The Bad Boy of Renaissance Art

     He lived not quite 37 years, but in that short span he was a rebel in both life and art, with a reputation for disorderly behavior unmatched by any other major painter.  From his birth — September 28, 1573 — he was in trouble almost constantly, first as an unruly child and then as an adult.  After accumulating a long string of problems with the law, he had to leave Rome to escape imprisonment for murder.

Chalk portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, c. 1621.

     We know few hard facts about him.  He was baptized Michelangelo Merisi (ironically, he was named after the archangel Michael), but he is known by the name of his birthplace — the small town of Caravaggio in Italy.  He was the son of a mason, but he apparently showed enough precocious talent that he was apprenticed to a painter, Simone Peterzano, at the age of 10.  

     Simone was a mediocre artist but a good teacher.  During the next four years young Caravaggio received solid practical how-to-paint training.  By the time his apprenticeship ended, he was already fighting against the artificial-looking painting styles popular at the time, and was formulating his own idea of what art should be — “a good artist means a man who knows how to paint well and to imitate natural things well.”  Caravaggio headed for Rome in search of artistic freedom.

     He struggled for several years, doing poorly paid hack work for others, sometimes trading paintings for lodging and meals.  After a while this hand-to-mouth exicstence took its toll and Caravaggio became seriously ill, possibly with the plague that swept Rome in 1591.  A religious order took him in as a charity patient.  When he recovered he again struggled along doing portrais and still lifes.  Before long he was destitute again, his clothing almost in rags.  Generous fellow artists saved him from starvation, and when at last a picture dealer agreed to take on some of his unsold paintings Caravaggio’s luck began to turn.  He was discovered by Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who bought some of his paintings, commissioned more, and gave him a home.  This led to more important patrons, and within a few years the penniless artist was being called “celeberrimus pictor” (renowned painter).

"Supper at Emmaus", 1601. Oil on canvas, 139 × 195 cm (55 × 77 in). National Gallery, London.

     Caravaggio specialized in religious paintings, where he interpreted spiritual subjects in rational, earthly terms.  His figures were based on live models.  By using deep shadows and strong light sources along with expressive gestures, he created a mysterious unearthly quality.  His pictures were all about emotional impact — the climactic moment in an event:  the astonishment of the disciple Thomas when the risen Christ reveals the wound in his side; the spectators recoiling with horror as the executioner’s sword swings toward St. Matthew’s neck.  He invited the viewer to take part in the scene; for example, in the “Supper at Emmaus” (circa 1600) Christ extends a hand toward the viewer.  Works like this contributed to his fame.


"The Entombment of Christ", (1602–1603), Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome.

    However, as his fame increased so did his reputation as a troublemaker and public nuisance.  He would work at his easel for a couple of weeks, and then for a month or so he headed to the sordid part of Rome to party or swagger through the streets spoiling for a fight.  If a fight didn’t materialize, he soon managed to start a brawl with his friends, or sometimes with complete strangers.

     The first mention of him in the police records was November 19, 1600, when he was 27.  Apparently he attacked a man at night, apparently without cause.  “The defendant came up with a stick and began to beat me,” claimed the victim.  From that time Caravaggio appeared in the police blotters every few months for compaints ranging from serious to ridiculous.  He pelted his former landlady’s window with stones after she sued him for unpaid rent.  He threw a plate of artichokes at a waiter and then threatened him at sword point.  He assaulted a notary over the affections of a prostitute.  He was jailed for carrying a sword and dagger without a license.  Once, when he was actually able to produce a permit, he insulted the police corporal who had asked to see it, saying “you and all those who are with you  can shove it.”  His friends were constantly bailing him out of jail.

     One day, after a match of palla a corda (a game like tennis), an argument broke out between the artist and a member of the opposing team.  Tempers flared, swords were drawn, and Caravaggio ended up seriously wounded — but the other man was dead.  When the authorities went to the house where he was recovering to question the artist, he claimed he knew nothing.  “I wounded myself with my sword in falling on these streets; I don’t know where it hapened and no one was present.”  The police told him not to leave the house — but a day or two later he had vanished from Rome.

