The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio

Tim Flight - August 24, 2018

The trope of the tortured genius is a familiar part of modern culture. Once we preferred our heroes straightforward and tediously successful. Now, those whose personality flaws, criminal records, or mental illnesses stood in the way of them realising their potential are now far more au fait. Or perhaps, now, we just prefer human heroes to superhumans who were always going to succeed. One thinks of the recent film biographic of Steve Jobs, which paid equal lip-service to his many flaws as to his pioneering work in the technological world. Perhaps the archetypal flawed genius is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Caravaggio may have died a few months before his 39th-birthday but, boy, did he pack a lot into his short life! Caravaggio must be one of the most naturally gifted painters of all time, a man whose uncompromising approach to artistic innovation was so great that it almost completely overshadowed his impressive criminal record. What makes Caravaggio all the more extraordinary is that he managed to stand out at a time when sublimely talented artists were ten-a-penny. Here we will tell his story and, most importantly, discover what made him a genius by examining his work in detail.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
The Italy Caravaggio was born into enjoyed a period of hard-fought peace after the Italian War of 1551-59, which saw events such as The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, painted by Giorgio Vasari, Florence, c.1570. Wikimedia Commons

1. Early Modern Italy

To immerse ourselves in the life of Caravaggio, we must begin by learning something of the world he lived in. Caravaggio was born in 1571, at a time when Italy was a collection of city-states. The city-states were rivals in trade and power, and their mutual dislikes were exacerbated by alliances with France and Spain, rivals who owned territory in Italy. With the election of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1519, the French saw the threat of Hapsburg dominance of European affairs, and declared war upon him, in alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

This culminated in the Italian War of 1551-59 (above), which Charles won with the help of the Spanish. The Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis allowed France to keep a few of its territories in Italy, but also confirmed Spanish dominance. Thus it was into Spanish Italy that Caravaggio was born. The Spanish rule was authoritarian and resented by certain people, but did ensure a period of peace and stability in Italy. Unfortunately, Italy’s economy simultaneously declined as new trade routes opened up with the wider world, reducing the value of the country’s trade with other nations, upon which it traditionally relied.

The 16th century also saw the decline of the Papal States after the Protestant Reformation wrested power from an increasingly corrupt Catholic Church. The Papacy no longer had any diplomatic control over nations which had turned Protestant, and even in Italy its powers waned as Catholic princes sought independence from Rome. However, the Catholic Church responded with the Counter-Reformation after 1545, which included not only the attempts to reconvert Protestant countries but a reaffirmation of Catholic practices. To achieve this, the Church became a great patron of the arts, which it saw as central to spreading the word.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
Milan in the late 16th century by Frans Hogenberg, Weimar, 1593. Wikimedia Commons

2. Early Life

Into this complex world Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in 1571. His father, Fermo, was a steward and stonemason to Francesco Sforza I, the Marchese of Caravaggio, a town around 40 km from Milan. Though Fermo has been remembered by some biographers as an architect, the truth is far less grand: he is referred to as a mere maestro in charters, meaning only a qualified artisan with certain privileges. His family had many connections to the Sforza family, who in turn were connected by marriage to the great Colonna family, aristocratic contacts vital to Caravaggio in later life.

The young Caravaggio split his time between the town from which he took his name and Milan, where Fermo had a workshop. Unfortunately, the bubonic plague arrived in Milan in 1576, and though the family fled to Caravaggio, his father, grandfather, and grandmother all died from the disease. According to the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, the trauma of Caravaggio’s childhood was to form his adult character. ‘As soon as he’s welcomed by authority, welcomed by the pope, welcomed by the Knights of Malta, he has to do something to screw it up…. it’s almost like a fatal flaw’.

