Caravaggio: His Life and 8 Most Famous Works
January 09 2023 – Dervis Akdemir
One of the most famous and prolific artists of Renaissance Italy, Caravaggio profoundly influenced art history with his many famous artworks and pieces. His use of contrasting colours, employing vulgar realism and effort to make still life a prominent theme kept impacting the perception of art even centuries after his death. Let's discover the life of this influential artist and his top 8 works.
Life of Caravaggio
Birth of an Artist
Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi in Milan in 1571. The artist's family had connections with influential families in the area, including the Sforzas, who were intensely involved in the politics of the Italian Peninsula at the time. However, the family of Caravaggio had to leave Milan during the ravaging plague of 1576, settling in the town of Caravaggio.
The young Caravaggio lost his father in 1577, and his mother had to raise him alone until she died in 1584. The same year his mother died, Lombard painter Simone Peterzano accepted Caravaggio as his apprentice. During his apprenticeship, the works of famous artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci undeniably influenced the first examples of Caravaggio's works.
Rome and the Rise of Caravaggio
Despite being an aspirant artist, Caravaggio was also rowdy and rebellious. He often got into trouble due to his aggressive behaviours, and attacking and wounding a police officer was the tipping point that made him leave Milan for Rome.
Caravaggio's work The Cardsharps, which he finished in Rome, won him the patronage of one of the most influential people in the city: Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. The cardinal was charmed by Caravaggio's works and presented him to his social circle, allowing him to work for Rome's most influential people.
During his time in Rome, Caravaggio's style constantly evolved; he started more intensely employing tenebrism, naturalism, realism, and homoerotic themes in his works. The artist didn't avoid depicting bloodshed and pure realism in paintings, which was a stance against the artistic norms of the era.
Although Caravaggio had indisputable fame at the time, he was also a notorious brawler. Since he had the protection of his influential friends, the artist managed to avoid being persecuted for his troublemaking for quite a time; until he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni. The murder was so severe that even his influential friends couldn't do anything to save him, which forced Caravaggio to leave Rome for Naples.
Last Years of Caravaggio
In Naples, Caravaggio continued to produce new pieces, which earned him even more fame. Yet, Tomassoni's murder followed him, and Caravaggio, who faced persecution in Naples, had to flee to Malta island, where he sought shelter from the Knights of Malta.
Although the grandmaster of the Knights appreciated Caravaggio’s works and accepted him, the artist’s behaviours got him imprisoned and expelled from the order. Nevertheless, the artist managed to flee to Sicily and travelled throughout the island, painting new pieces, and earning more fame.
After spending some time in Sicily, the artist returned to Naples, hoping to get a pardon from the Pope. However, an attack by some unknown people in Naples left the artist's face disfigured, a trauma reflected in one of his most famous works, David with the Head of Goliath, which won him the long-awaited pardon. Caravaggio died on his way to Rome to get the pardon under unknown circumstances. Even today, we don't know the main reason behind his death.
Top 8 Paintings by Caravaggio
The Calling of Saint Matthew
Judith Beheading Holofernes
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
The Fortune Teller
David with the Head of Goliath
Basket of Fruit
Bacchus was painted by Caravaggio when he was 19 years old. Like most of Caravaggio's works, Bacchus also employs elements of still life, a work of art pioneered by Caravaggio. Another interesting detail in the painting is the artist's self-portrait on the wine carafe. If you look carefully at the wine carafe, you may see the reflection of a man holding a paintbrush.
2. The Calling of Saint Matthew
One of Caravaggio's religious-themed paintings, the Calling of Saint Matthew, depicts the moment Jesus calls Saint Matthew to follow him. In the painting, we see Jesus pointing at the saint, which might be an inspiration by Michelangelo's famous Sistine Chapel Painting, where God points his finger at Adam.
3. Judith Beheading Holofernes
Although Caravaggio's works made him one of the most famous artists of his time, his use of gory and bloody themes also caused many to see his works as offensive. Judith Beheading Holofernes refused the artistic standards of its time by combining elements of heroism and religion with violence. Although representing human agony in art was common back then, the painting depicts suffering and pain, combined with tenebrism; so realistically it was too unorthodox for its time.
4. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, or Doubting Thomas, is one of the finest examples of Caravaggio's artistic style. The painting depicts the scene when the apostle Thomas questions the resurrection of Christ and touches his wounds to make sure. We can see how Caravaggio used realism in the painting by a quick glance at Thomas's dirty fingernails and the surprised look on his face.
5. Saint Jerome
Another religious-themed painting by Caravaggio is Saint Jerome. The painting depicts the saint, who translated the Bible into Greek, beside his desk, working on the holy scripture. The gaunt figure of the saint and the faint corona above his head amplifies the dark atmosphere in the painting. The use of contrasting tones and accentuation of the dramatic dimensions represent Caravaggio's technique very well.
6. The Fortune Teller
Although everyday themes were quite popular in northern European art at the time, it wasn't in Italy. And Caravaggio's The Fortune Teller might be seen as one of the pioneers of the theme. In the painting, we see a wealthy young man, Mario Minniti, one of Caravaggio's friends, trusting a Gypsy girl to read his palm. However, the girl carefully slips the young man's ring off his finger. The Fortune Teller is one of the first works of Caravaggio; therefore, it doesn't contain many characteristic features of the artist's style.
7. David with the Head of Goliath
Another shady, dark and striking work by Caravaggio is David with the Head of Goliath. The painting, which successfully employs tenebrism and realism, shows us a David who looks at Goliath's severed head with a mixed expression of pity and disdain. However, something more striking about the painting is that Caravaggio portrayed himself as Goliath. Caravaggio painted the pieces after an unsuccessful attempt on his life in Naples, leaving him with a disfigured face, which might be why the artist decided to depict himself as the slayed giant.
8. Basket of Fruit
Caravaggio pioneered still life and tried to make it a popular genre. In Basket of Fruit, he didn't avoid using his characteristic realism; if you look carefully, you may realise that Caravaggio's basket of fruit is full of overly ripe fruits that are worm-eaten and wrinkled. By this, Caravaggio might be trying to show us that there is perfection in what is imperfect, just like his own life.
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