Michelangelo Merisi was
called Caravaggio after his birthplace in the province of Bergamo where
he spent his childhood. Between 1584 and 1588 he was an apprentice in
the Milan workshop of the painter Simone Peterzano who also came from
Bergamo. From the sixteenth century Lombard painters he acquired his
bent for naturalism and attention to detail. He was a restless spirit,
and in 1590 spent a year in prison for a crime he never confessed. In
1592 he moved to Rome and for a few months in 1593 worked in the
atelier of Cavalier d’Arpino where he painted still-lifes of fruits and
flowers. In 1595 he came under the protection of cardinal Francesco
Maria Del Monte who was his first important patron. The paintings Bari, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Rome, Galleria Doria Pamphilj), The Young Bacchus and The Magdalene all
date from this period. Thanks to his protector he came into contact
with Rome’s major families and on 23 July 1599 he received his first
public commission The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew for the Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The following year he began The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter for
the Cerasi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, and then, in 1602 he
completed the cycle in the Contarelli chapel with the second version of
St. Mathew and the Angel. His works were increasingly
characterized by strong contrasts and intense dramatic tension. In the
early years of the seventeenth century, while still in Rome, he painted
The Sacrifice of Isaac and the Madonna with Pilgrims.
In Genoa where he fled in 1605 to escape justice after wounding the notary Marinao Pasqualone, he painted the Ecce Homo.
On 26 May 1606 he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a brawl and was
sentenced to death. He first sought asylum on the estates of his Roman
friends and patrons, and then fled to Naples where he left two
masterpieces The Seven Works of Mercy and the Madonna of the Rosary. The following year he moved to Malta where he painted the enormous The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,
the only work he ever signed. He was discovered and fled again, to
Messina, Palermo and Naples. One year before his tragic death he
painted The Resurrection of Lazarus and The Adoration of the Shepherds.
In 1610 after he received a papal pardon he decided to return to Rome
by sea, but he died of a fever on the beach when he arrived at Porto
Self-Portrait as Bacchus (Young Bacchus Ill)
The ivy-crowned youth leaning against a stone parapet and holding a bunch of grapes, is Bacchus, the god of wine and drunkenness. The painting’s title, Bacchino Malato (Young Bacchus Ill) was proposed by Roberto Longhi because of his pained look and the wan complexion; according to a description by Bellori it could be a self-portrait of Caravaggio. The genre subject could also contain a hidden allusion to the sacrifice of Christ who, according to the Neoplatonic school, was prefigured by Bacchus. Painted during the early years of Caravaggio’s Roman sojourn, this painting like the Boy with the Basket of Fruit was confiscated from Cavalier d’Arpino in 1607 and given to Cardinal Scipione Borghese by his uncle, Paul V.Iconography
Boy with a Basket of Fruit
The subject, a youth holding a basket filled with fruit, picks up on a theme that had already been treated by the Lombard naturalist painters in the second half of the sixteenth century, such as the Fruit Seller by Vincenzo Campi. What is striking about this painting is the extreme realism with which the different fruits are painted. As Giustiniani writes, Merisi attributed the same importance to still-lifes, which up to then had been considered a “secondary” genre, as he did to portraying human figures. This painting dates from the early years of his Roman sojourn when Caravaggio was still working in the atelier of the Cavalier d’Arpino to whom it belonged until 1607 when it was confiscated and added to the splendid collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V.
The Cardsharps (Bari)
Caravaggio’s biographers have described this painting as having belonged to the collection of Cardinal Del Monte, and it still has the cardinal’s seal on the canvas. It had been considered lost until 1987 when it appeared on the antiques market and was purchased by the museum in Forth Worth. The scene, in which the naive youth, dressed in black is tricked by the crafty pair of cardsharps became the prototype of one of the subjects most widely imitated by Caravaggio’s followers along with the other famous theme of deceit La buona ventura. This painting that was commissioned by a Roman merchant was purchased by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte before he took in the Lombard artist. The lively colors and picturesque rendering that characterize the painting place it in the early phase of Merisi’s career.