Caravaggio, his two brothers, and sister were thus left to be brought up by their mother, Lucia Arisi. As well as the trauma of seeing his family die, the plague of 1576 killed one-fifth of Milan’s population, and so Caravaggio’s childhood was soaked with death and the threat of dying. We know very little of Caravaggio’s young life with Lucia, but if Graham-Dixon’s theory about his later behaviour is correct, he was probably a very difficult child to raise, and showed flashes of his notoriously volatile temper. Either way, at the age of 12 he was sent to Milan.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
A self-portrait of Simone Peterzano, to whom Caravaggio was apprenticed, Milan, 1589. Wikimedia Commons

3. Apprenticeship

Whether Caravaggio was sent to Milan because he was too unruly or not, 12 was a daunting age to make the move away from his family to a big city. He was sent to Milan to be apprenticed to a minor Milanese master, Simone Peteranzo. Although he was in no sense a famous artist, Peteranzo had been apprenticed himself to the great Titian in Venice, and so possessed considerable artistic pedigree. Peteranzo was chiefly known as a painter of frescos, a technique of painting a mural onto wet lime plaster, and Milan was full of examples of his work.

Peteranzo painted frescoes in churches, and so his work was chiefly religious in character. Although religious scenes were to be a dominant feature of Caravaggio’s own oeuvre, he never mastered the art of fresco painting, which perhaps suggests that he was not a particularly attentive student. It also seems that he fundamentally disagreed with Peteranzo’s Mannerist style, which was a highly stylised and unrealistic method of painting. Instead, he learned the realist style of the Lombard and Venetian schools, which was to characterise his later work. However, with Peteranzo he learned how to mix paint, choose brushes, and make frames.

An equally important influence on Caravaggio during his early years in Milan was the ferocious Archbishop Charles Borromeo. Borromeo was part of the Counter-Reformation, and believed that the Catholic world had fallen in to sin. Thus he preached fire-and-brimstone sermons, and favoured the direct message of the realist art that Caravaggio preferred over the works of Peteranzo and his Mannerist peers. Borromeo had a near-monastic love of poverty and humility, and preached that the poor were the image of Christ who needed to be helped. Caravaggio’s many depictions of the poor may stem from this aspect of Borromeo’s message.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
A Boy Peeling Fruit, the earliest known painting by Caravaggio, Rome, c.1592-93. Wikimedia Commons

4. Rome

Details are again sketchy, but we know that at the age of 21 Caravaggio left Milan to travel to Rome. In so doing, he joined legions of other aspiring artists, who were attracted by the vast amount of artistic commissions from Pope Clement VIII, who wanted to revitalise the city’s existing churches and build new ones. Caravaggio lived with around 2, 000 other artists in the small area between Piazza del Popolo and the Piazza di Spagna. Competition was rife between the artists, and often broke out into feuds. Penniless, Caravaggio was forced to take on various small jobs.

At first he lodged with the Sicilian painter Lorenzo Siciliano, who was in a similar position, and ‘painted heads for a groat apiece and produced three a day’, according to his early biographer, Giovanni Pietro Bellori. The economics of living hand to mouth meant that Caravaggio was forced to work faster than he probably would have liked, often completing paintings in less than two weeks. After a few months, however, his talent was evident enough for him to find relative stability in the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement’s favourite painter, and undertook small commissions such as flowers and fruit.

Although he was understandably frustrated by these restrictions on his work, in this period Caravaggio did produce his two earliest-known paintings, A Boy Peeling Fruit and The Young Sick Bacchus. Both works are deservedly-lauded, which is all the more remarkable since he was also enjoying a raucous life in the artists’ district. According his 17th-century biographer, Joachim von Sandrart, he liked to go about with ‘his young friends, mostly brash, swaggering fellows – painters and swordsmen – who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, “without hope, without fear”‘. Despite his later fame, Caravaggio never tired of brawling.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
Ottavio Leoni’s portrait of Caravaggio, Rome, 1621. Wikimedia Commons

5. Fame

In 1595, Caravaggio’s luck suddenly turned. That year began inauspiciously with Caravaggio hospitalised after being kicked by a horse, but after recovering he decided to strike out alone, and sell his own paintings through an agent. At this stage, Caravaggio had produced over 40 paintings, and the greater publicity for his talents brought him to the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who purchased two secular works, The Cardsharps and The Gypsy Fortune Teller. Del Monte swiftly took Caravaggio under his wing before anyone else noticed his talents, housing him in his own home and giving him a pension.

