Friday 11 August 2023

Caravaggio - part 2

Michelangelo Merisi (Michele Angelo Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio, born the son of Fermo Merisi of Caravaggio in Milan, he trained there from 1584 onwards as an apprentice to Simone Peterzano. The date of his arrival in Rome is not documented. In the mid-1590s, he was taken into the household of his patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, in the Palazzo Madama. Through Del Monte, he met Vincenzo Giustiniani, another important patron. In 1599, Caravaggio received his first public commission, the painting of the altarpieces of the Contarelli Chapel; this was followed by the side paintings in the Cerasi Chapel. From 1602/03 on, he was commissioned to paint works for the most important Roman families, including the Matteis, the Barberinis and the Borgheses. In May 1606, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a dispute, whereupon he fled to Naples. From 1607 on, he stayed in Malta, but was forced to flee from the island the following year due to a conflict and, after a one-year sojourn in Sicily, returned to Naples. On his journey back to Rome, Caravaggio died in Porto Ercole on 18 July 1610.

For more biographical notes, and for earlier works, see part 1 also.

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the works of Caravaggio: 

1600 The Conversion on the way to Damascus
oil on canvas 230 x 175 cm
Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

The painting depicts this moment recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, except Caravaggio has Saul falling off a horse (which is not mentioned in the story) on the road to Damascus, seeing a blinding light and hearing the voice of Jesus. For Saul this is a moment of intense religious ecstasy: he is lying on the ground, supine, eyes shut, with his legs spread and his arms raised upward as if embracing his vision. The saint is a muscular young man, and his garment looks like a Renaissance version of a Roman soldier's attire: orange and green muscle cuirass, pteruges (strip-like defences for the upper parts of limbs attached to armour in the Greco-Roman world), tunic and boots. His plumed helmet fell off his head and his sword is lying by his side. The red cape almost looks like a blanket under his body. The horse is passing over him led by an old groom, who points his finger at the ground. He had calmed down the animal, and now prevents it treading upon Saul. The huge steed has a mottled brown and cream coat; it is still foaming at the mouth, and its hoof is hanging in the air.

1600 The Crucifixion of Saint Peter
oil on canvas 230 x 175 cm
Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

The painting depicts the martyrdom of St. Peter. According to ancient and well-known tradition, Peter, when he was condemned to death in Rome, requested to be crucified upside-down because he did not believe that a man is worthy to be killed in the same manner as Jesus Christ. 

The large canvas shows the three executioners fighting to straighten the cross. Peter is already nailed to the rafters, his hands and feet are bleeding. The apostle is practically naked, which emphasises his vulnerability. He is an old man, with a grey beard and a bald head, but his ageing body is still muscular, suggesting considerable strength. He rises from the cross with great effort, turning his whole body, as if he wants to look towards something that is out of the picture (God).

1600-01 David with the Head of Goliath
oil on poplar wood panel 91.2 x 116.2 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In May 1606 Caravaggio was accused of murder and fled from Rome to distant lands (Naples, Sicily, Malta) to escape the price that had been placed on his head. His self-portrait as Goliath's severed head, held by David his executioner, was sent to the papal court in 1610 as a kind of painted petition for pardon. In fact pardon was granted, but did not reach Caravaggio before he died in Porto Ercole.

David assumes the pose for all allegories of Justice, with a sword in the right hand (but with scales instead of the head in the left).

The relation to Christ, who is the ultimate judge as well as saviour, is evident. David may sorrow, but even in his compassion he bears the burden of the dispensation of justice firmly. Caravaggio’s sardonic representation of himself as Goliath is despairing.

c1600 The Conversion of Saint Paul
oil on cypress wood panel 189 x 237 cm
Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome

The painting, together with a Crucifixion of Saint Peter, was commissioned by Monsignor (later Cardinal) Tiberio Cesari, Treasurer-General to Pope Clement VIII, in September 1600. According to Caravaggio's early biographer Giovanni Baglione, both paintings were rejected by Cerasi, and replaced by the second versions which hang in the chapel today. The dates of completion and rejection are determined from the death of Cerasi in May 1601. Baglione states that the first versions of both paintings were taken by Cardinal Giacomo Sannessio, but another early writer, Giulio Mancini, says that Sannessio's paintings were copies. Nevertheless, most scholars are satisfied that this is the first version of the Conversion of Paul.

The painting records the moment when Saul of Tarsus, on his way to Damascus to annihilate the Christian community there, is struck blind by a brilliant light and hears the voice of Christ saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?...And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid, but they heard not the voice...". Elsewhere Paul claims to have seen Christ during a vision, and it is on this basis that he grounds his claim be recognised as an Apostle: "Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?”

1601 Cupid as Victor
oil on canvas 156.5 x 113.3cm
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The young Cupid, following Virgil's saying "Amor vincit omnia" (Love conquers all), triumphs over science, art, fame and power, whose symbols are strewn at his feet: musical instruments, straight-edge, laurel wreath, and pieces of armour. The boy's ambiguous mocking smile and the provocatively importunate pose suggest that earthly love is mocking the highest moral and intellectual values of human ambition. The boy's precarious position, with his left leg an the edge of a draped bed, so that his genitals thrust almost into the centre of the picture, strikes a homoerotic note. The chiaroscuro and the incredibly natural quality of the figures are typical of Caravaggio.

