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Summary Article: Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi Da (1571-1610)
from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

Italian painter, founder and chief exponent of the naturalistic school of painting. Born at Caravaggio, near Bergamo, he left for Rome after the death of his parents. Here he attracted the attention of Cardinal del Monte, who obtained for him the commission for his first major work. It was a series of three pictures for the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi dei Francesi depicting the Calling of St. Matthew, Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, and an altarpiece of The Inspiration of St. Matthew (1599-1603). The Contarelli Chapel paintings were the first of six major Roman church commissions, including the masterpiece The Death of the Virgin. Caravaggio's crude and down-to-earth realism was thought to be revolutionary, especially the dirty feet and sweaty clothes of the poor pilgrims in Madonna di Loreto (1604-1605), the coarse peasants in Madonna dei Palafrenieri (1605), and the deep pathos of the poor and outcast in The Entombment of Christ (1602-04). Caravaggio completed a second major public commission, two paintings for the Cerasi Chapel in S. Maria del Popolo showing the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul.

Caravaggio, Deposition, painting in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

Caravaggio's violent and antisocial behavior got him into trouble with the law a number of times. In one incident in 1606 he killed some-one in a gang fight and fled from Rome to Naples. He was sentenced to death in absentia. In Naples, at the height of his career, he painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for the Pio Monte della Misericordia. In 1607 he left for Malta where he was inducted into the prestigious Order of St. John. As a member of the order he painted the enormous Beheading of St. John the Baptist, the most expressive of all his paintings, evoking the stark realism of the brutal execution. Within months he quarreled with another knight and was thrown into prison. He escaped to Sicily.

Caravaggio's Sicilian interlude continued his Maltese period. The masterpieces included The Burial of St. Lucy, The Raising of Lazarus, and the Adoration of the Shepherds. In 1609 he returned to Naples, where he was attacked and disfigured in a tavern. In the next few months, he painted his last works depicting scenes of execution and martyrdom. In 1610 he left for Rome to obtain a pardon from the Pope but died en route.

Caravaggio had enormous influence on later painters. Rubens admired him and Ribera transmitted his influence to Spain, where Velasquez adopted his style. The painters of the Utrecht School in Rome took his ideas to Holland, where they reappear in Rembrandt. The term Caravaggisti is applied to painters who imitate Caravaggio's style, particularly his dramatic use of chiaroscuro.

SEE ALSO: Rubens, Sir Peter Paul (1577-1640)

References and Suggested Readings
  • Bersani, L.; Dutoit, U. (1998). Caravaggio's secrets. MIT Press Cambridge, MA.
  • Bonsanti, G. (1991). Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Scala Florence.
  • Friedlaender, W. F. (1963). Caravaggio studies. Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ.
  • Hibbard, H. (1983). Caravaggio. Harper & Row New York.
  • Lambert, G. (2000). Caravaggio. Taschen Cologne.
  • Langdon, H. (1999). Caravaggio: A life. Farrar, Straus & Giroux London.
  • Longhi, R. (1993). Caravaggio. Verlag der Kunst Berlin.
  • Marini, M. (1989). Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: “Pictor praestantissimus”, 2nd edn. Newton Compton Rome.
  • Moir, A. (1989). Caravaggio. H. N. Abrams New York.
  • Puglisi, C. (2000). Caravaggio. Phaidon London.
  • Seward, D. (1998). Caravaggio: A passionate life. William Morrow New York.
  • Spike, J. T. (2001). Caravaggio. Abbeville Press New York.
  • George Thomas Kurian
    Wiley ©2012

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