Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (1571-1610) achieved one of the most important revolutions in the history of painting. He inherited a world where the classical idealism of Michelangelo was still normative, especially in the depiction of the human body, and where the eccentricities of his successors, who did not paint from life at all, distorted the popular notion of what the eye actually sees. He rejected both utterly. He painted with an intensity of realism never before equalled, and his impact was so immediate, profound and lasting that it affected all the great painters of the first half of the seventeenth century. The genius of each transmuted the new realism in a variety of ways, making it both the climax and the golden age of European art.
Caravaggio was so named after the ancestral seat of the Sforzas from which the Merisis also came. But he was probably born in Milan. North Italian painters, with their transalpine connections, had always had an element of realism, which Caravaggio naturally inherited. But he had no precursors. The only painter who may have set him on his chosen path was Giovanni Battista Moroni (c. 1525 1578), the brilliant portrait painter from Brescia, whose penetrating studies (Il Cavaliere dal Piede Ferito, The Tailor, The Lawyer) are among the treasures of London’s National Gallery. Essentially, however, Caravaggio created himself. He was antinomian, despising all laws of life and art. But his fatal propensity to break all the rules, which turned his life first into anarchy, then tragedy, also made him an artist of astonishing originality and creative power. He destroyed the old order and imposed a new one.
Caravaggio was always in trouble. In 1592, when he was not yet twenty, he fled Milan after ‘certain quarrels’ and the wounding of a police officer. He went to Rome and was there, for the most part, until 1606, when he again had to flee. His life in Rome was of growing financial and professional success, but it was also punctuated with crime. In the years 1600-1606 alone, he was brought to trial no less than eleven times. The charges covered a variety of offences, most involved violence. It is significant that, despite his posthumous reputation for homosexuality, and his endless brushes with the police, he was never charged with sodomy, then a capital offence. But he was charged with murder. On 29 May 1606 he killed one Tommasoni in a brawl after a disputed game of royal tennis, and had to flee to escape execution. He went first to Naples, then to Malta, where he was feted and made a Knight of St John. Then, after ‘an ill considered quarrel’ with a senior knight, he was on the run once more, all around Sicily, then on to Naples again. But this time there was no hiding place. The knights, known for their relentlessness, pursued him, and Caravaggio, now thirty nine, in an attempt to seek forgiveness and refuge in Rome, tried to get there, but died at Porto Ercole, apparently of a fever.
What is remarkable is that the artist, despite his hunted and, in the end, desperate life, always contrived to go on painting, often without a proper workshop of any kind. He was variously described, even by admirers, as a man of ‘stravaganze’ as ‘uno cervello stravagantissimo’ (exceptionally odd) and a ‘cervello stravolto’. His father died when he was six, his mother when he was eighteen, which may help to explain his anger. His paintings show that he was a man of the most profound religious convictions, of a humble and contrite heart, and with a fanatical devotion to his art. His fundamental ideas were always absolutely clear, though he continually changed and improved his techniques. He believed in total realism, and he always painted from life, dragging poor people in from the street if need be. Only two of his surviving paintings are on wood, which he hated, preferring canvas which he could treat himself and cut to his exact specifications. Analysis shows that he experimented with various oils for his paints, to achieve the smoothness, luminosity, transparency and chiaroscuro he required.
He began to make himself a great realist by painting flowers and fruit, in a variety of lights, sometimes pure still lifes, sometimes with street boys (Sick Little Bacchus in the Uffizi; Boy with a Basket of Fruit in the Borghese, Rome; Boy Bitten by a Lizard, in the Longhi Foundation, Florence, though he painted a replica of the last, which is now in the National Gallery). Like all the greatest artists, Caravaggio loved painting from nature. There is no direct evidence that he ever tried pure landscape, but he painted leaves, fruit and flowers with a truth and delicacy that has seldom been matched, as his Basket of Fruit (Milan, Ambrosiana) and Boy with a Basket of Fruit demonstrate. In two early masterworks, the enchanting Rest on the Flight into Egypt and Penitent Magdalene (both Rome, Doria Pamphili), he got his current mistress, a beautiful young golden redhead, to pose as the Virgin and the Magdalen, and it seems quite possible that in the Rest he painted her outdoors, for the light on her flesh is so delicate and natural. Normally, however, he made studio arrangements to get the light exactly as he wanted it. To achieve realism, he liked to pull his subject out of surrounding darkness into strong lateral or overhead light, as close to the viewer as possible. In some cases this was simple – The Lute player (New York, Metropolitan), for example. It was one of a number of works showing handsome boys (in this case a castrato singer from the Vatican choir) which Caravaggio did for the Florentine ambassador in Rome, Cardinal del Monte, a dissolute man who in old age had turned from women to youths. To get the right tones on the boy’s flesh, contrasting with the score of the music in the front, Caravaggio needed a simple light behind himself and to the left. But when he did realistic genre scenes, such as The Cardsharps (Fort Worth, Kimball Art Museum), The Gypsy Fortune-teller (Rome, Capitoline) and The Concert of Youths (Metropolitan) he would put up a studio stage set and light it with elaborate care, both naturally and artificially.