1601 Supper at Emmaus
oil on canvas 141 x 196 cm
The National Gallery, London

On the third day after the Crucifixion two of Jesus’s disciples were walking to Emmaus when they met the resurrected Christ. They failed to recognise him, but that evening at supper he ‘... took bread, and blessed it, and brake and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight’ (Luke 24: 30–31).

Painted at the height of Caravaggio’s fame, this is among his most impressive domestic religious pictures. He captures the dramatic climax of the story, the moment when the disciples suddenly see what has been in front of them all along. Their actions convey their astonishment: one is about to leap out of his chair while the other throws out his arms in a gesture of disbelief. Typically for Caravaggio, he has shown the disciples as ordinary working men, with bearded, lined faces and ragged clothes, in contrast to the youthful beardless Christ, who seems to have come from a different world.

1606 Supper at Emmaus
oil on canvas 141 x 175 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Italy

1601-02 The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Doubting Thomas)
oil on canvas 106.9 x 146 cm
Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” said St Thomas when first told of Jesus’ return beyond the grave. Yet in a week’s time Jesus appeared in front of him and said “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Prompting one of the more famous pokes in art history.

1601-06 Death of the Virgin
oil on canvas 369 x 245 xm
Louvre, Paris
When he painted The Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio had been working in Rome for fifteen years. The painting was commissioned by Laerzio Cherubini, a papal lawyer, for his chapel in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, Rome; the painting could not have been finished before 1605–06. The depiction of the Death of the Virgin caused a contemporary stir, and was rejected as unfit by the parish.

Giulio Mancini thought Caravaggio modelled a prostitute, possibly his mistress, as the Virgin. Giovanni Baglione and Gian Pietro Bellori attributed the rejection to the appearance of the Virgin. 

The breach of decorum led to a rejection of the painting by the fathers of Santa Maria della Scala and its replacement by a picture by Carlo Daraceni, a close follower of Caravaggio.

On a recommendation by Peter Paul Rubens, who praised it as one of Caravaggio's best works, the painting was bought b Vicenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Giovanni Magni, the duke's ambassador, briefly exhibited the painting in his house on the Via del Corso, between 1 and 7 April 1607.Copying was absolutely forbidden.

The Duke's collection was sold to Charles I of England in 1627. After his execution the English Commonwealth put his collection up for sale in 1649, and the painting was bought by Everhard Jabach, who in 1671 sold it to Louis XIV for the French Royal Collection, which after the French Revolution became the property of the state.

1602 Saint John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)
oil on canvas 129 x 95 cm
Capitoline Museums, Rome

There has been much debate on the subject of this painting. It could be Isaac, petting the ram that is to be slaughtered by Abraham. However, from the administration of Ciriaco Mattei, who had commissioned the work, it appears that he paid for St. John the Baptist. Ciriaco was the brother of Cardinal Mattei, in whose Roman palazzo Caravaggio lived between 1601 and 1603.

The most likely provenance for this iconographically unusual painting was first constructed by Denis Mahon in 1955, who argues that it was commissioned by Ciriaco Mattei, was given by him to his son, Giovanni Battista, who bore the same name as the Saint, and was the bequeathed by the son in wills of January 1623 and June 1624 to Cardinal del Monte. The painting was listed in the del Monte inventory of 1627 and sold at the del Monte sale of 1628 to Cardina Pio. It was sold by the Pio family to Pope Benedict XIV in 1749-50 to be lodged in the newly founded Capitoline museum.

1602 The Inspiration of Saint Matthew
oil on canvas 292 x 186 cm
San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Commissioned by the French Cardinal Matteo Contarelli, the canvas hangs in Contarelli chapel altar in the church of the French congregation San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. It is one of three Caravaggio canvases in the chapel: hanging between the larger earlier canvases of The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, and The Calling odf Saint Matthew. This was not an easy commission for Caravaggio, and at least two of the three paintings had to be either replaced or repainted to satisfy his patron, the Cardinal Del Monte.

1602 The Taking of Christ
oil on canvas 133.5 x 169.5 cm
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Caravaggio painted this for the Roman Marquis Ciriaco Mattei in 1602. Offering a new visual approach to the biblical story, Caravaggio placed the figures close to the picture plane and used a strong light-and-dark contrast, giving the scene an extraordinary sense of drama.

Judas has identified Christ with a kiss, as the temple guards move in to seize Him. The fleeing disciple in disarray on the left is St John the Evangelist. Only the moon lights the scene. Although the man at the far right is holding a lantern, it is, in reality, an ineffective source of illumination. In that man’s features Caravaggio portrayed himself, aged 31, as an observer of events, a device he frequently used in his paintings.

The painting was a well-documented commission, and was frequently copied by contemporary artists. By the twentieth century, however, the painting had disappeared, having been sold by the family in 1802, and misattributed to Gerrit van Honthorst, a Dutch follower of Caravaggio. Scholars resumed searching for the original in the 1940s, as many of them no longer accepted the authenticity of a painting in the Odessa Art Museum, now known to be a copy made for another member of the Mattei family in 1626. The painting has now regained its status as a key work by Caravaggio, completed during the artist’s short, but highly productive, period in Rome.

