Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610). Probably the most revolutionary artist of his time, the Italian painter Caravaggio abandoned the rules that had guided a century of artists before him. They had idealized the human and religious experience. Caravaggio’s paintings combine realistic observations of humans with a dramatic use of lighting. He had a formative influence on the Baroque painting.
He was born Michelangelo Merisi on Sept. 28, 1573, in Caravaggio, Italy. As an adult he would become known by the name of his birthplace. Orphaned at age 11, he was apprenticed to the painter Simone Peterzano of Milan for four years, who had himself been a student of Titian. At some time between 1588 and 1592, Caravaggio went to Rome and worked as an assistant to painters of lesser skill. About 1595 he began to sell his paintings through a dealer. The dealer brought Caravaggio to the attention of Cardinal Francesco del Monte. During the late 16th and early 17th centuries Rome was a place where many huge new churches and palazzi were being built and paintings were needed to fill them. The Roman Catholic Church was in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, a movement to curb the influence of Protestantism. This also required new art styles. Through the cardinal, Caravaggio was commissioned, at age 24, to paint for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. In the Contarelli Chapel, Caravaggio’s realistic naturalism first fully appeared in three scenes he created of the life of St. Matthew. The works caused public outcry, however, because of their realistic and dramatic nature. Nevertheless, he became famous, and thereafter he never lacked commissions or supporters.
Caravaggio was a difficult person. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope. A note from 1604 describes his lifestyle, how “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” In 1606 he killed a young man in a fight and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in another brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. He was severely injured, and a year later, at the age of 38, he died of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.
Caravaggio was forgotten almost immediately after his death, and he was rediscovered only in the 20th century in terms of his importance for the development of Western art. Modern painting begins in the work of Caravaggio.