     After numerous run-ins with the law, the artist Caravaggio fled Rome to avoid a murder rap.  He went to the Sabine Mountains, east of the city, where he was out of reach of the papal courts but close enough to keep in touch with influential friends.  He hoped they could help him get a pardon from the Pope on the grounds that the killing wasn’t premeditated and he himself had been wounded by his opponent.

     However, no pardon was forthcoming.  Around 1606, almost out of money, he moved south to Naples in hopes of making a living as a painter.  It was a good choice.  Naples had not had an outstandingly talented painter for man years, and Caravaggio quickly obtained plenty of high-paying commissions that kept him busy (and out of trouble) until 1607, when he decided to sail for Malta.


“The Annunciation,” oil on canvas, by Caravaggio.

    Soon after he arrived in Malta, he met the Grand Maser of the Order of St. John and painted two portraits of him.  The Grand Master was delighted with them, and shortly after that Caravaggio was received into the order with the title Knight of Obedience.

     For several months things went smoothly and he was showered with commissions for various churches..  One of them was an enormous canvas measuring about 12 x 17 feet showing the beheading of St. John the Baptist.  It so impressed the Grand Master of the Order of St. John that he gave Caravaggia “a rich collar of gold…and two Turkish slaves, with other marks of esteem…”

     Caravaggio enjoyed the high life for a while – until the dark side of his nature got the better of him once again.  In 1608, no one knows why, he quarreled with a fellow knight of highest rank – a serious offense — and was thrown into prison.  Not waiting to hear what his punishment would be, he climbed the prison wall at night and hopped a boat to Sicily.  The Order of St. John voted unanimously that the artist be “deprived of his habit, and expelled and thrust forth like a rotten and fetid limb from our Order and Community.”

     In Sicily Caravaggio kept moving, apparently fearful of retribution by the knights of St. John.  His fame as an artist preceded him as he traveled from city to city, so he had plenty of commissions; he would paint for a while and then move on.

     Finally Caravaggio heard that his friends in Rome were negotiating with the Vatican to obtain a pardon for him, so he embarked for Naples.  Still trying to appease the Grand Master in Malta, Caravaggio painted and sent him “Salome with the Head of St. John,” which is the artist’s last known surviving work.  But the Grand Master wasn’t placated, and it was probably his cutthroats who cornered the artist one night in the doorway of an inn.  When they finished with him he was so gashed around the face that he was hardly recognizable, and a rumor spread that he had been murdered.

Amor Vincit Omnia. 1601–1602. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Caravaggio shows Cupid prevailing over all human endeavors: war, music, science, government.

     Caravaggio recovered from that near-fatal attack, but his luck was running out.  In June 1610 he put everything he owned on a ship bound for Port ‘Ercole (a coastal town in Tuscany).  He had heard that his pardon was imminent and probably wanted to be as close to Rome as possible.  However, he didn’t want to actually set foot in papal territory in case the Pope might suddenly change his mind. 

     In Port ‘Ercole Carravaggio was arrested again – but this time it was for a crime he had not committed.  He was seized and held in jail until his identity was established a few days later.  While he raged in jail the ship sailed again, apparently with all his belongings still on board. 

     Almost crazed with fury and desperation, Caravaggio tried to catch up with the ship by slogging along the swampy, malaria-ridden shore in the merciless summer sun.  Not far from Port ‘Ercole he collapsed with fever and exhaustion.  On or about July 18, 1610, two months short of his 37th birthday, he died.  A few days later the Pope confirmed his pardon.  And it was discovered that his belongings had never left Port ‘Ercole but remained in the safekeeping of local officials.

     When his death was announced in Rome, his friends and contemporaries mourned the loss of a great artist.  The poet Giambattista Marino wrote, “Death and Nature…made a cruel plot against you: Nature feared being surpassed by your hand in every image that you created …Death burned with indignation because your brush returned to life, with large interest, as many men as his scythe could cut down.”

Published by on August 2015. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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