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The Infamous Caravaggio

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Born as Michelangelo Merisi on 29 September 1571 Caravaggio was an Italian painter active in Rome for most of his artistic life. Despite being a prominent figure in the field of art he is also known for his aggressive and vicious behavior. His artistic fame was overshadowed by his terrible behavior of drinking, gambling, sword-carrying and brawling. He was sued and arrested several times for his despicable actions. Between 1598 and 1601, he was arrested for carrying a sword without a permit, sued for beating a man with a stick and accused of attacking another man with a sword.

Although infamous for his actions and disliked by most skilled artists of his days, Caravaggio possessed an amazing talent to overcome all the odds. He reinvented Chiaroscuro’ a technique although practiced long before he came on the art scene, but it was Caravaggio who made the technique a dominant stylistic element, darkening the shadows and transfixing the subject in a blinding shaft of light. With this came the acute observation of physical and psychological reality that formed the ground both for his immense popularity and for his frequent problems with his religious commissions.

Caravaggio worked with great speed, mostly from live models, scoring basic guides directly onto the canvas with the end of the brush handle. Caravaggio preferred to work directly on the canvas, although an unpopular technique at his time yet he was capable enough to accomplish great results. For his paintings he mostly painted from real models as well as he himself appears in several of his paintings, as in his final self-portrait being as the witness on the far right to the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. He possessed an exceptional ability to express in one scene of unsurpassed vividness the passing of a crucial moment.

Caravaggio was born in Milan; his father was a household administrator and architect-decorator to the Marchese of Caravaggio. In 1576 his family moved to Caravaggio (Caravaggius) to escape a plague that ravaged Milan. Both his father and grandfather died there on the same day in 1577.Caravaggio himself was trained as a painter in Milan before moving to Rome where he started selling his own paintings. As his profile grew over the next several years he developed a considerable name as an artist as well as a violent, touchy and provocative man. In 1599, presumably through the influence of Del Monte, Caravaggio was contracted to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The two works making up the commission, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Calling of Saint Matthew, delivered in 1600, were an immediate sensation. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons.

Though he was praised as one of the great artists of his time, Caravaggio’s erratic and bizarre behavior led him into continuous trouble. His relationship with his fellow artists was also quite unstable. Giovanni Baglione, a rival painter once accused Caravaggio of hiring assassins to kill him. After that Caravaggio wrote satirical poems to harass Bagilone who in return took him to court for libel. He won and Caravaggio spent two weeks in prison.

Caravaggio continued to make paintings from gruesome scenes of murder to biblical themes and on the other hand his violent behavior continued to keep him in debate. He went to court for throwing a plate of artichokes in a waiter’s face, carrying a sword and dagger without a permit and breaking a window shutter in the room he was renting. He also went to prison for throwing stones at policemen, cursing at an officer and offending a woman and her daughter. By late 1605, his landlady seized his furniture because he didn’t pay rent for six months, and he apparently wounded himself by literally falling on his own sword.  He was unable to control his anger which eventually resulted in a brawl that led him to death sentence for murder and forced him to flee to Naples.

In 1606, Caravaggio went into a brawl with man named Ranuccio Tomassoni and accidently killed him. While some art historians believe that the cause of fight was a Tennis match, but others suggest that the fight was most likely started over a female prostitute named Fillide Melandoni and in an attempt to castrate Tomassoni he killed him. In an interview art historian Graham Dixon had stated that the particular wounds in Roman street fights meant particular things and if a man insulted another man’s reputation he might have his face cut. If a man insulted a man’s woman he would get his penis cut off. In 2002, a documentary by him also suggested they were actually fighting over a female prostitute. Whether he killed him over a prostitute or a tennis match but he was given the death sentence by the pope. Although Caravaggio’s patrons had hitherto been able to shield him from any serious consequences of his frequent duels and brawling, but Tommasoni’s wealthy family was outraged by his death and demanded justice. Caravaggio’s patrons were unable to protect him. Caravaggio was sentenced to beheading for murder, and an open bounty was decreed enabling anyone who recognized him to legally carry the sentence out and to save his life he had to leave Rome. During this period Caravaggio’s paintings began to obsessively depict severed heads, often his own.

Carrying death sentence on his head Caravaggio continued his career of painting and influence his contemporaries. His reputation as a artist only increased and so did his fbawling. In 1608, while still wanted for murder in Rome, he attacked Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, one of the most senior knights in the Order of St. John in Malta. Caravaggio went to prison for the assault but escaped to Naples, where Roero later confronted him and disfigured his face. There he again established himself as one of the most prominent Italian painters of his generation. He traveled in 1607 to Malta and on to Sicily, and pursued a papal pardon for his sentence. In 1610, Caravaggio began to make his way back to Rome while trying to secure a papal pardon for his death sentence. Before he could get there, he died of a supposed “fever” in the town of Porto Ercole at age 38. While no one knows exactly what happened, possible explanations for his death have included syphilis, an infected sword wound and lead poisoning from paint. And there are some historians who suggest a possible murder. Fittingly, one of the first people to write a biography about him after his death was none other than Baglione, Caravaggio’s rival painter about whom he wrote humiliating poems..

During the last years of his life Caravaggio moved between Naples, Malta, and Sicily until his death. He  employed close physical observation with a dramatic use of chiaroscuro that came to be known as tenebrism. He made the technique a dominant stylistic element, darkening shadows and transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light. Caravaggio vividly expressed crucial moments and scenes, often featuring violent struggles, torture, and death. He worked rapidly, with live models, preferring to forgo drawings and work directly onto the canvas. His influence on the new Baroque style that emerged from Mannerism was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the “Caravaggisti” (or “Caravagesques”), as well as tenebrists or tenebrosi (“shadowists”).

Caravaggio is now famous for intense realism he preferred to paint his subjects as honestly as possible, with all their natural flaws and defects instead of as idealised creations. This allowed a full display of his virtuosic talents. This shift from accepted standard practice and the classical idealism of Michelangelo was very controversial at the time. Caravaggio also dispensed with the lengthy preparations traditional in central Italy at the time. Instead, he preferred the Venetian practice of working in oils directly from the subject—half-length figures and still life. ‘Supper at Emmaus’, from 1600–1601, is a characteristic work of this period demonstrating his virtuoso talent.

Caravaggio led a tumultuous life. One the one hand he became notorious for brawling, even in a time and place when such behavior was commonplace,  while as on the other hand his artistic innovations inspired generations of artists and art movements. The transcripts of his police records and trial proceedings can fill many pages, while as his contribution in the development of Western art is evidently immense. Although Caravaggio lost some of his popularity for some tome but In the 20th century interest in his work revived, and in a statement art historian André Berne-Joffroy had stated: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”


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