Michelangelo Merisi (Michael Angelo
Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio
(1571-1610) was an Italian painter active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily
between 1592 (1595?) and 1610. His paintings, which combine a realistic
observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic
use of lighting, had a formative influence on Baroque painting.
Caravaggio trained as a painter in Milan under Simone Peterzano who had himself
trained under Titian. In his twenties Caravaggio moved to Rome where there was a
demand for paintings to fill the many huge new churches and palazzos being built at
the time. It was also a period when the Church was searching for a stylistic
alternative to Mannerism in religious art that was tasked to counter the threat of
Protestantism. Caravaggio's innovation was a radical naturalism that combined close
physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro which
came to be known as tenebrism (the shift from light to dark with little
He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public
commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew.
Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success
poorly. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and
ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope after killing a young
man, possibly unintentionally, on May 29, 1606.
An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle
three years previously, recounts that "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 brawl
and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in
1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by
unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at
the age of 38, he died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole in Tuscany,
reportedly from a fever while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.
Famous while he lived, Caravaggio was forgotten almost immediately after his
death, and it was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development
of Western art was rediscovered. Despite this, his influence on the new Baroque
style that eventually emerged from the ruins of Mannerism was profound. It can be
seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, 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"). The 20th-century art historian André Berne-Joffroy claimed: "What
begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.