Caravaggio: a violent light that revolutionised painting
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Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio

Artist - Caravaggio (BG) 09/18/1573 - Porto Ercole 07/16/1610

Biography

Art and passion, turmoil and expression: the life of Michelangelo Merisi, one of the most famous artists in the world.

Born in 1573 in the town of Caravaggio (BG), where his artistic name is derived from, he spent a lot of his childhood in Milan where he first came into contact with art in the studio of Simone Peterzano. Here he gained knowledge of the art of painting and the techniques of the masters of the Lombardian and Venetian schools.

At the age of 11 Caravaggio began his apprenticeship in the city with a contract (from 1584 to 1588) granted by the painter from Bergamo that is conserved in the Milanese Archive.

The artist’s Milanese experience started when his father, Fermo Merisi master builder and architect, expressed the desire to take his son to the city to teach him his craft. It was here that Caravaggio began to appreciate painting, intrigued by the materials and the plasterwork in the interiors of churches and palazzi. He was attracted not by the construction but the decorations that adorned and embellished the monuments. An interest that, from that moment onwards, transformed into passion and, successively, into his vocation as a painter.

His first works, dated circa 1584, were constructed of still lifes and small objects; reproductions of everyday elements that set his style apart from the subjects chosen and represented by his contemporaries. From these first works one can detect his sensitivity and partiality for reproducing “true forms” that would be a predominant feature of his art.

Caravaggio had a difficult and contentious character, which meant he was always involved in arguments and disputes that made personal relationships difficult. This was the reason why the painter left the Ambrosian city, birthplace of his artistic talents, to take refuge firstly in Venice and then in Rome.

More than anything his voyage to the eternal city consecrated his art. Here he started to produce paintings with sacred subjects, first to maintain himself and, successively, to satisfy the wishes of important buyers. After an initial period spent in the workshop of Lorenzo il Siciliano, where he acquired the art of swift execution, and in the workshop of the Knight of Arpino, where he produced a large number of masterpieces (initially in collaboration with Prosperino delle Grottesche), he decided to work on his own.

The works from that period are mostly scenes or portraits of humble people who he met in his daily life.

However, his painting reached its zenith from 1595 onwards when he entered into a period of important commissions. In 1592, the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte was crucial to his development. The cardinal, who was an extremely cultured man and passionate about art, bought some of his paintings and commissioned the artist to the works for the interior of the Contarelli chapel in the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi: Crocefissione di San Pietro, la Conversione di san Paolo, San Matteo e l'Angelo (Crucifixion of St Peter, Conversion of St Paul, St Mathew and the Angel) and works in S. Maria del Popolo in Rome.

From 1604 onwards, Caravaggio was subject to a series of attacks and persecutions that led to him being jailed and then exiled, condemned to be beheaded. This period influenced his paintings where he painted mainly characters executed with the head cut off. In 1607 he fled to Malta where he obtained the title of Knight of the Order of San Giovanni, a title that guaranteed him immunity from beheading. It was here that he painted the large canvas of the Decapitazione di San Giovanni Battista (Beheading of St John the Baptist) but shortly after another sentence issued after an argument with a knight meant he had to flee once again to return to Italy.

The last years of his life, firstly in Siracusa and then in Naples, were marked by illness and suffering that resulted in his death in 1610.

Anecdotes and curiosities

Some sources attribute the location of Caravaggio’s birth to Milan and not to the province of Bergamo.

The period that Caravaggio spent in Milan is linked to the story of the artist in love with a Milanese woman who lived in what is now via Anfiteatro. Caravaggio declared his love to a young girl Peppa, saying he would marry her immediately, even if his economic situation and his tender age did not allow him to do. The girl’s spirited and vulgar brothers, opposed the affair, but seeing their sister in love, and then deceived and suffering, hunted down the artist to oblige him to keep his promise and beat him up. Caravaggio managed to escape.

Caravaggio frequented the streets of Milan in the nocturnal hours and due to his aggressive and provocative nature his meetings always ended in arguments and fights that forced him to leave the city.

From January 17th to March 19th 2009 an exhibition, curated by Mina Gregori and Amalia Pacia, entitled: CARAVAGGIO OSPITA CARAVAGGIO was held in the Pinacoteca di Brera. Amongst other works by the artist, for the first time it was possible to compare the famous Cena di Emmaus (Supper at Emmaus) of Milan with the homonym painted by the artist in 1601, on show at the National Gallery, London.

Related places

Santo Stefano church: where the artist was baptised.

The artist’s house in Rovello

Peppa’s house, in the Guasto district (currently via Anfiteatro)

Simone Peterzano’s workshop: the artist followed a four year apprenticeship here.

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana: “Canestra di frutta” (Basket of fruit) and all the artist’s work from 1594 to 1597 is kept in the Pinacoteca. The aforementioned canvas was a donation from Cardinal del Monte to Cardinal Federico Borromeo who, in turn, gave it to the Pinacoteca in 1607.

Pinacoteca di Brera: the Pinacoteca has the famous painting “Cena di Emmaus” created in 1606.

Archivio Milanese: Caravaggio’s apprenticeship contract for Simone Peterzano’s workshop in Milan is conserved here.

Old market in S. Protasio.

Osteria della Contrada del Guasto:  Caravaggio often frequented the osteria during his time in Milan.

Milan jail: where the artist was imprisoned for a time.

Sources and documents

Coppini Spini S., Strada A., Guida insolita ai misteri, ai segreti, alle leggende e alle curiosità di Milano, Milano: Newton & Compton Editori 2000;

Gottuso R., Caravaggio, Milano Rizzoli Editore 1967.

Pagani S., Storie e leggende di Milano, Milano: Casa Editrice Ceschina 1970.

Saccardo A., Caravaggio, Milano: Cartiere di Verona 1966.

Storia di Milano, Milano: Treccani 1966.

“Caravaggio” in Enciclopedia Italiana, Roma: Treccani 1949.

“Caravaggio” in Dizionario della pittura e dei pittori, Torino: Larousse-Einaudi 1989.

“Caravaggio” in Dizionario Enciclopedico, Novara: Istituto Geografico De Agostini 1966.

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