Life and Death of Caravaggio

Who is Caravaggio?

Mad, bad and dangerous to know.

That legend is inscribed over the memory of Lord Byron, but it could just as easily have been addressed to Caravaggio. Theatrical. Scandalous. Divine. Shocking. These are the words that inevitably surface when discussing the work of one of the greatest and most controversial painters to walk the streets of Rome. Few Italian artists engender the kind of obsessive devotion that he’s acquired since his brief career at the tail end of the Renaissance. Just as striking as his work is the story of his life: a short, tragic tale of passion and violence that to this very day remains half-shrouded in mystery. In his lifetime he rocked the world of the canvas, and centuries later his influence lives on in film and photography.

And yet we’re still not entirely sure where he’s buried.

Caravaggio in Rome

The Other Michelangelo

The boy who would one day be known as Caravaggio was born in Lombardy in 1571, the son of a stonemason and a land surveyor’s daughter. Coming into the world on September 29th, the feast day of the Archangel Michael, he was given the name Michelangelo. When plague struck Milan four years later, his father whisked the family away to a small town to the east called Caravaggio. Years later, when his career in Rome began to flourish, it was this title that became the talk of the town. It seems some other guy named Michelangelo had already made a name for himself a hundred years before.

Beginnings in Rome

Upon arriving in Rome, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio found brief employment producing still lifes in the studio of Giuseppe Cesare, the Cavaliere d’Arpino. At the time, still life was considered hack work, but it was then that he developed one of his most distinctive trademarks: the vivid way he depicted fruit and flowers, with the same irregularities and imperfections found in nature. This element featured heavily in two of his earliest works, Self-Portrait as Bachus (aka Sick Bachus) and Boy with a Basket of Fruit. These paintings so enthralled the art collector Cardinal Scipione Borghese that he had his uncle Pope Paul V seize Cesare’s entire collection in 1607. They can still be seen hanging on the walls of the Galleria Borghese.

Life and Death of Caravaggio 1
Caravaggio’s Self Portrait | Sick Bacchus

The Calling of St. Matthew

Caravaggio’s break onto the global stage came in 1599. The cardinal Mathieu Cointrel had purchased a chapel in San Luigi Dei Francesi, the French national church, just down the street from Piazza Navona. Before his death in 1585 he’d stipulated that the walls should be decorated with scenes from the life of his namesake, St. Matthew. Caravaggio landed the commission and embarked on his most daunting task to date: two monumental religious narrative paintings, twice the size of anything he’d done before, fit for public display. This job would make him or break him.

The Inspiration of St Mattew Caravaggio
The Inspiration of St Matthew | San Luigi dei Francese

The Calling is one of his most iconic works. The scene is a seedy den of iniquity, not unlike the Roman hangouts that would have been more than familiar to the artist. A group of men, dressed in modern Italian finery, sit hunched over a table, obsessing over money. Christ has just walked in, St. Peter at his heels, bringing a piercing ray of light into a dark world of greed and avarice. With one hand he beckons Matthew to follow. It’s been long held that Matthew is the flummoxed old man pointing to himself with a stupid look on his face. Yet a more recent reading suggests that Matthew is actually the young man at the far left, still obliviously counting out his change.

Life and Death of Caravaggio 2
The Calling of St Matthew | San Luigi in Francese

This lighting technique, known as chiaroscuro (light-dark) became one of his calling cards. His work is defined by extreme contrast. Sin and salvation. Burgundy and white. The holy and the vulgar. Four hundred years later, Martin Scorsese would credit him as the inspiration behind the lighting in Goodfellas and Mean Streets.

The paintings were such a hit that Caravaggio was called back later to produce a third for the centre wall. It seems he knew already that he was taking his place in the pantheon of great Italian artists. Look closely at the hand of Christ. It’s almost a direct copy of the hand of Michelangelo’s Adam from the Sistine Chapel.