1602-03 The Crowning with Thorns
oil on canvas 178 x 125 cm
Palazzo degli Alberti, Prato, Italy

The artist uses light and shadow to draw attention to the central figure of Christ and in particular,  to his bare right shoulder and arm and his upturned face.  Nothing is known about the commission.  The painting  only came to light after 1916 and then was thought to be a copy of a lost original.  But this opinion changed when it was cleaned in and restored in 1974/75. The restoration showed that it had been extensively repainted. Perhaps this was because it was just too realistic. This is not your average devotional image. There is a realism about it which is quite shocking even today.

c1602-03 The Entombment of Christ
oil on canvas 300 x 203 cm
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome

Created for the second chapel on the right in Santa Maris Vallicella (the Chiesa Nuova), a church built for the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri. The painting consists of a tightly compact figurative group consisting of six people, including the dead Christ. The upper half of Christ's body (that of a muscular labourer) is being supported by John the Evangelist (in the red cloak) (or possibly Joseph of Arimathea), his right hand inadvertently fingering Christ's stab wound; the lower half is carried supported by Saint Nicodemus, who traditionally removed the nails from Christ's feet on the cross. Nicodemus is the dominant character in the picture and his body is its compositional and spiritual anchor. Historically a man of wealth, he is portrayed here as a working man, whose deliberately designed troll-like form suggests devoted service to his deceased Lord. He stares unflinchingly at us out of the picture-plane, almost challenging us to interfere with the ritual, and in the process drawing us into the picture.

1602-04 Christ Crowned with Thorns
oil on canvas 127 x 165.5 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

According to Caravaggio's biographer Giovanni Bellori, a Crowning with Thorns was made for Caravaggio's patron Vincenzo Giustiniani, and can be traced convincingly to the Giustiniani collection. An attribution to Giustiniani would place it in the period before 1606, when Caravaggio fled Rome, but Peter Robb dates it to 1607, when the artist was in Naples.

It depicts a crown of thorns being forced onto the head of Jesus before his crucifixion, to mock his claim to authority. The twisted body of Christ was influenced by the Belvedere Torso (see below). The painting was designed as a supraporte, to be hung over a doorway.

The Belvedere Torso is a 1.59 m (5.2 ft) tall fragmentary marble statue of a male nude, known to be in Rome from the 1430s, and signed prominently on the front of the base by "Apollonios, son of Nestor, Athenian", who is unmentioned in ancient literature. It is now in the Museo Pio-Clementino  in the Vatican Museums. Once believed to be a 1st-century BC original, the statue is now thought to be a copy from the 1st century BC or AD of an older statue, probably to be dated to the early 2nd century BC.

1603-04 Saint John the Baptist
oil on canvas 94 x 131 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

1603-04 St Francis in Prayer
oil on canvas 130 x 98 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

St. Francis's life of poverty and humility was a popular subject in Caravaggio's age. Peter Robb makes the point that St. Francis of Assisi, together with John the Baptist and St. Jerome, "...make up the trio of alienated males, young, mature and old, brooding and remote from human society, that M (i.e. Caravaggio) painted again and again", becoming, in effect, private icons for Caravaggio's own troubled life.

In the course of a libel trial in 1603 Caravaggio's friend Orazio Gentileschi stated that he had lent the artist a monk's robe several months before, and this painting could be connected. Gentileschi's evidence seems to be the main argument behind a 1602/1604 date; but Robb, on the grounds of the austere approach and less painterly technique of the work, believes that it may date from 1606, when Caravaggio had fled Rome as an outlaw following a death in a street brawl.

1603-06 The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew
 oil on canvas 140.1 x 176 cm
The Royal Collection, UK

A beardless Jesus gestures Peter (who was still called Simon at the time) and his brother Andrew to follow him: “Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.”

According to the gospel Peter and Andrew were out fishing on a lake when they were called, Caravaggio gives his own interpretation. Because of his prominence, the man on the left is thought to be Peter.

It is only since 2006 that it has been attributed to Caravaggio. It was thought to be a copy of the lost original. A thorough cleaning operation revealed new details that pointed to the Italian master. The work was acquired by the English king Charles I in 1637; it was the discovery of the bill of sale that led historians to this painting in the Royal Collection.

c1603 Sacrifice of Isaac
oil on canvas 104 x 135 cm
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The painting depicts the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham as written in Genesis 22, with some artistic variations. In Caravaggio's version, Abraham prepares to kill his son under God's guidance by knife—rather than fire—but is rescued just in time by an angel on the left. The use of light and shadow draws attention to Abraham's right hand and his pointed blade, with the three subjects surrounding in a well orchestrated radial position. 

