The Artist Birthday Series


Caravaggio: painter

Michelangelo Merisi (Michael Angelo Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio, known today simply as “Caravaggio,” (29 September 1571 – 18 July 1610) was an Italian painter active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily between 1592 and 1610. His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, had a formative influence on Baroque painting.

Portrait of Caravaggio, by Ottavio Leoni, 1621 - charcoal and pastel on paper
Portrait of Caravaggio, by Ottavio Leoni, 1621 – charcoal and pastel on paper

Caravaggio was born in Milan, and trained there as a painter under Simone Peterzano who had himself trained under Titian. In his twenties, he left Milan for Rome in 1592, in flight after “certain quarrels” and the wounding of a police officer. He arrived in Rome, according to contemporaries, “naked and extremely needy … without fixed address and without provision … short of money.” When he arrived in Rome he was to find there was a large demand for paintings to fill the many huge new churches and palazzos being built at the time. It was also a period when the Church was searching for a stylistic alternative to Mannerism in religious art that was tasked to counter the threat of Protestantism. Caravaggio’s innovation was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro which came to be known as tenebrism (the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value).

"St. Francis In Ecstacy," 1595
“St. Francis In Ecstacy,” 1595

A few months after his arrival, he was employed by the highly successful Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII’s favourite artist, “painting flowers and fruit” in his factory-like workshop. He did his own work as well, including a small Boy Peeling a Fruit (his earliest known painting), A Boy with a Basket of Fruit, and the Young Sick Bacchus, supposedly a self-portrait done during convalescence from a serious illness that ended his employment with Cesari. All three demonstrate the physical particularity for which Caravaggio was to become renowned.

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