Calling of Saint Matthew Hand

The Human and the Divine

One of the most iconoclastic features of Caravaggio is the way he portrayed his subjects. At the time, the church’s policy was that saints should be depicted as nothing short of immaculate. Caravaggio’s saints on the other hand have weather-beaten skin, torn clothing, awkward expressions and dirty feet. Shocking as this was by the standards of the day, he insisted that he was only interested in reality, that he wanted to depict these people as they actually would have looked. He gave the poor pilgrims who had made the hard trek to Rome characters who looked like them, and in essence, gave the saints back their humanity.

Caravaggio the crucifixion of st peter
Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio

Even more problematic was his choice of models. He was involved with a woman named Lena who modeled for the Blessed Mother in both The Madonna of Loreto and The Madonna of the Palafrenieri (rejected in part because Mary was showing just a bit too much cleavage.) In a testimony regarding one of the man’s numerous criminal charges, she is described as “Lena who stays on her feet in Piazza Navona.” You can probably guess what she did for a living. For a time he was involved with another prostitute named Fillide Melandroni, who served as the model in Judith and Holofernes and St. Catherine of Alexandria. On top of this, he hand a long-standing affair with a boy named Cecco who modeled for a young John the Baptist, the boy with the fruitbasket, and numerous others.

I could go on, but we’d be here all day.

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The Madonna of Loreto by Caravaggio

A Short Fuse and a Long Blade

The life of Caravaggio was fraught with violence straight out of a crime novel. He was arrested numerous times for brawling, rabble-rousing and carrying a sword without a permit. When his landlady sued him over back rent, he broke her windows in the middle of the night. Once when eating at a restaurant he punched a waiter in the nose over a remark about artichokes.

This all came to a head on May 28th, 1606, when he killed a man on a tennis court. The circumstances behind the incident remain obscure, but eyewitness testimonies give all the indications of a premeditated duel. Accident or no, he was a wanted man. He fled the city.

Naples. Malta. Sicily, followed by Naples again. He threw himself into his art, which became increasingly dramatic and moralistic, as if he was obsessed with his own salvation. Finally he received a message from Cardinal Borghese offering him the chance of a papal pardon. Knowing this was his last chance, he put together a gift box for the cardinal and set sail for Rome…but never arrived.

For centuries the death of Caravaggio remained a mystery. It was speculated that he’d been assassinated by the family of his victim, that he’d been murdered by the Knights of Malta, that he’d been killed by his enemies, malaria, syphilis—all plausible scenarios. However, in 2010, scientists performed carbon dating and DNA checks on a skeleton excavated in Porto Ercole, Tuscany. They confirmed they were fairly certain this was our man, and that he had levels of lead in his bones high enough to drive him mad before finishing him off.

The lead most likely came from his paints.

Bones of Caravaggio
These supposed remains of Caravaggio

Caravaggio Paintings in Rome

One can see plenty of his work in Rome absolutely free. The Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo (Piazza del Popolo) showcases his portraits of the city’s patron saints: The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul. The Madonna of Loreto hangs in Sant’Agostino, not far from the Pantheon (and a short walk from Via di Pallacorda where that fateful tennis match took place.) San Luigi Dei Francesi houses his three great paintings of St. Matthew. Entry to churches is always free—just make sure you bring a Euro or two to activate the temporary light.

In addition, Palazzo Barberini contains a number of great Caravaggios, including Judith Beheading Holofernes, Narcissus, and one of St. Francis of Assisi which may or may not be his. Let’s just say it is. The Capitoline Museum houses The Fortune Teller and one of his many renditions of John the Baptist. Finally, the Galleria Borghese boasts an entire room full of his paintings. There you can feast your eyes on Sick Bachus, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, St. Jerome Writing, The Madonna of the Pelefrenieri and David with the Head of Goliath. If you’re going to visit one art museum in Rome, make it that one.

Borghese Gallery Caravaggio
Paintings by Caravaggio in the Borghese Gallery

Where to see Caravaggio in Rome?

Use the interactive map below to locate where to see Caravaggio in Rome. If you click on the pins you’ll find a description of the location and the paintings. Scroll past the map to see full hd images of all the paintings featured in this blog along with where to find them in Rome.

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