Posthumous identification has found that Abraham was modelled by Cecco Boneri—frequently depicted by Caravaggio—and Isaac is modelled by the same child as in his famed painting The Amor (1602). This reliance on models gives the painting an aura of authenticity, particularly regarding the angel whose wings are the only indication of a spiritual nature

c1603 Still Life with Fruit (on a stone ledge)
oil on canvas 105 x 84 cm
Denver Art Museum, Colorado

This painting is one of just a few still life artworks produced by Caravaggio. It  has been variously dated between 1601 and 1610 (Caravaggio scholar John T. Spike lists the date as circa 1603 in the second revised edition[1] of his study of the artist). It depicts a wicker basket heaped with various fruit and vegetables sitting on a stone table, caught in Caravaggio's usual strong yet mellow shaft of light falling from top left, "as if through a hole in the ceiling." (Caravaggio at around this time was sued by a landlady for having cut a hole in the ceiling of the rooms he rented, presumably to create his characteristic lighting). The bulk of the space is taken up by the large melons, marrows and pumpkins, the watermelon and pumpkin cut open to display the interior, the marrows, long and twisting, seeming to wish to escape the two-dimensional space of the picture plane.

1604 Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness
oil on canvas 172.7 x 132 cm
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

In this Saint John the Baptist, Caravaggio has traded idealism for what oftentimes became in his own time a controversial realism. He has literally stripped the Baptist of nearly all traditional attributes (halo, lamb and banderole inscribed Ecce Agnus Dei or Behold the Lamb of God) leaving the brooding intensity of the saint's emotional state as the subject of the painting. Saint John's solemn pensiveness is reinforced by a Caravaggio trademark: the dramatic contrast of deep, opaque shadows, playing across his body and shrouding the sockets of his eyes, with a bright light that illuminates the Baptist from above and to his right. This stark contrast of light and darkness, the brilliant scarlet of the saint's cloak and Caravaggio's placement of him in the foreground, close to our own space, all contribute to the dramatic impact of the painting. Evidence of Caravaggio's working method, in which he incised lines into the gesso ground to guide his hand while painting, can be easily seen along the sitter's left leg in the right corner. Caravaggio most likely borrowed the Baptist's pose from one of Michaelangelo’s seated prophets and sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome.

1604-06 Madonna of Loreto
oil on canvas 250 x 150 cm
Basilica of St. Augustine in Campo Marzio, Rome

The painting depicts the apparition of the barefoot Virgim and naked child to two peasants on a pilgri;mage or, as some say, it is the quickening of the iconic statue of the Virgin. In 1603 the heirs of marquis Ermete Cavalletti, who had died on 21 July 1602, commissioned for the decoration of a family chapel, a painting on the theme of the Madonna of Loreto. Putting into practice the marquis's will, the Cavaletti's on 4 September 1603 purchased a chapel in the church of Sant'Agostino in Rome.

The painter Giovanni Baglione, a competitor who had successfully ensured Caravaggio was jailed during a libel trial, said that the unveiling of this painting "caused the common people to make a great cackle (schiamazzo) over it". The uproar was not surprising. The Virgin Mary, like her admiring pilgrims, is barefoot. The doorway or niche is not an exalted cumulus or bevy of putti, but a partly decrepit wall of flaking brick is visible. Only the merest halo sanctifies her and the baby. While beautiful, the Virgin Mary could be any woman, emerging from the night shadows.

1605 Ecce Homo
oil on canvas 128 x 103 cm
Palazzo Bianco, Genoa, Italyjpg

Ecce Homo (c. 1605/6 or 1609 according to John Gash.) Contemporary accounts claim the piece was part of an unannounced competition between three artists, and that the Caravaggio version was eventually sent to Spain.

According to Giambatista Cardi, nephew of the Florentine artist Cigoli, Cardinal Massimo Massimi commissioned paintings on the theme of Ecce Homo from three artists, Cigoli, Caravaggio, and Domenico Passignano, without informing the artists of the multiple commissions. Cardi claimed the cardinal preferred Cigoli's version. The Passignano painting has never resurfaced.

The scene is taken from the Gospel of John - Pontius Pilate displays Christ to the crowd with the words, "Ecce homo!" ("Behold the man”). Caravaggio's version of the scene combined Pilate's display with the earlier moment of Christ, already crowned with thorns, mockingly robed like a king by his tormentors. Massimi already possessed a Crowning with Thorns by Caravaggio (thought to be the Crowning with Thorns in Prato) and Ecce Homo may have been intended as a companion piece. Stylistically, the painting displays characteristics of Caravaggio's mature Roman-period style. The forms are visible close-up and modelled by dramatic light, the absence of depth or background, and the psychological realism of, the torturer, who seems to mix sadism with pity. Pilate, in keeping with tradition, is shown as a rather neutral and perhaps almost sympathetic figure. He is also depicted wearing anachronistic clothing which was more contemporary to Caravaggio's time.

1607-08 St. John the Baptist at the Well

This painting does not fit into the artist’s series of other St. John the Baptist works.

Only a few experts accept it as a genuine Caravaggio. Its colours are muted. A banner with writing on it, which is wound around the unusually well-defined Jacob’s Staff on the ground, has an inscription which, although the artist twists it skilfully. Can easily be read as: Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The painting possibly represents a late phase in the artist’s creative works. Jesus replied “Because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

1605 Madonna of the Rosary
oil on canvas 364.4 x 249.5 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The painting depicts Madonna holding on to the child Jesus surrounded by viewers. St Peter the martyr can be seen acting as a mediator, the picture shows his wounded head.

