Friday, August 20, 2010

Outlaw Painter, Caravaggio

Much of his life remains a mystery, but it has been suggested that Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio—the painter we know as Caravaggio—had a troubled childhood and adolescence. By his early twenties he had already become and outright villain, arrested and imprisoned repeatedly. Cardinal del Monte a powerful man and patron of Caravaggio proved unequal to the painter’s repeated brushes with the law. At age 39, a persecuted outlaw, he was finally murdered on a beach south of Rome.

Caravaggio is the quintessence of what came to be called “Baroque.” Coming on the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries, it was a time of fury, ecstasy and excess, and each of Caravaggio’s paintings created a scandal. He name was lost, forgotten for three hundred years. Not until the 1920s was his name revived, his work reevaluated, thanks to the research and enthusiasm of Italian art critic, Roberto Lohghi. The painter’s contemporaries could not know of the influence that the scandalous artist would have on later painters, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Géricault, Courbet and Manet. One American critic declared, “With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence.” The influence that these critics speak of was a far-reaching refinement of the emotional/intellectual relation between artist and subject. But during his lifetime Caravaggio was considered provocative and unacceptable. His work was seen as a display of obese, vulgar models posed sacrilegiously as Christ or Apostle, severed heads, men and women in ignoble, drunken postures, and young rogues playing dice or cheating at cards.

This description is to some extent accurate, but the technical facility, or drawing, paired with the chiaroscuro, the light and dark of a Caravaggio canvas attests to his genius. He worked at great speed without first sketching out the main figures, so sure was his drafting. In his compositions, the painter created a theatrical realism, using player-models chosen from the street. Monteverdi had just invented the operatic form, which Caravaggio translated to canvas. Still, whatever he painted, precedence was always given to nature and truth.

Genius or debauched sensualist, perhaps both, Caravaggio’s paintings are now in their rightful place in museums around the world.


1. The Musicians, 1595-1596—The singer, second from the right is a self-portrait of the artist.

2. The Crucifixion of Saint peter, 1601

3. Victorious Cupid, 1602-1603

4. The Cardsharps, 1594-1595

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America