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Michelangelo Merisida Caravaggio (c.1573-1609)

( Originally Published 1955 )

One of the revolutionary geniuses of Italian art, he was not only a key figure in the development of Baroque painting, but also the fountainhead of modern Realism. Fundamentally a realist, his early style in its clear lighting shows the influence of Mannerism (see), but his mature work is characterized by a unique dramatic chiaroscuro (see). Born in Caravaggio near Milan, the son of a mason, he was sent at the age of eleven to Milan as an apprentice to Simone Peterzano. A remarkably precocious youth, he was in Rome at the age of sixteen, and studied there with d'Arpino, but had difficulty making a living because of his age. However, through the intercession of a French art dealer, he gained the patronage of the Cardinal del Monte and the Marchese Giustiniani. Among his early works, which are very difficult to date, are the Bacchus (Uffizi), the Rest on the Flight to Egypt (Galleria Doria, Rome), the Fortune-Teller (Louvre), and the Fruit Basket (Ambrosiana, Milan). In 1590-93 he received his first important public commission for the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi dei Francesi, for which he did the three paintings of the St. Matthew series. It took him five or six years to complete this group; the first version of St. Matthew and the Angel was rejected for its general realism and the specifically low-class characterization of the saint, but the project established his fame as an important new figure in the Roman firmament, standing opposed to the intellectual Maniera of Zuccari and the eclectic classicism of the Carracci. Though there were violent objections to his art in both ecclesiastic and artistic circles, he had just as strong adherents in both. Thus he continued to receive religious commissions, executing two paintings for the Cerasi Chapel in Sta. Maria del Popolo (c.1600) ; the Madonna di Loreto (c.1604, Vatican) for S. Agostino; the Madonna of the Serpent (Borghese, Rome, 1605) for Sant' Anna di Palafrenieri, which was refused; the Death of the Virgin (1607, Louvre) for Sta. Maria della Scale, which was also unacceptable; and the Madonna del Rosario (1606, Vienna).

During these years, despite his artistic reputation and the importance of his patrons, he lived a life of bohemian disorder. Police records list many arrests for brawling, and in 1606, after killing a man in a fight, he was forced to flee to Naples. Here he immediately received commissions, executing two paintings for S. Domenico Maggiore (1607). In 1608 he was in Malta, where he was made a Knight of Malta, did two pictures for S. Giovanni and painted a portrait. of Olaf de Vignacourt (Louvre). However, he made enemies and had to flee to Sicily, and worked in Syracuse, Messina, and Palermo. On his return to Naples he received a pardon from Rome, but in an effort to avoid his Maltese enemies who had followed him, he embarked on a series of adventures which ended in his death from malaria in Port'Ercole. He was an intensely serious and profoundly human artist, never coarse or vulgar, even lyrically tender. He was revolutionary in his complete rejection of the intellectual and esthetic standards of his time, and in his return to the world of physical and emotional reality. Like Giotto before him, he reinterpreted for his own age religious dogma in terms of human experience, and his effect on subsequent painting was profound and extensive.

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