He points towards the presence of a crowned Madonna with the child Jesus. Madonna, on the other hand, turns towards St Dominic who is looking up to the people to dispense the rosaries to the people closing up space towards him on their knees. The Painting shows Mary playing the role of a mediator as the Boy Jesus is the focus of attention from both composition and content.

This painting differs from convention; there are poor barefoot men with dirty feet, and hands raised up trying to reach up to a single rosary that St Dominic is holding. A red drape frames the painting as Madonna and the child Jesus looks down the poor but faithful crowd. A Bleeding St Peter depicts his death caused violently by an axe blow from to his head, while a hooded member of Dominican order stands next to him.

1605-06 Saint Jerome in his Study
oil on canvas 112 x 157 cm
Galleria Borghese. Rome

1605-06 Death of the Virgin Mary
oil on canvas 369 x 245 cm
Louvre Museum, Paris

When he painted the Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio had been working in Rome for fifteen years. The painting was commissioned by Laerzio Cherubini. a papal lawyer, for his chapel in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, Rome; the painting could not have been finished before 1605–06. The depiction of the Death of the Virgin caused a contemporary stir, and was rejected as unfit by the parish.

Giulio Mancini thought Caravaggio modelled a prostitute, possibly his mistress, as the Virgin, Giovanni Baglione and Gian Pietro Bellori attributed the rejection to the appearance of the Virgin. The breach of decorum led to a rejection of the painting by the fathers of Santa Maria della Scala and its replacement by a picture by Carlo Saraceni, a close follower of Caravaggio.

c1612 The Dormition of the Virgin by Carlo Saraceni
oil on canvas 305.1 x 231.1 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Wednesday 9 August 2023

Caravaggio - part 1

1593 Self-Portrait as Bacchus
oil on canvas 67 x 53 cm
Borghese Gallery and Museum, Rome

Michelangelo Merisi (Michele Angelo Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio, known as simply Caravaggio; 29 September 1571– 18 July 1610), was an Italian painter active in Rome for most of his artistic life. During the final four years of his life he moved between Naples, Malta, and Sicily until his death. His paintings have been characterised by art critics as combining a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, which had a formative influence on Baroque painting. 

Caravaggio 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, transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light and darkening shadows. 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 inspiring effect on the new Baroque style that emerged from Mannerism was profound. His influence can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera,  Giam Lorenzo Bernini, and Rembrandt. Artists heavily under his influence were called the “Caravaggisti” (or "Caravagesques"), as well as tenebrists or tenebrosi (shadowists).

Caravaggio trained as a painter in Milan before moving to Rome when he was in his twenties. He developed a considerable name as an artist, and as a violent, touchy and provocative man. A brawl led to a death sentence for murder and forced him to flee to Naples. There he again established himself as one of the most prominent Italian painters of his generation. He travelled in 1607 to Malta and on to Sicily, and pursued a papal pardon for his sentence. In 1609 he returned to Naples, where he was involved in a violent clash; his face was disfigured and rumours of his death circulated. Questions about his mental state arose from his erratic and bizarre behavior. He died in 1610 under uncertain circumstances while on his way from Naples to Rome. Reports stated that he died of a fever, but suggestions have been made that he was murdered or that he died of lead poisoning.

Caravaggio's innovations inspired Baroque painting, but the latter incorporated the drama of his chiaroscuro without the psychological realism. The style evolved and fashions changed, and Caravaggio fell out of favour. In the 20th century interest in his work revived, and his importance to the development of Western art was reevaluated. The 20th-century art historian André Berne-Joffroy stated: "What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on the works of Caravaggio:

1592-93 Boy peeling fruit
oil on canvas 75.5 x 64.4 cm
Longhi Collection, Florence

This is the earliest known work by Caravaggio, painted soon after his arrival in Rome from his native Milan in mid 1592.

The fruit being peeled by the boy is something of a mystery. Sources indicate it may be a pear, which is probably correct but has been questioned; it may be a nectarine or plum, several of which lie on the table, but these are not usually peeled; some have suggested a bergamot, a pear-shaped citrus fruit grown in Italy, but others object that the bergamot is sour and practically inedible.

Seen as a simple genre painting, it differs from most in that the boy is not 'rusticated,' that is, he is depicted as clean and well-dressed instead of as a 'cute' ragamuffin. An allegoric meaning behind the painting is plausible, given the complex Renaissance symbology of fruit. Caravaggio scholar John T. Spike has recently suggested that the boy demonstrates resistance to temptation by ignoring the sweeter fruits (fruits of sin) in favour of the bergamot, but no specific reading is widely accepted.

There are several fine versions of this composition with claims to be original works by Caravaggio and no reason to suppose that there must be only one such original. 

1592-95 The Musicians
oil on canvas 92.1 x 118.4 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

While Cupid confirms Caravaggio’s allegorical frame for representing Music, the artist equally engages with contemporary performance and individualized models, including a self-portrait in the second boy from the right. Caravaggio’s contemporary, Giovanni Baglione, recorded that the artist painted "a concert, with some youths portrayed from nature very well" immediately after joining the household of his first great patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. Most likely, this is the same painting and is one of several employing the half-length, earthy yet sensual figures with which Caravaggio made his name upon arriving in Rome.