The Young Bacchus
The elegant portrayal of this Bacchus lying on a triclinium, crowned with grapes as he holds a goblet of wine with a fruit-filled basket in front of him is not a mere genre painting. Instead it has much deeper hidden meanings inspired by the refined Neoplatonic culture of Cardinal Del Monte’s circle. It has been interpreted in the religious sense as a symbolic representation of the sacrifice of Christ, with Bacchus as a prefiguration of the Savior and the wine as the symbol of the Eucharist, while in the secular key it is viewed as a portrayal of life drawing to an end as symbolized by the not entirely fresh autumn fruits. This painting was done for Cardinal Del Monte when Merisi was in his employ.Iconography
Basket of Fruit
This is the only one of Caravaggio’s painting in which the “protagonist” is a basket of fruit without any human figures at all. In 1607 it was part of Cardinal Federico Borromeo’s collection, and it had probably been done for him. The subject, that is distinguished by clear naturalness, became the prototype for seventeenth century Lombard still-lifes. A recent X-ray study revealed that it was painted on an already used canvas: it had been painted with grotesques that can be attributed to Caravaggio’s friend Prospero Orsi.
Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto
This painting decorates the ceiling in one of the rooms in the Casino of the villa that had belonged to Cardinal Del Monte before it was purchased by the Ludovisi family in 1621. Originally, the room was known as the cardinal’s “Distillery” because of his great interest in alchemy, and Caravaggio decorated with the divinities that preside over the earth (Pluto), water (Neptune) and air (Jupiter) beneath a mother-of-pearly globe that represents the universe symbolizing the continuous process of transmutation of matter as described in treatises on alchemy. The figures are portrayed with a virtuosic eye for detail that picks up on Lombard examples, such as Correggio’s frescoes in Parma and Giulio Romano’s in Mantua. Caravaggio did not like the fresco technique because it does not permit changes or corrections, so he painted using oil directly on the plaster.
Judith Beheading Holofernes
As opposed to earlier painters, Caravaggio elected to portray the young Jewess Judith, assisted by the maid-servant, at the crucial instant that she decapitated Holofernes, the Assyrian general who had sacked her city of Betulia and was infatuated with the young girl. The scene in which the macabre details and violence of the movements are accentuated would become a model for painters of Caravaggio’s school, and would enjoy great popularity. The painting was only attributed to Caravaggio in 1951 and it is the same one that his biographer Baglione describes as having been painted for Ottavio Costa, banker, collector and great admirer of the painter. The model for Judith was the courtesan Fillide Melandroni who posed for other paintings and a portrait by Caravaggio that has since been lost.Iconography
The Conversion of St. Paul
Saint Paul, fallen from his hose raises his arms to the divine light that invests him with a serene and thoughtful expression while the groom observes the scene as he holds the horse. In the autumn of 1600 monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, Treasurer General to pope Clement VIII commissioned the two most famous painters then working in Rome to decorate the chapel he had purchased in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Caravaggio painted The Conversion of Saint Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter, while Annibale Carracci painted the Assumption of the Virgin. The first versions that Caravaggio did of the paintings on cypress wood were rejected by the rectors of the Ospedale della Consolazione, Cerasi’s heirs, perhaps because of their striking violence. Caravaggio painted a second version on canvas in much calmer tones that was most well accepted by his contemporaries. Only the Conversion of Saint Paul remains of the first rendering and it is in the Odescalchi-Balbi collection.Iconography
The Crucifixion of St. Peter
The painting depicts the moment in which the cross to which Peter was nailed head down is raised by three executioners. With The Conversion of Saint Paul it hangs on the side walls of the Cerasi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The chapel had been purchased by the pope’s treasurer Tiberio Cerasi and decorated between 1600 and 1601 with paintings by the period’s most famous painters in Rome, Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci who did the altarpiece with the Assumption of the Virgin. The first version of the paintings that Caravaggio delivered in 1601 following the death of Cerasi were rejected by the executors of his will so he had to paint a second version which is what we see in the chapel today.Iconography
