Caravaggio: An Italian Artist With a Violent Streak

Updated on May 9, 2019
John Welford profile image

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni
Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni

His Early Years

Caravaggio was the name that Michelangelo Merisi chose as his working name, this being the village near Milan from which his family came.

At the age of 12 he was apprenticed to the Milanese painter Simone Peterzano, and eight years later, thanks to inheriting money from his deceased parents, he was able to move to Rome. This was where there were plenty of commissions being issued for works of art, but also lots of competition from many painters, sculptors and architects who had flooded into the eternal city.

He found it very difficult to get started and endured a period of poverty after his inheritance ran out. His luck changed when he joined the household of Cardinal Del Monte, the cardinal-protector of the painters’ academy in Rome.

Caravaggio’s paintings for the cardinal were mainly pictures of effeminate young men, which has given rise to questions about Caravaggio’s sexuality. However, this tendency was far more likely to have belonged to the patron rather than the artist.

His early works were relatively small pieces, including still-lifes and genre scenes, either on commission or for open sale. However, this was not the way to make serious money as an artist. What he really wanted was a commission to produce a large-scale altarpiece or something similar. This chance came in 1599 when he won a commission to produce two large paintings (on the life of St Matthew) for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. It is almost certain that this commission was obtained for him thanks to the influence of Cardinal Del Monte.

This was Carvaggio’s breakthrough moment. The paintings were widely admired and new commissions flooded his way, leading to his fame spreading across Europe. Did success go to his head, or did the extra workload lead to a form of stress-related mental illness? Whatever it was, Caravaggio’s character was henceforth very different from what it had been before.

Going Off the Rails

From 1600 onwards, reports appeared regularly that testified to antisocial and criminal behaviour on Caravaggio’s part.

In November 1600 he attacked a colleague with a stick, and in the following February he was brought before the magistrates accused of having raised his sword against a soldier. It was known that he roamed the streets at night, with his servant and his dog, looking to make trouble and get involved in brawls.

In 1603 a fellow artist brought a libel action against him, the result of which was that he was briefly imprisoned and only released on condition that he stayed at home and did not offend the artist in question again. He was threatened with being made a galley slave if he broke either condition.

In 1604 he was accused of throwing a dish of food at a waiter in a restaurant and then threatening the man with a sword. Later that year he was arrested for insulting a policeman.

His catalogue of misdemeanors in 1605 included carrying a sword and dagger without permission, attacking a lawyer in a quarrel over a girl, and throwing stones at his landlady’s windows when she accused him of not paying his rent.

However, these incidents were trivial by comparison with what happened in May 1606. A quarrel arose after a tennis match which Caravaggio had been playing, involved payment of a wager on the result. The fight that ensued between the friends of both players became serious and one of those involved, named Ranuccio Tommasoni, was killed after being attacked by Caravaggio.

Caravaggio went into hiding for three days and then fled from Rome. He spent the rest of his life hoping for a papal pardon that would allow him to return but he waited in vain. Until now he had always been able to escape the full consequences of his violent behaviour thanks to the influence of his patrons and powerful friends, but this was different. The friends got to work on his behalf but the task was far more difficult this time.

He would never set foot in Rome again.

His Later Life

It is not clear where Caravaggio went immediately after leaving Rome, but by October 1606 he was in Naples, where he was able to work on several major pieces including three altarpieces.

In July 1607 he left Naples and made for Malta, possibly at the invitation of the Knights of St John who wanted him to paint certain pictures for them. It is certainly true that Caravaggio did produce some important pieces on Malta, including his largest ever piece, the “Beheading of St John the Baptist” for Valetta Cathedral. However, Caravaggio’s state of mind during this time can be guessed from the fact that he signed his name in blood on this painting, which was incidentally the only time that he signed any of his paintings.

In July 1608 Caravaggio was rewarded for his efforts by being made an honorary Knight of St John, but the good times did not last, due to his wild side breaking out again. Five months later he was arrested for quarrelling with a noble knight and thrown into prison. He escaped and fled to Sicily.

While on Sicily Caravaggio supported himself by painting three altarpieces, after which he returned to Naples. From there, in the summer of 1610, he set sail in a small boat up the Italian coast and landed at Port`Ercole, which was a garrison town under Spanish protection about 80 miles north of Rome. He had high hopes that his pardon would come through very soon, and this was as close to Papal territories as he could get, meaning that his journey back to Rome would be a short one.

However, things went very wrong when he was mistakenly arrested and held in prison. When he was released, two days later, his boat was no longer where he had left it. Desperate to recover his possessions on board the boat, he wandered along the shore in blazing heat and developed a raging fever that was to prove fatal. He died on 18th July 1610 aged only 39.

The longed-for pardon did eventually arrive, but too late for Caravaggio to be able to take advantage of it.

The Art of Caravaggio

Violence and brutality lie at the heart of much of Caravaggio’s output, so that throats are cut with blood streaming out of them, but in the context of their time this was not to be wondered at.