1592-99 Portrait of a Prelate
oil on canvas 68 x 53 cm

1593-95 Boy with a basket of fruit
oil on canvas 70 x 67 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome

Boy with a basket of fruit dates to when Caravaggio, who arrived in Rome from Milan, was making his career in the Roman art world. The model was his friend, the Sicilian painter Mario Minniti, at about 16 years old. Primarily, the artwork belonged to Giuseppe Cesari, the Cavaliere d’Arpino, seized by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1607. Many historians refer to other works of the same period featuring Minniti as a model, such as The Fortune Teller and the Cardsharps from 1594. In addition, the Cardsharps brought Caravaggio to the attention of his first significant patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte.

1594-95 Patient Mary Magdalene
oil on canvas 106 x 97 cm
Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome

1594-95 Patient Mary Magdalene
oil on canvas 106 x 97 cm
Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome

Caravaggio's Penitent Mary Magdalene (also known as Repentant Magdalene) is a powerful statement – but what, precisely, that statement is, is unknown. Some critics felt that Caravaggio was making a statement about the treatment of prostitutes in his own time, using the Bible's best known fallen woman to raise awareness of the violence that these women faced. Magdalene, they say, is depicted slumped and defeated, her hands and face swollen, the violence implicit in the strand of broken pearls on the floor beside her.

Regardless of Caravaggio's intentions, his contemporaries were horrified by his depiction of Mary Magdalene as a modern (for their day) woman. She is attired in clothing that could have been seen on women in the streets and houses of Caravaggio's home town, and this clear linking of the Bible's alleged prostitute with modern women sat uncomfortably with many religious authorities. But this disapproval was not universal – many clerics praised the painting, embracing the realism of the portrait and the clear lines of remorse and regret to be seen in the position of the woman's body.

c1594-95 The Fortune Teller
oil on canvas 115 x 150 cm
Musei Capitolini Pinocateca, Rome

1594-96 Boy bitten by a Lizard
oil on canvas 66 x 49.5 cm
The National Gallery, London

An effeminate youth recoils in pain as he is bitten by a lizard, which clings tenaciously to his finger. In the foreground is a magnificent still life of fruit, with a rose and sprig of jasmine in a glass vase. Look closely and you can see the reflection of a room in the curved surface of the vase. The painting may have an allegorical meaning, and possibly refers to the pain that can derive from love.

It is very unusual for a late sixteenth-century painting to show such a moment of action, but Caravaggio rejected artistic convention and painted directly onto the canvas from live models. This gave his works an immediacy and intensity that made them instantly popular. Numerous early seventeenth-century copies and derivations of this painting exist, including a high-quality replica in the Fondazione Longhi, Florence, considered by many to be by Caravaggio himself.

1594-96 The Rest on the Flight into Egypt
oil on canvas 130 x 160 cm
Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

The scene is based not on any incident in the Bible itself, but on a body of tales or legends that had grown up in the early Middle Ages around the Bible story of the Holy Family fleeing into Egypt for refuge on being warned that Herod the Great was seeking to kill the Christ Child. According to the legend, Joseph and Mary paused on the flight in a grove of trees; the Holy Child ordered the trees to bend down so that Joseph could take fruit from them, and then ordered a spring of water to gush forth from the roots so that his parents could quench their thirst. This basic story acquired many extra details during the centuries. Caravaggio shows Mary asleep with the infant Jesus, while Joseph holds a manuscript for an angel who is playing a hymn to Mary on the viol.

1595 The Musicians
oil on canvas 92.1 x 118.4 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

1595-96 The Lute-Player
oil on canvas 94 x 119 cm
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Caravaggio painted The Lute Player in his early period, before his religious subjects. After moving to Rome from Milan, Caravaggio found work painting still lifes, figures playing games, and other images of musicians. In Rome, he started relationships with important and influential people that were instrumental in his progression as an artist. The Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte was an important diplomatic person in seventeenth century Italy and a well-known patron of the arts. Many of Caravaggio’s commissions, including The Lute Player, were from Del Monte for his personal collection. There are three versions of Caravaggio’s Lute Player, but all have very similar compositions. They all have a boy in the center holding a stringed instrument – the lute. The figure is the same in the paintings: an adolescent boy with dark hair, light skin, and delicate features. He is shown in the middle of playing a song with his hands plucking the strings and his mouth slightly open, singing a song about love.

1595-97 The Adolescent Bacchus
oil on canvas 95 x 85 cm
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The painting is listed in the 17-18th century inventories of the Villa di Artiminio from 1609; such an early date supports the hypothesis that it was given, along with the Medusa, by cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte to the Grand Duke Ferdinando I. It was found in the Uffizi storage facilities in 1916. It shows youthful Bacchus reclining in classical fashion with grapes and vine leaves in his hair, fingering the drawstring of his loosely draped robe. On a stone table in front of him is a bowl of fruit and a large carafe of red wine. He holds out a shallow goblet of the same wine, inviting the viewer to join him.

c1595 The Cardsharps
oil on canvas 94 x 131 cm
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

The Cardsharps came to the attention of the influential Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who not only purchased it but also offered the artist quarters in his palace. Caravaggio was thus introduced to the elite stratum of Roman ecclesiastical society, which soon gave him his first significant opportunity to work on a large scale and for a public forum.