The Supper at Emmaus
As he blesses the bread Christ reveals himself to his disciples who, unaware of his resurrection, had accompanied the unknown traveler to an inn for a meal. This painting is one of the finest examples of Caravaggio’s naturalism as we can see in the objects and foods arranged on the table covered with a sparkling white cloth. The fruit basket is very similar to the one he painted for cardinal Federico Borromeo. Caravaggio revealed particular skill in rendering depth, as measured by the gesture of the apostle who opens his arms, the apostle seen from the back leaning towards Jesus and the Christ’s hand raised in blessing. The canvas has been definitively identified as the painting Caravaggio did for Ciriaco Mattei one of his most loyal clients. Merisi lived in his home in 1601 and it was there that he signed the contract for the painting of the Death of the Virgin.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
Christ appeared to his apostles after the resurrection and told the doubting Thomas to put his finger in the wound on his side to ascertain the miracle. In the painting Caravaggio shows Thomas’ hand penetrating Christ’s wound with amazing realism, raising the flesh, and revealing the grimace of pain on Jesus’ face. He places the episode in the verity of an everyday scene, almost as if it were a sort of medical examination, emphasizing the concrete, material aspects of the event.Iconography
This painting was inventoried among the possessions of the marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani following his death in 1638. The painting enjoyed a particularly prominent position in the collection, and was covered with a dark green cloth that was only lifted to increase the viewers’ astonishment. It was done in 1602 in competition with Giovanni Baglione, a painter known primarily for the famous suit he brought against Caravaggio for slander and the biography of his enemy that he wrote years later. Merisi’s painting develops the moralistic theme of the god Cupid who mocks the earthly vanities and ambitions represented by the musical instruments, books and armor, and gracefully combines literary examples, biographical references to the client and symbolic meanings. Attention is drawn to the spectacular and irreverent nude, adolescent Cupid and the extraordinary arrangement of musical instruments on the ground – a composition that has a precedent in Raphael’s Saint Cecilia painted about one century earlier.Iconography
The Entombment of Christ
Caravaggio painted this entombment for the Vittrici chapel in Santa Maria in Vallicella, the church of the Fathers of St. Philip Neri in Rome. In this canvas that stood on the chapel altar dedicated to the death of Christ, Caravaggio painted the culminating moment when the body of Christ is about to be lowered into the sepulchre. In constructing the composition he veers away from classic tradition with realistic attention to the aspects of death and grief using luministic contrasts to augment the dramatic tension. The fulcrum of the painting is the gravestone in the corner, a metaphor of Christ as the cornerstone that holds the structure of the Church together. Jesus’ arm hangs down, touching the stone thus emphasizing its meaning. This painting, in which the influence of Titian’s chromatics and drama are evident along with the naturalism of sixteenth century Lombard painters was highly praised by the baroque painters and was even copied by Rubens.
Saint Mathew and the Angel
In 1602 this painting of Saint Mathew and the angel was placed on the altar of the Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi where there were already two other paintings of the saint – The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew that Caravaggio had done in 1599 and 1600. This was the second version of the painting,: the first which was destroyed during World War II bombings had been rejected because it had been considered scandalous and irreverent. The saint was portrayed seated, with a large book on his knees with a bewildered, ignorant expression while the angel held his hand to guide him. The second version is more in keeping with classical canons and the impressive saint is more like a scholar inspired by the angel above. There is no lack of naturalistic elements, such as the light surrounding the figures, the whiteness of the cloth and the striking effect of the scene being viewed from below.