Many commissions for artists came from Church authorities, with the aim of presenting the stories of the Bible to a populace that was largely illiterate. Caravaggio was a master at showing scenes that ordinary people could relate to, so the stories of the New Testament were seen as though they had happened in the same place and time that the viewers lived in, with all their dirt and nastiness.

One example of this was his “Death of the Virgin” from 1605-6, which was painted as a church altarpiece. This was rejected by the church that it was intended for, because of its excessive realism. There are no saintly blue robes, halos or angels here, but the bloated corpse of a woman with partially bare legs, surrounded by weeping onlookers. There were even rumours that Caravaggio’s model for the Virgin was a local prostitute who was actually dead.

Caravaggio’s style was far removed from the “high art” of Renaissance masters such as Raphael and Michelangelo, appearing to many as being vulgar, rude and provocative and possessing nothing in terms of decorum, grace or beauty. “Death of the Virgin” was not the only painting to be rejected by a commissioning church, but Caravaggio was always assured of a sale to a private collector when this happened.

Death of the Virgin
Death of the Virgin

Chiaroscuro

This means contrast between light and dark, and Caravaggio made good use of this feature in many of his works, often to an exaggerated degree. His figures are lit by a strong, raking light that casts deep shadows and has the effect of heightening the drama of the scene. As well as giving depth to his scenes, Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro added to his realism, given that interiors at that time would have been lit by candles or weak lanterns and there would have been many dark corners.

The Supper at Emmaus

It is not known for whom this scene was painted, or even when it was done, although the general view is that it dates from around 1600. It is, however, generally regarded as one of Caravaggio’s finest works, although it is not without fault.

The subject is one of Christ’s appearances to his disciples after the Resurrection. The picture captures the moment when they realise that the man they thought was dead is actually alive and sitting at the table with them. The man on the left – presumably Cleophas who is mentioned in the text of St Luke’s gospel – is caught as he pushes back his chair and is about to stand up. The man on the right has flung his arms out on either side. The third witness, standing at the back, is a lot calmer – he is possibly the innkeeper who is not aware of the significance of what he is seeing. It has also been suggested that this is a self-portrait of the artist.

Apart from the drama, there is also symbolism in this painting. On the table are bread and wine, symbols of the Eucharist, but also a basket of decaying fruit which could be symbolic of man’s mortality and the vanity of earthly things.

And the fault? The figure on the right adds considerable depth to the scene with his left hand reaching out towards the viewer and his right hand fading towards the shadow at the back of the room, but surely the two hands should not appear to be the same size given that they are presumably about six feet apart?

The Supper at Emmaus
The Supper at Emmaus

Judith Beheading Holofernes

This extremely violent scene, dating from 1598-9, depicts the climactic moment of the Book of Judith (Old Testament Apocrypha) when the Jewish heroine Judith decapitates the enemy general Holofernes, having ingratiated herself with him and got him drunk.

Artists usually depicted Judith holding the severed head. Caravaggio went further and showed his viewers the actual beheading, complete with blood gushing from the victim’s severed arteries.

The horror of the scene is enhanced by the contrast between the shocked face of Holofernes and the lack of emotion shown by Judith as she saws her way through the general’s neck. All we can see on her face is concentration as she goes about her work. This is a portrait of an executioner, maybe a psychopath who could easily do this time and time again should the occasion demand.

This is not a scene that is easily forgotten.

Judith Beheading Holofernes
Judith Beheading Holofernes

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

This work, painted in 1608 during Caravaggio’s time on Malta, is another beheading, but it is dramatic for different reasons than those that apply to the Judith painting mentioned above.

It depicts the moment when John the Baptist’s head has been severed and the executioner is about to pick it up and place it in the basket being held by the servant girl on the left. It will then be taken to Salome, who had demanded it as her reward for pleasing King Herod.

The composition of this picture is interesting in that much of the canvas is virtually empty. All the action takes place in the bottom left-hand corner, with most of the rest being featureless. However, to the right of the scene the one can see the faces of two other prisoners who can see what is going on. Are they thinking that they will be next in line for the same fate as John the Baptist?

One can only speculate at Caravaggio’s state of mind when he painted this picture. He was himself a fugitive from justice at the time, having fled from Rome after killing a man in a brawl. Did he see himself as one of the two onlooking prisoners wondering what the future held? Is that why he signed the picture in his own blood?

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

Sources

“The Great Artists 63” Marshall Cavendish, 1986

“The Oxford Companion to Art”. OUP, 1970

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • Miebakagh57 profile image

        Miebakagh Fiberesima 

        2 weeks ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

        It really is.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        2 weeks ago from UK

        This is a great biographical article. Well-illustrated and well-structured.

      • Miebakagh57 profile image

        Miebakagh Fiberesima 

        2 weeks ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

        Hey, John, what an interesting read with lovely pictures. "Is that why he sign the picture in his own blood?" Good quetion. A person can experience such issues in the mind. Thanks for sharing.

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