between darkness and light, known as chiaroscuro.
In 1606, after being involved in a fight where a man was killed, Caravaggio fled from Rome to Naples, then to Malta and then to Siracusa in Sicily where he stayed at the home of his friend, Mario Minniti. During this period of travel, he continued to paint.
Whilst the artist stayed in the city of Siracusa, he produced a famous painting called 'The Burial of Saint Lucy.' In Italian it is called Il Seppellimento di Santa Lucia (1608 - 1609). (Below)
Caravaggio's painting of Saint Lucy is very precious to the people of Siracusa. Why is it so precious? The reason is that Saint Lucy, Santa Lucia, was from Siracusa and she is the patron saint of the city. The painting hangs above the altar of the Church of Saint Lucy, La Chiesa di Santa Lucia, in Siracusa. It was a wonderful gift from the artist to the city in gratitude for the hospitality the people had shown .
In 1610, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio died whilst travelling back to Rome. He had received permission to return after years of exile. He probably died from a fever. The artist was only thirty-nine years old.
Today he is remembered as the first great painter of the Baroque style.
Below is a photo of the front and back of an old Italian banknote in Lire. You can see the portrait of Caravaggio and some of his famous paintings