The crowning with thorns
Christ is portrayed in the middle of the composition overpowered by two executioners who are crowning him with thorns. Experts do not concur as to the attribution of this painting, but a recent restoration has brought to light certain technical aspects that have eliminated all doubts. X-rays revealed the presence of subtle scoring, a characteristic of Caravaggio’s technique that can be found in other, definitely attributed paintings and provides a guarantee of authenticity to this one as well. Merisi, inspired by Giorgione’s example, did not sketch onto the canvas, but worked with paint from the start, marking off general outlines by scratching with the end of his brush. It is difficult to determine exactly when this painting was done: it may have been early in the seventeenth century when he did the paintings with “three-quarter” figures for his rich patrons in Rome, Vincenzo Giustiniani and Ciriaco Mattei.Iconography
On 25 June 1605 Caravaggio signed a contract that has survived to the present in which he agreed to paint an Ecce Homo by the first of August for Monsignor Massimo Massimi, which is this painting. A few months later, forced to flee from Rome for having attacked a notary, Pasqualoni, he went to Genoa where he may have been the guest of the Massimi who was friendly with Caravaggio’s Roman patrons, the Mattei family, Vincenzo Giustiniani and Del Monte. This painting is clear evidence of Merisi’s naturalism as he conceded nothing to classicism. The suffering Christ with downcast eyes is led by an thug with a grotesque face and brought before Pontius Pilate, the character in contemporary dress on the right that, because of the marked features, has been considered a portrait.Iconography
Le sette opere di misericordia corporale
olio su tela; 320 x 260
Napoli, Pio Monte della Misericordia
Dai feudi Colonna, alla fine del 1606, Caravaggio si rifugiò a Napoli. Qui ai primi di gennaio del 1607 risulta già pagata questa grande pala commissionatagli dal Pio Monte di Misericordia (dove tuttora si trova) raffigurante appunto le opere di misericordia corporale, quelle di cui Gesù parla a proposito del Giudizio finale, che dovevano ricordare le finalità del Pio Monte. Caravaggio rappresenta queste azioni con una straordinaria capacità scenica mentre accadono simultaneamente e quasi casualmente nel crocicchio di un vicolo (probabilmente il reale vicolo della Piazzetta, che i fedeli potevano riconoscere come luogo della loro quotidianità). Il gruppo di figure più importante, quello di Maria e Gesù, è al vertice della composizione e racchiuso nel volo di due angeli. Subito sotto, sulla sinistra, la scena veterotestamentaria di Sansone che si disseta dalla mascella d’asina, immagine del “dissetare gli assetati”, mentre più in basso, in una composizione concitata e complessa, sono descritte le altre “opere”: “visitare i carcerati e curare i malati”, “seppellire i morti”, “vestire gli ignudi”, “ospitare i pellegrini” e “sfamare gli affamati”, tutte scene di grande intelligenza sintetica in cui la quotidianità si mescola alla mitologia, al Vecchio Testamento, alla storia della Chiesa, in una profonda riflessione sul tempo storico e quotidiano della cristianità.
San Giovanni Battista
olio su tela; 99 x 134
Roma, Galleria nazionale d’arte antica di Palazzo Corsini
Il dipinto di formato orizzontale, attribuito al Caravaggio da Longhi nel 1927, rappresenta una sorta di esercitazione sul tema del corpo modellato dal rapporto luce-ombra. Il pretesto è la figura giovane e prestante di san Giovannino, seminudo, con lo sguardo in ombra nascosto dai capelli e una posa plastica e quasi scomposta. Molto simile è il San Giovanni Battista di Kansas City che, però, è di formato verticale e con un fittissmo sipario vegetale. L’esemplare romano, invece, mantiene una “scenografia” semplice ed essenziale con un tronco di cipresso, una ciotola e una croce come ambientazione di sfondo, sulla cui oscurità risalta il corpo luminoso di san Giovanni, avvolto parzialmente da un drappo rosso. Lo schema del santo seduto, chiuso in una solitudine meditativa e spirituale, seminudo con un drappo rosso, verrà utilizzato dal Merisi anche per il San Girolamo, con certe varianti relative all’età e al ruolo intellettuale di Girolamo.Iconography