In The Cardsharps, the players are engaged in a game of primero, a forerunner of poker. Engrossed in his cards at left is the dupe, unaware that the older cardsharp signals his accomplice with a raised, gloved hand (the fingertips exposed, better to feel marked cards). At right, the young cheat looks expectantly toward the boy and reaches behind his back to pull a hidden card from his breeches. Caravaggio has treated this subject not as a caricature of vice but in a novelistic way, in which the interaction of gesture and glance evokes the drama of deception and lost innocence in the most human of terms. It spawned countless paintings on related themes by artists throughout Europe—not the least of which was Georges de La Tour’s Cheat with the Ace of Clubs in the Kimbell.

The Cardsharps was stamped on the back with the seal of Cardinal del Monte and inventoried among his possessions after his death in 1627. Its location had been unknown for some ninety years when it was rediscovered in 1987 in a European private collection.

c1595 The Fortune Teller
oil on canvas 93 x 131 cm
Louvre, Paris

With The Fortune Teller, Caravaggio introduced a new subject into Italian art. Unlike most Italian paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, The Fortune Teller does not take its theme from the Bible or Greco-Roman mythology, but instead is a genre picture, or a scene of daily life. Genre paintings were extremely popular in Northern Europe, abounding in Dutch art. Northern paintings and prints were becoming quite popular at the end of the sixteenth century especially in northern Italy and Caravaggio most likely became familiar with them during his years as an artist's apprentice in the Lombardy region.

Caravaggio depicts a wealthy, foppish young man having his palm read by a seemingly innocent gypsy girl (identifiable by her unique attire). Naively trusting and apparently easily distracted by the fairer sex, the boy flirtatiously gazes into the gypsy girl's eyes while she (according to contemporary sources) slightly slips the ring off his finger. Just like Northern genre paintings, the painting is imbued with a subtle moral lesson.

1596 Medusa, called Medusa Murtola
oil on canvas mounted on panel 48-49 cm diameter
Private Collection

1597 Medusa
oil on canvas mounted on wood panel 60 x 55 cm
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Two versions of Medusa were created by – one in 1596 and the other in 1597 – depicting the exact moment she was executed by Perseus. He plays with the concept by replacing Medusa's face with his own, as an indication of his immunity to her dreadful gaze. Due to its bizarre and intricate design, the painting is said to complement Caravaggio's unique fascination with violence and realism. It was commissioned by Italian diplomat Francesco Maria de Monte as a means of giving it to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and is now located in the Uffizi Museum in Florence without signature.

1597-1600 Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto
fresco 180 x 300 cm
Casino Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome

Villa Aurora was put up for auction in Rome at $546 million however failed to sell even with a $360 million one-of-a-kind 16th century mural. Known by its official name of Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, the Italian abode was owned by the late Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi and is now being sold by the Italian government due to inheritance issues between his children and his wife Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

However, what makes this house worth an exuberant amount isn’t the house itself but what’s inside. This is the only ceiling mural undertaken by Caravaggio.

The mural depicts the Roman gods of Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto with animals that include an eagle and mythical creatures like the Hippocampi and three-headed dog Cerberus. Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte commissioned Caravaggio to paint the Mural in 1597 with the piece now over 400 years old, it’s estimated to be worth $360 million.

1598 Maffeo Barberini
oil on canvas 124 x 90 cm
Private Collection

Maffeo Barberini, 30 years old and from the eminent Florentine Barberini family, was a rapidly rising Church prelate, a friend of Caravaggio's patron Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, and himself a poet and patron of the arts. Barberini's support would continue into later years – in 1603 he commissioned a Sacrifice of Isaac from Caravaggio. In 1623 he became Pope as Urban VIII.

1598-99 Judith beheading Holofernes
oil on canvas 145 x 195 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

1598-1610 Judith beheading Holofernes
oil on canvas 144 x 173.5 cm
Private Collection

c1598 Martha and Mary Magdalene
oil and tempera on canvas 100 x 134.5 cm
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI

Caravaggio introduced dramatic effects of light and shadow in his paintings and often used ordinary-looking people to illustrate religious stories. Artists from Italy, as well as from other European countries, adopted his style.

In the sixteenth century a new emphasis was placed on Mary Magdalen's role as a converted sinner. Caravaggio depicts Mary's sister Martha, dressed modestly, reproaching her sister for her wayward conduct and enumerating on her fingers the miracles of Christ. This exact moment of the conversion was obviously a tremendous challenge for the painter because the change is spiritual rather than physical. Caravaggio's solution was to manipulate the light that illuminates the Magdalen, giving her an unearthly glow. The mirror, a traditional Image of vanity, now reflects the light of divine revelation.

c1598 Saint Catherine of Alexandria
oil on canvas 173 x 133 cm
Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The painting was part of the collection of Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, where it was cataloged in 1627. The saint, together with Mary Magdelene, were among the Cardinal's favorites. According to Alessandro Zuccari, it was painted on the suggestion of the Cardinal when Caravaggio was living with him in the Palazzo Madama. 

