8 Intriguing Facts to Know about Caravaggio

Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 1602
Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 1602

There have been many influential figures in the history of art, but few left a deep mark. Despite a life of violence, Caravaggio is undoubtedly the most admired Italian master of the early Baroque era.

His work was revolutionary, art historians agree, Caravaggio is cited to have inadvertently set the foundation of modern painting. He is known for emotionally charged theatrical religious scenes that transform the observer into a participant. No other painter has utilized the tools of painting to create such powerful effect before Caravaggio. As much as his style thrilled commissioners, he was greatly critiqued and often rejected because of his choice of subjects, his uncompromising realism, and his uncontrollable violence.

So, let’s go behind the canvas for the real story of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Musicians, Caravaggio, circa 1595
Musicians, Caravaggio, circa 1595

8. He Was Not A Pleasant Person

Caravaggio was traumatized by the loss of his parents at an early age, he befriended bad crowds, started to drink and gamble, hung out with prostitutes and scoundrels, all of which resulted in frequent bursts of violence and arrests.

At the time, carrying a sword or a weapon without a license was illegal, much like today. Caravaggio enjoyed walking around with a sword on his hip and picking fights. Despite his bad behavior, he was a dedicated painter.

Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Caravaggio, 1596
Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Caravaggio, 1596

7. A Hidden Sexuality

Art historians noticed the absolute absence of nude female figures from Caravaggio’s body of work. Yet, his early oeuvre executed for Cardinal del Monte is filled with pictures of plump young boys adorned with fruit and wine, oozing desire.

It’s unclear whether the choice of subjects at this stage reflects personal preferences of Caravaggio or of his patron, but we cannot overlook the homoeroticism within these compositions, especially in a 1596 painting “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” whose middle finger is symbolically bitten by the animal.


Related Article: 9 Famous Renaissance Painters from Italy


It’s generally accepted that he may have had male lovers and that he certainly did have female lovers, but no intimate relationship of his was either long or particularly dedicated.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio, 1600-1601
Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio, 1600-1601

6. He Was a Star of Counter-Reformation

Late 16th century was the time when the Catholic Church fought hard to win back Protestants. Art was one of the most important tools used in this colossal campaign and somehow, Caravaggio became the central figure of Counter-Reformational painting. Luring people back was not easy, so the Catholic artists were commissioned to create not only impressive works but highly engaging works of high emotional value, works that will engage and inspire the hearts of the lost. No other artist could overwhelm the viewer as much as Caravaggio and he managed to do so by using two important methods.

One was the combination of chiaroscuro and foreground as the place where everything happens. The observer is pulled into the painting and cannot do anything but empathize. The second, was the fact he used common people from the street as models – workers and prostitutes with common clothes, dirty feet, and familiar faces. This brought his work closer to the people but was often seen as vulgar by commissioners, resulting in many works being rejected or reworked.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, cica 1598-1599
Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, cica 1598-1599

5. He Was a Murderer

In 1606 he killed a man in a fight. Some historians say that the fight was over debt and a tennis match, but newer research mentions a woman as the main reason behind the quarrel. Be as it may, Caravaggio faced a death sentence and chose to leave Rome, fleeing to Naples first and then Malta, Sicily, and Naples again. These forced travels marked his late oeuvre, his mood, and his health. His intention was always to get pardoned by the Pope and to return to Rome.

Entombment, Caravaggio, 1603
Entombment, Caravaggio, 1603

4. He Was the Tenebroso

Chiaroscuro was not a new creation in painting, but Caravaggio took it to the extreme. His shadows are exceptionally dark, the lit portions gleam brightly, emphasizing the difference between the two. Themes he painted were often violent or distressing, all painted very realistically. Caravaggio’s style is also known as tenebrism, a technique so appealing that it became the biggest influence on the work of a number of young artists.

Madonna of Loreto, Caravaggio, circa 1604
Madonna of Loreto, Caravaggio, circa 1604

3. The Caravaggisti

When The Inspiration of Saint Matthew painting was completed for the Contarelli Chapel, many people were drawn to it. His work influenced a number of young artists to follow suit. This generation of artists is known as the “Caravaggisti”. One of the most famous admirer of Caravaggio’s work was Artemisia Gentileschi. It’s fair to say that Caravaggio’s sphere of influence spread across Europe and can be seen in the works of Rubens, Vermeer, and Rembrandt.

Penitent Magdalene, Caravaggio, circa 1597
Penitent Magdalene, Caravaggio, circa 1597

2. He was Knighted in Malta

Caravaggio had connections and bought his way into knighthood, thinking that it would help when asking for a pardon. He was respected in Malta and had several commissions, that is until he had a fight with an aristocrat. It didn’t take long, he was debased from knighthood and arrested. Soon after, he escaped from prison and fled to Sicily.

David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio, 1610
David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio, 1610

1. A Mysterious Death

The only thing certain about his death is that Caravaggio died trying to get back to Rome, where the much-desired papal pardon would wait. He set out on a journey from Naples, along the coast, he fell ill and died several days later, on July 18, 1610, in Porto Ercole, Tuscany.

Historians know that he had a fever at the time of his death, but the theories about the cause of death were many. Findings from 2010 reveal that remains found in a church in Porto Ercole almost definitely are of Caravaggio. Scientific tests suggested that he might have died of lead poisoning, but more likely it was sepsis from a wound he got in a fight in Naples.

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