Caravaggio executed this painting for cardinal Scipione Borghese probably to win his favor in the judgement concerning his attack on the notary Pasqualoni and to obtain a pardon. The old St. Jerome, portrayed as an emaciated hermit – Caravaggio used a live model – is seated at a rough. book-strewn table and wearing a simple red cloak as opposed to cardinal’s robes. The thin right arm extended over the books draws the gaze to the skull, symbol of wordily vanities. A very bright light pervades the penumbra illuminating the saint from the left and realistically emphasizing the consistency of the books, cloths, wood and the frightening skull.Iconography
Madonna del rosario
olio su tela; 1606 x 1607
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie
Dipinta, probabilmente, per la cappella del Rosario in San Domenico Maggiore, è la più grande e importante tela eseguita a Napoli da Caravaggio. Pur nell’assenza di documentazioni, possiamo identificare il committente nella figura di Luigi Carafa Colonna, il cui nonno, Marcantonio Colonna, è rappresentato inginocchiato a sinistra, rivolto verso l’osservatore del quadro e vicino alla colonna, emblema della sua casata. Egli, inoltre, nel gesto di sorregere il mantello di san Domenico, rivela il forte (e documentato) legame della sua famiglia con l’ordine domenicano. A indicare il gruppo quasi statuario della Madonna col Bambino è un altro domenicano, san Pietro martire, che fa da interecessore con il popolo e con il pubblico osservatore. La complessa storia del rosario è intimamente legata all’ordine domenicano, che si pone, inoltre, come forte riferimento spirituale per la folla di fedeli inginocchiati (che sembrano proprio popolani napoletani) che si rivolge al fondatore san Domenico, invece che direttamente alla divinità. La tela fu commissionata al Merisi per celebrare, probabilmente, la festa della Madonna del rosario nel ricordo storico della vittoria di Lepanto, cui aveva partecipato anche Marcantonio Colonna, ma anche per esplicitare l’importante significato della devozione popolare della preghiera del rosario.
The Flagellation of Christ
Caravaggio painted this Flagellation in 1607 in Naples for the chapel of Tommaso de Franchis in the church of San Domenico Maggiore. The light emerges dramatically from penombra emphasizing the contorted body of Christ, the grotesque features of the faces of the tormenters and their violent gestures. Although he interpreted the scene with grim realism, the artist was actually inspired by an early sixteenth century Roman version of the Flagellation by Sebastiano del Piombo in the church of San Pietro in Montorio. X-rays have revealed a large amount of changes that lead to the hypothesis that the painted was done in several phases; furthermore the x-rays showed that initially, in the place of the tormentor on the left there was a figure in modern clothes, with hat, mustache and beard, that may have been a self-portrait.Iconography
Decollazione del Battista
olio su tela; 361 x 520
La Valletta (Malta), Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista dei Cavalieri
All’inizio del luglio del 1607 il Merisi lascerà Napoli per trascorrere un breve soggiorno a Malta, forse per stabilire un primo contatto diretto con il Gran Maestro dell’ordine dei Cavalieri di Malta, Alof de Wignacourt, che egli avrebbe, in seguito, anche ritratto. Questo, che è il più grande dipinto di Caravaggio, venne invece realizzato durante il suo secondo soggiorno nell’isola, nel luglio del 1608 (dopo un breve rientro a Napoli nel settembre del 1607), per l’oratorio della chiesa conventuale dei cavalieri alla Valletta, sicuramente su commissione dello stesso Wignacourt, come lo stemma sulla cornice originale conferma. In basso si ritrova anche la firma dell’artista tracciata con il sangue che esce dal collo mozzato di San Giovanni (f come fecit michela…), quasi in una identificazione personale con il martirio. Il suo drammatico stato d’animo di clandestino e di fuggiasco influenzerà, in questo periodo, tutta la pittura del Merisi, sia nei toni smorzati e scuri, sia nella nuova attenzione concentrata sullo spazio. Nella grande tela, infatti, i personaggi (il martire, il boia, la fantesca, il carceriere e Salomè con il piatto) sono raggruppati sulla parte sinistra, mentre l’intera metà di destra è occupata dal cinquecentesco muro della prigione, dove da una finestra due personaggi assistono tacitamente alla scena.