As the model for the saint, Caravaggio controversially chose Fillide Melandroni, a well known Roman prostitute he had fallen in love with and who caused him many problems. Fillide would again model for him in “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” “Judith Beheading Holorfeness,” and in a single portrait burned in Berlin during World War II. 

Saint Catherine of Alexandria was a popular figure in Catholic iconography. Her qualities are supposed to be those of beauty, fearlessness, virginity, and intelligence.She was of noble origins, and dedicated herself as a Christian after having a vision. At the age of 18 she confronted the Roman Emperor Maximus, debated his pagan philosophers, and succeeded in converting many of them to Christianity. Imprisoned by the emperor, she converted his empress and the leader of his armies. Maximus executed her converts (including the empress) and ordered that Catherine herself be put to death on a spiked wheel. The wheel reportedly shattered the moment Catherine touched it. Maximus then had her beheaded.

1599-1600 The Calling of Saint Matthew
oil on canvas 340 x 322 cm
Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The painting depicts the moment at which Jesus Christ inspires Matthew to follow him. Over a decade before, Cardinal Matteo Contarelli had left in his will funds and specific instructions for the decoration of a chapel based on themes related to his namesake, Saint Matthew. The dome of the chapel was decorated with frescoes by the late Mannerist artist Giuseppe Cesari, Caravaggio's former employer and one of the most popular painters in Rome at the time. But as Cesari became busy with royal and papal patronage, Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, Caravaggio's patron and also the prefect of the Fabbrica of St Peter's (the Vatican office for Church property), intervened to obtain for Caravaggio his first major church commission and his first painting with more than a handful of figures.

1599-1600 The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew
oil on canvas 323 x 343 cm
San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The painting shows the martyrdom of Saint Matthew the Evangelist, author of the Gospel of Matthew. According to tradition, the saint was killed on the orders of the king of Ethiopia while celebrating Mass at the altar. The king lusted after his own niece, and had been rebuked by Matthew, for the girl was a nun, and therefore the bride of Christ. Cardinal Contarelli, who had died several decades earlier, had laid down very explicitly what was to be shown: the saint being murdered by a soldier sent by the wicked king, some suitable architecture, and crowds of onlookers showing appropriate emotion.

The commission (which, strictly speaking, was from his patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, rather than from the church itself), caused Caravaggio considerable difficulty, as he had never painted so large a canvas, nor one with so many figures. X-rays reveal two separate attempts at the composition before the one we see today, with a general movement towards simplification through reduction in the number of figures, and reduction – ultimately elimination – of the architectural element. The figure in the background, about left-centre and behind the assassin, is a self-portrait by Caravaggio.

c1599-1600 Narcissus
oil on canvas 110 x 92 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

This is one of only two known Caravaggios on a theme from Classical mythology, although this is due more to the accidents of survival than the artist's oeuvre. Narcissus, according to the poet Ovid in his “Metamorphoses,” is a handsome youth who falls in love with his own reflection. Unable to tear himself away, he dies of his passion, and even as he crosses the Styx continues to gaze at his reflection.

Caravaggio painted an adolescent page wearing an elegant brocade doublet, leaning with both hands over the water, as he gazes at this own distorted reflection. The painting conveys an air of brooding melancholy: the figure of Narcissus is locked in a circle with his reflection, surrounded by darkness, so that the only reality is inside this self-regarding loop. The 16th century literary critic Tommaso Stigliani explained the contemporary thinking that the myth of Narcissus "clearly demonstrates the unhappy end of those who love their things too much."

c1599 Basket of Fruit
oil on canvas 31 x 47cm
Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

Much has been made of the worm-eaten, insect-predated, and generally less than perfect condition of the fruit. In line with the culture of the age, the general theme appears to revolve about the fading beauty, and the natural decaying of all things. Scholars also describe the basket of fruit as a metaphor of the Church.

In 1607 it was part of Cardinal Federico Borromeo’s collection, a provenance which raises the plausibility of a conscious reference to the Book of Amos. Borromeo, who was archbishop of Milan, was in Rome approximately 1597-1602 and a house guest of Del Monte in 1599. He had a special interest in the Northern European painters such as Paul Bril and Jan Brueghel the Elder, who were also in Rome at the time, (indeed, he took Breughel into his own household), and in the way they did landscapes and flowers in paintings as subjects in their own right, something not known at the time in Italian art.

1600 David and Goliath
oil on canvas 110.4 x 91.3 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

David and Goliath was painted while the artist was a member of the household of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, It shows the Biblical David as a young boy (in accordance with the Bible story) fastening the head of the champion of the Philistines, the giant Goliath, by the hair. The light catches on David's leg, arm and flank, on the massive shoulders from which Goliath's head has been severed, and on the head itself, but everything else is dark. Even David's face is almost invisible in the shadows. A wound on Goliath's forehead shows where he has been felled by the stone from David's sling.