The Life of Caravaggio: A Contrast in Light and Shadow

19 January, 2021
Caravaggio was a renowned 16th-century painter, who painted using contrasting effects between light and dark. But his life, like his work, was also full of light and shadow. Do you know what made him so special? Why was he so controversial? Here's a look at the life of Caravaggio.

The life of Caravaggio is a fascinating one. In this article, we’ll see the contrast between light and shadow in his paintings and his personal life.

Caravaggio was an extremely popular painter during the Baroque period. He developed a highly original variant of chiaroscuro: tenebrism.

Tenebrism was the use of extreme contrasts of light and darkness in order to highlight the details of the gesture or facial expression, such as an open arm or a look of despair or longing. Its influence on the course of Western art has been immense and not only in the field of painting.

Caravaggio’s work undoubtedly shaped the work of many later artists, from Rembrandt in the Netherlands and Diego Velázquez in Spain, to Théodore Géricault in France.

His dramatic sense of staging and innovative chiaroscuro have also directly inspired many prominent figures in the cinema, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese.

The early life of Caravaggio

Caravaggio was one of the most famous Italian painters. His real name was Michelangelo Merisi, and he was born on September 29, 1571, very close to Milan, Italy. It’s likely that he was born in the small town of Caravaggio, in the diocese of Cremona.

He was born into violent and unstable times. The artist’s early life alternated between his hometown, Caravaggio, and the populated city of Milan, where his father had a workshop.

The Calling of St Matthew.
The Calling of St. Matthew

The artist’s family had connections with the local nobility on Caravaggio’s mother’s side. His maternal grandfather was a land rent collector named Francesco Sforza I.

Caravaggio’s maternal aunt was a wet nurse to Francesco Sforza I’s children in his marriage to Costanza Colonna. Sforza and Colonna were among the most powerful and influential dynasties in Italy.

Caravaggio’s connections proved to be of vital importance in his adult life. In fact, Costanza Colonna constantly supported him during his most troubled years.

In the summer of 1576, when the future artist was only five years old, Milan suffered an outbreak of bubonic plague. Sadly, Caravaggio’s father died from the plague.

In 1584, when he was 13, his mother also died. Apparently, after her death, the young man became an apprentice to painter Simone Peterzano.

The precise circumstances surrounding his departure from Milan remain unclear. However, the margin notes in one of his biographers suggest some kind of violent incident related to the murder of a policeman.

It seems that the artist began his career as he ended it: as a man in trouble with the law.

Caravaggio’s career beginnings

In the late 1580s, Caravaggio traveled to Rome, where he worked with a variety of painters. He promoted the style of realism over the prevailing Mannerism of the time.

During the 1590s, the artist produced numerous paintings that had themes relating to everyday life. However, these paintings weren’t in tune with the spiritual themes that prevailed at that time.

His paintings during this period include The Fortune Teller, The Cardsharps, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Young Sick Bacchus, and Concert of Youths. Eventually, he decided to work independently. He created many paintings that people bought.

A merchant who bought his paintings presented his work to Cardinal Francesco del Monte. He liked his paintings so much that he gave Caravaggio shelter and a stipend.

One of the great milestones in his career was when he was chosen to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in 1597. The paintings he made for this chapel led to controversy. However, they also became popular.

Because he filled the Biblical scenes in his painting with the faces of the prostitutes, beggars, and thieves he had seen in the streets of Rome, a deep chasm formed between the public and the authorities of the Church. In addition to that, they considered his realistic portraits of St. Matthew to be a deviation from the accepted spiritual and religious themes of the time.

Trouble with the law

Throughout the life of Caravaggio, there were numerous arrests and problems with the law. According to various records, we know that Caravaggio never married and never had any children.

His lack of registered partners, the absence of erotic female characters in his work, and the abundance of sensual portraits of young men has led, on more than one occasion, to a debate about his sexuality. Experts have tried to make a number of homoerotic readings of his work.

This painter was famous for his tempestuous temper and, seemingly, he was also promiscuous and quarrelsome. Finally, in 1606, after taking part in a duel, he was accused of murdering a Roman procurator named Ranuccio Tomassoni.

Caravaggio received the death sentence but wasn’t present at the court case. In order to escape punishment, he left Rome and traveled through Italy.

However, after a conflict with a brother of the Order of St. John in 1608, Caravaggio went to prison. The place of confinement was a cell dug into the rock at Castel Sant’Angelo from which people thought it impossible to escape. However, with the help of an accomplice, Caravaggio escaped by evading the castle guards. He climbed the walls and went down a 200-foot cliff to a boat that was waiting for him.

Caravaggio painting.
The Incredulity of St. Thomas

The hope of a pardon: a death assured

In 1610, he decided to travel back to Rome in the hope that he could finally negotiate a pardon. Scipione Borghese, the pope’s nephew, was in charge of the papal justice system and was an enthusiastic collector of Caravaggio’s works. The artist traveled by sea loaded with several paintings that he hoped to offer Borghese in exchange for arranging his request.

For reasons that remain unclear, Caravaggio was arrested and imprisoned in the Port of Palo. A few hours later, the artist was released from jail and headed to Porto Ercole, the final destination of the ship, in order to recover his precious paintings.

However, all this effort, the summer heat, and his state of health, unfortunately, played against him.

He arrived in Porto Ercole but died shortly after his arrival, probably on July 18th or 19th, at the age of 38. He was buried in a grave with no name or epitaph.

Although Caravaggio was initially rejected after his death, in time he became recognized as one of the founding fathers of modern painting. His work had a great influence on many later masters. In Rome, in 2010, an exhibition of his work marking the 400th anniversary of his death attracted more than 580,000 visitors.

Caravaggio’s legacy

Caravaggio’s popular representations of religious figures were innovative in that he showed Biblical characters in a non-idealized way. He added signs of aging and poverty and gave them contemporary clothing.

This served to humanize the divine, making it more accessible to the average viewer. In this way, we could say that the life of Caravaggio and his work represented a kind of spiritual populism.

The bare, dirty feet of Caravaggio’s figures united the artist’s works with church teachings that emphasized the poverty of Christ. Despite this alignment, these representations attracted some of Caravaggio’s harshest criticism.

Caravaggio didn’t introduce the technique of chiaroscuro. However, he was the first painter to incorporate the technique as a dominant stylistic element, darkening the shadows and using clearly defined rays of light to enhance the narrative of the image. The style became increasingly prevalent in his later work and became the trademark in his more mature works.

Caravaggio’s artistic legacy is incalculable. His mastery of chiaroscuro has been studied, imitated, and applauded in every corner. His figure, in turn, is one of the most controversial of his time.

Everything about the life of Caravaggio has been the object of controversy. From a style of painting that stood out in his time, to his sexual orientation, not to mention his problems with the law. His life, like his work, is an extraordinary chiaroscuro.

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