Resurrezione di Lazzaro
olio su tela; 380 x 275
Messina, Museo Regio
Nel dicembre del 1608 Caravaggio già lavora a Messina per il ricco mercante genovese Giovan Battista Lazzari, per il quale esegue una pala destinata alla chiesa messinese dei Crociferi e dedicata al tema della Resurrezione di Lazzaro, in diretto riferimento al cognome del committente, consegnata prima del 10 giugno 1609 come testimoniano i documenti notarili. L’ambientazione della scena è ariosa, suggestiva e quasi teatrale, e rivela la struttura architettonica interna di una chiesa (fino all’Ottocento le chiese venivano usate come cimiteri). La luce proviene dall’alto e da sinistra e colpisce il livido corpo di Lazzaro circondato dalle due sorelle Marta e Maria e sorretto dal monatto con il quale forma un gruppo statuario, ispirato al famoso Menelao che sorregge il corpo di Patroclo, noto a Roma con il nome popolare di Pasquino. Lazzaro, tirato fuori dal sarcofago tra teschi e tibie, viene richiamato alla vita dal bellissimo gesto del polso e della mano del Cristo, la cui figura, laterale e in ombra, sembra rievocare quella presente nella Vocazione di san Matteo in San Luigi dei Francesi a Roma. Intorno al Cristo, tra le figure incuriosite degli astanti che osservano attenti ed espressivi l’evento miracoloso, è riconoscibile l’autoritratto di Caravaggio, il quale rivolge il proprio sguardo verso la luce con le mani giunte in segno di preghiera.
Seppellimento di santa Lucia
olio su tela; 408 x 300
Siracusa, Chiesa di Santa Lucia al Sepolcro
Tramite l’amico pittore siracusano, Mario Minniti, Caravaggio giunge in Sicilia, a Siracusa, nell’ottobre del 1608, dove riceve subito, da parte del senato della città, la commissione di una pala d’altare dedicata al Seppellimentodi santa Lucia per la chiesa omonima, luogo sacro particolarmente importante per i siracusani poiché eretta sopra le catacombe dove la santa siracusana aveva probabilmente subito il martirio. Il pittore, infatti, ambienta la scena nel luogo reale dell’ingresso delle catacombe, creando un ampio spazio architettonico che stabilisce uno straordinario equilibrio compositivo in relazione ai personaggi in primo piano, disposti, tipo sacra rappresentazione, intorno al corpo della santa. Il drammatico momento della sepoltura è rappresentato con estrema poesia e realismo, anche per la vicinanza dei personaggi all’osservatore, il quale viene totalmente coinvolto nella scena. La pittura, come anche negli altri quadri siciliani, risente di una certa fretta esecutiva e di uno stile compendiario ed essenziale dovuti, certamente, all’inquietudine e alla sofferenza dell’artista in questa fase così delicata e insicura della propria esistenza.Iconography
Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist
Bellori tells that when Caravaggio returned to Naples from Sicily in 1609 he did a painting of Salome to send to Malta to “placate the wrath” of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Alof de Wignacourt who had expelled him from the order for infamy. Most scholars agree with Bellori in considering this one to be that same painting, but others maintain that it is the one in London. In this painting Caravaggio portray his subjects, Salome with the head of the Baptist on a tray in the foreground, the executioner in profile and the old woman in the background, without any trace of violence or the macabre, concentrating on a meditation of the drama that had taken place.
The Martyrdom of St. Ursula
Ursula was a Christian princess who was martyred in Cologne on her return from a pilgrimage to Rome. She is portrayed in the instant before her death, while almost in surprise she looks at the arrow, shot by the king of the Huns, that pierced her breast. The king is shown on the left with bow in hand, angered by the young woman’s refusal to be his bride. The painting was done in 1610 for the Genoese prince Marcantonio Doria as confirmed by a document that informs him of a curious incident that occurred when the painting was just completed. The discovery of this document made it possible to definitively identify the canvas that had been in a private collection and up to 1980 believed to have been done by Mattia Preti. The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula may have been the last painting Caravaggio did in Naples prior to sailing for Porto Ercole, it is characterized by a flickering luminism and concentrated dramatic tension.Iconography