This was a new kind of art, which was to have momentous consequences. It has led some modern writers to speculate that, born into the twentieth or twenty-first century, Caravaggio would have been a photographer or a film maker. But that is nonsense. Caravaggio, it is clear, adored the feel and line of a brush on a slightly springy surface, prepared with grey (as a rule), and the sheer creative excitement of using the brush to bring the real world out of the darkness of the canvas. Not a single drawing by him has survived and it is likely that he never did any. He simply stood up to the canvas and painted directly onto it, from the living model. He also enjoyed the sensual pleasure of working up his colours to match not necessarily nature but the effects of light he had conjured up through his spectacular illuminations.
The word ‘spectacular’ is not amiss because, although Caravaggio aimed at total realism, he wanted drama too. It was the secret of his instant, direct appeal to the Church, to collectors, to fellow artists, to the public, then and since. He depicts dramatic moments, whether cheating at cards or the very second a miracle occurs, in such a way that the viewer feels he is present and can step into the picture. The Church, which bought more than half his output, recognised the huge popular appeal of his vivid presentation of the faith. But it sometimes found Caravaggio too real for comfort. It rejected at least five of his commissioned works or forced him to repaint them, because (as one cardinal put it) he ‘crosses the borderline between the sacred and profane’ His Death of the Virgin, a work of marvellous sadness and pity (Louvre), shows her as an old woman, already a corpse. This was done from life, from the body of a prostitute found in the Tiber. His two versions of The Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery; Milan, Brera), each in different ways essays on truth, show ordinary people rather than holy figures. His Christ in The Crowning with Thorns (Prado) is in horrible pain. In his St Matthew and the Angel (Berlin, Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, destroyed), the evangelist looks too stupid, the angel dictating to him too delicious. Judith Beheading Holofernes (Rome, Barberini) is a terrifying mass of blood and horror. Even in the most touching of his works, The Madonna of Loreto in St Augustine, Rome, showing the Virgin accepting with reverent gratitude the prayers of two old peasants, the soles of the man’s feet are filthy. The Counter-Reformation accepted this new realism as exactly what it wanted in general. And ordinary people loved it because it made them part of the dramas. But sometimes the cardinals and bishops shuddered at what Caravaggio was doing: it was too close to life.
On the other hand, Caravaggio told the story of Christianity as it had never been told before, as an actual happening. In Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, two great canvases in a family chapel – hard to see properly without breaking the rules of the church – St Paul tumbles off his horse at Damascus almost into the lap of the spectators, who feel in genuine danger of a kick from the frantic animal, while the men crucifying St Peter upside down are so close that the viewer is tempted to try and stop them from doing it. In perhaps Caravaggio’s most popular canvas, The Entombment (Vatican), the viewer can peer into the yawning sepulchre. The viewer again feels personally present in The Calling of St Matthew (Rome, S. Luigi), a masterpiece of lighting and narrative drama. In its companion, The Martyrdom of St Matthew, he is appalled at the horror of the murder, and made to feel a guilty participant.
What in effect Caravaggio is doing systematically and deliberately, for the first time in the history of art, is destroying the space between the event in the painting and the people looking at it. He is giving us direct windows into life, whether religious life or ordinary life. Indeed, they are more than windows; we are in the same room or manger or tomb or prison where the events are taking place. Even we, whose vision and sense of reality has been blunted and distorted by television and the cinema, still get tremendous impressions of participating when we see his great canvases close to. What then must it have been like in the early seventeenth century, for people who had never come across anything approaching this blast of actuality, to be brought face-to-face with a reenactment of sacred events in two dimensions? Artists were particularly struck, or perhaps shocked is a better word; but horribly stimulated too, and stirred to find out exactly how the man did it. This was no easy matter, either, for Caravaggio’s work was already becoming scattered in his lifetime. He was changing all the time, and in his last canvases, such as The Beheading of St John the Baptist (Valletta Cathedral) and Adoration of the Shepherds (Messina, Musee Regionale) he was using black space as a powerful character in the composition, threatening to overwhelm the lit areas, sometimes crowded into a mere quarter of the canvas. These experiments were the most important happenings in art, at least so far as artists themselves were concerned, since Leonardo painted. Moreover, Caravaggio, despite all his difficulties, always finished each piece of work if he possibly could, then went directly on to another, with fresh ideas and new experiments.
There is no doubt about the impact Caravaggio’s work had on other artists. In the years immediately after his death, he was imitated by more artists than any other master of whom we have records. Caravaggism was a kind of fever which spread over the art world. In the last century, the art historian Benedict Nicolson spent much of his life collecting photographs of early seventeenth century works in the Caravaggio manner which eventually filled three large volumes. Caravaggio had a direct or indirect influence on all the greatest spirits of the century: Rubens, Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velazquez and Bernini.
From: A New History, by Paul Johnson.