One of the most influential Italian painters of the seventeenth century, Mi­chelangelo da Caravaggio, so called after the Lombard hometown of his family, where he spent much of his youth, is almost equally as notorious for his volatile and violent temperament as he is noteworthy for his achievements as an artist. He, with the Carracci* family of Bolognese painters whose revival of classical style presents a strong contrast with Caravaggio's naturalism, is credited with inspiring the transformation of Italian painting in the seventeenth century, which would later become identified as the baroque era.
Although Caravaggio never established a workshop to cultivate pupils, as did many of his contemporaries, the originality and power of his works spawned a following that spread throughout Europe in the decades following his death. The caravaggisti,ortenebristi, as they are also called because of the obscure dark­ness out of which the figures appear to emerge—the hallmark of Caravaggio's mature style—include such notable painters as the Italians Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter Artemesia,* Giovanni Baglione, Bartolommeo Manfredi, Carlo Saraceni, and Giovanni Caracciolo, the Frenchman Georges de la Tour, the Spaniard Joseí de Ribera, and Gerrit von Honthorst and Hendrick Terbruggen in the Netherlands, who in turn had an influence on the art of Rembrandt, as well as Peter Paul Rubens* in Flanders following his Italian travels. A veritable who's who of seventeenth-century painters, this list of admirers is even more remarkable for a painter whose career spanned less than two decades and whose paintings were rejected more often than is commonly perceived because of the ways in which he radically reinterpreted both secular and sacred subjects.
Caravaggio was born in 1571, probably in Milan, where his father worked as a steward of the Sforza, a family whose protection Caravaggio would enjoy throughout his life. The first in his family to take up painting, he was apprenticed at thirteen to Simone Peterzano in Milan, a painter virtually unknown today. Caravaggio's art was clearly affected by the religious and artistic climate of post-Tridentine Milan, which promoted art as an instructional and devotional agent, as well as by the Lombard tradition of naturalism, which reflected an interest in light effects and the expression of intense emotion. He visited Venice, where he encountered the influence of Tintoretto* and Jacopo da Bassano* sometime before his arrival in Rome in late 1592 or early 1593. Caravaggio struggled for several years before his genre paintings Cardsharps (c. 1594-95) and The Fortune Teller (c. 1594-95) caught the eye of Cardinal del Monte, who subsequently became his patron. The intimate three-quarters view of one, two, or three figures was typical of his early work in Rome, works that were some­times charged with heightened emotion or erotic overtones.
With his first major commissions for the three paintings of the life of St. Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel, S. Luigi dei Francesi (1599-1602), and The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Cerasi Chapel, S. Maria del Popolo (1600-1601), several of the works for which he is now best known, Caravaggio transformed the sharp and appealing immediacy of those early works into high drama and pathos, introducing his trademark bold lighting of figures pushed to the foreground and against the frame, distilling the presentation to include only the most essential components of the subject that convey its central meaning. From an early date, his contemporaries remarked how he painted directly from life, intent upon the observation of nature. Fre­quently criticized, sometimes viciously, for a lack of "decorum" in the way he treated his subjects in his paintings (e.g., Death of the Virgin), Caravaggio elected to present sacred figures in the guise of simple Italian peasant folk with the physical flaws and distinct features of real people, thus creating figures of palpable presence and rejecting the convention of reverential distance that was so commonly expected.
As his stature as an artist grew, so did his reputation for having a mercurial temperament and regular scrapes with the law. In 1606 Caravaggio fled Rome after killing a man in a swordfight and reappeared in Naples some months later. He spent the remaining four years of his life in exile from Rome, as a wanted man, moving from Naples to Malta, where he was inducted into the Knights of Malta under the sponsorship of a powerful patron who admired his painting. All the while he painted, sometimes at what appears to have been a breakneck speed, creating works that reveal a thoughtful maturity and fundamental hu-manity—but remain little known as a result of their remote locations—as if in response to his own adversity. Once again, he had to flee Malta, first to Sicily, then to Naples, all the while seeking a papal pardon that would allow him to return to Rome. In July 1610, the pardon finally arranged, he headed for Rome, but was stricken with fever en route and died. In painting his self-portrait as the decapitated head of Goliath in David with the Head of Goliath (c. 1610), one of his last paintings, Caravaggio presents a graphic yet poignant and eerily prophetic image of the demise of a giant.
After the widespread influence of his paintings in the seventeenth century, Caravaggio fell into disrepute and was all but forgotten until the twentieth cen­tury, when the originality of his artistic vision was rediscovered. Since then, his work has enjoyed a growing audience, resulting in a burgeoning body of liter­ature on the man and his art. Perennially controversial, the frank sensuality of many of Caravaggio's paintings, such as Boy with a Fruitbasket (c. 1593-94), which reveals Caravaggio's capacity to breathe life into even a bunch of fruit, Bacchus (c. 1597), with its bold invitation, and his provocative Cupid (c. 1601­2), with his playful grin, has generated assertions in recent scholarship of Ca-ravaggio's homosexual leanings, claims that are equally as vigorously disputed. Archival research has brought to light new information resulting in a reconsid­eration of some of the details of his career, and new technologies have allowed for a better understanding of his working methods based upon the analysis of his paintings. Composing directly on the canvas, Caravaggio worked with re­markable speed to bring about the dramatic naturalism that is the essence of his art.
H. Hibbard, Caravaggio, 1983. C. Puglisi, Caravaggio, 1998.
Rachel Hostetter Smith

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

Look at other dictionaries:

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