6 Things You Should Know About Caravaggio


When many of us think about Italian Renaissance art, we think about the usual trio: Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. All three were geniuses who seemed to be touched by the hand of God. Between them, they produced some of the finest art the world has ever seen.

But few of us make that trio a quartet by including the name Caravaggio.

To those in the know, Caravaggio was blessed with as much talent – if not more – than Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. But because he was a rogue and a vagabond who preferred a street fight to remaining faithful to a commission, his name was banished from history for a few centuries.

Because of his reputation for hard drinking, and refusing to bow to the authorities, Caravaggio’s name is mentioned less frequently than the aforementioned trio’s. Yet his contribution to art is just as important as his peers.

If you’re looking to take a foray into the man behind the mask, let’s take a look at 6 things you need to know about this swashbuckling, rebellious artist.

Caravaggio Reacted Against The Art Of Michelangelo

Caravaggio really got into the swing of things thirty-four years after Michelangelo died, and his style of art was a violent reaction to what his predecessors had trotted out.

Where Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael went for light, fantasy and conventional religious scenes, Caravaggio went for darkness, and dirty realism. He left no stone unturned, and even painted the grime underneath a person’s fingernails.

And where the aforementioned heroes of the Renaissance used reputable and respectable models to pose for their work, Caravaggio plucked ordinary people off the streets in a bid to create a new language of art that has been described as “theatrical realism.”

American critic Bernard Berenson wrote: “With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence. After him, painting would never be the same.”

Caravaggio Almost Died From The Plague

There is no getting away from the fact that Caravaggio’s art is dark; so dark, in fact, that it paved the way for the Baroque period.

Perhaps one of the reasons his art is bereft of light is because Caravaggio very nearly died from the Plague, a deadly epidemic that swept through Europe, claiming the lives of his father and uncle.

Not long after he had arrived in Rome in his early twenties, the artist fell ill and was dragged to a local hospital for the poor by his friend.

His friend didn’t expect him to survive.

But fortune shone on Caravaggio, when a local wealthy man recognised him as the burgeoning artist and paid for him to have proper treatment.

Despite recovering, this episode dogged him for the rest of his life, and he suffered headaches and stomach aches until his death.

Caravaggio’s Career Ended Prematurely, After A Street Fight

Caravaggio was a rogue who was often getting into fights.

But a beating he handed out to a man in Malta proved to be his undoing, as a few months later the victims’ friends sought their revenge.

Caravaggio was consequently set upon outside a gay bar in Naples by a gang of men. The attack was so vicious that his face was permanently disfigured, and his eyesight damaged.

He was never able to properly recover, and produced just two more works, both of which were bereft of his usual skill and talent.

Caravaggio Worked Quicker Than Anyone Else

Most artists of Caravaggio’s day produced preparatory drawings before painting onto canvas.

This method is still used by artists all around the world today. It helps an artist to get a feel for the work, iron out any potential issues, and lay the groundwork.

Caravaggio, though, never produced a preparatory drawing. Instead, he went straight to the canvas.

Not only that, but he raced through a painting, completing a work of art in less than half the time it took his peers.

During his lifetime, he was criticised for his methods, but there is little doubt that the quality of this mercurial talents’ output was not diminished by his speed; rather, we could argue that his works are all the better for it. There is a ferocious ecstasy that is unmatched elsewhere.

Caravaggio Very Nearly Remained Anonymous

As has already been mentioned, Caravaggio was a rogue who chose the left-hand path. Rather than do as people asked, he chose to forge his own path in life, and in art.

Consequently, when he arrived in Rome (which was the art capital of the world at the time), he was offered the chance to make his fortune and live in the large estate of a wealthy patron named Valentin. There was just one condition – he had to paint religious scenes, which were in-vogue.

Preferring his freedom to choose and do, Caravaggio refused and painted Bacchus, the god of wine instead.

The painting was refused, and Caravaggio was penniless and living on the streets. Again, he was offered a chance to make his fortune so long as he painted a religious scene.

Once more he refused, this time painting a fortune teller.

But his benefactor Valentin was persistent, and eventually persuaded the troubled Caravaggio to finally paint a religious scene. Caravaggio at last obliged and painted a masterpiece entitled The Ecstasy of Saint Francis. And thus his star was born.

Caravaggio Painted Cruel Scenes

Religious paintings were the order of the day during Caravaggio’s time. His contemporaries painted biblical scenes such as the annunciation, the adoration of the magi, and the last supper.

Not so Caravaggio.

With a lust for bloodthirsty scenes that predated the Gothic period, Caravaggio chose to paint biblical stories that were x-rated.

As such, he painted the sacrifice of Isaac, the beheading of Holophernes, the martyrdom of Saint Matthew, and the flagellation of Christ.

He also painted Medusa, the cruel mythological monster who turned people into stone. Nice.