Del Monte also secured Caravaggio numerous commissions for the homes of his powerful friends. His role as ambassador for the powerful Medici family of Florence, notable patrons of the arts, also resulted in some of Caravaggio’s most famous early works. The Medici were especially fond of secular or Classical art, and so he produced the Medusa Shield (above), a striking self-portrait, and the Adolescent Bacchus. The Medici identified themselves with the Greek hero Perseus, who slew the Gorgon, and so depicting Medusa’s head on the shield-face was a cleverly literal imagination of this peccadillo for the shield’s bearer.

The commission that really made Caravaggio’s name was decorating the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome with depictions of the life of St Matthew in 1597. Caravaggio completed the commission in 1601, but despite the quality of his three paintings, the collection was not without controversy. Rather than depict Matthew in the stylised, adoring fashion of tradition, he insisted on vividly realistic portrayals set in the present day to emphasise the prescience of the Gospel’s message. Some were shocked, but the Contarelli Chapel secured him further prominent and well-paid commissions across the Holy City.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio is a good demonstration of his use of chiaroscuro, Rome, c.1599-1600. Wikimedia Commons

6. Chiaroscuro

Before we begin to discuss Caravaggio’s work in detail, it is important to understand what made the work so innovative and popular in late-16th-century Italy. As previously mentioned, Caravaggio’s realistic approach to art was in part a reaction against the artificiality of Mannerism, perhaps influenced by Archbishop Borromeo’s tastes. Although depicting biblical scenes in the present day had been a technique common in medieval art, Caravaggio’s incredible ability also to depict these episodes realistically was a tremendous shock to 16th-century viewers, whose exposure to the technique was limited to the consciously-stylised, 2-D renderings of earlier periods in impoverished churches.

But Caravaggio’s main innovation was his use of a technique known as chiaroscuro (‘light-dark’), which he refined into his own iteration, tenebrism. Chiaroscuro painting involves the bold contrasting of light and darkness to create a dramatic and emphatic whole. It lends itself especially well to realist painting such as Caravaggio’s because the play of light and shadow creates a sense of volume in the rendering of three-dimensional figures. Think, for instance, of the difference between a colour and a black-and-white photograph. The latter gives greater clarity to physical features and creates a generally more sombre mood than the former.

Tenebrism, Caravaggio’s version of chiaroscuro, extends the violent clashes of light and darkness of the earlier method. In tenebrism, the darkness rather than the light becomes the dominant part of the picture’s composition, and makes the image seem to exceed its two-dimensional medium. In the picture above, look at the window shutter, and the leg-muscles of the man at the table’s centre. The tenebrism of the painting also adds to the drama of the moment depicted: here, Jesus points at Matthew from the right of the picture, accompanied emphatically by the beam of light, inspiring the eventual-apostle to follow him.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus, Rome, 1594-95. Wikimedia Commons

7. Young Sick Bacchus

Young Sick Bacchus is Caravaggio’s earliest known painting, dating from his time in Cesari’s workshop. It depicts Bacchus, the Roman god of farming, wine, and fertility, a common subject of Renaissance art. However, Caravaggio’s rendering is characteristically atypical amongst such portrayals. Where most renderings of Bacchus display him as a young, vivacious god flush with wine and merrymaking, Caravaggio’s Bacchus is clearly unwell. He is jaundiced, with dry lips, and a somewhat tragic look of intoxication rather than a jovial one. The fruit is ripe, but placed on a strikingly bare surface, and the grapes are clutched possessively.

This Bacchus is not inviting the beholder to join his revelry, and even seems to shy from company, as Andrew Graham-Dixon notes regarding the position of his right leg. But would we want to join him? His dry, pale lips are not smiling, but suggest world-weariness. The tenebrism indicates that the picture is set at night, the time for revelry. But this Bacchus does not seem an especially happy or sociable figure. Instead, his legs and the vine leaves slip away into nothing, and he is very much alone. Perhaps this feature suggests the ephemerality of both inebriation and joy.

Intriguingly, the Young Sick Bacchus is widely believed to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio. As Graham-Dixon observes, whilst Bacchus is associated with joy, and also artistic inspiration, he simultaneously symbolises anarchy and surrender to the senses. He is passion, rather than reason, and in Euripides’s tragedy, The Bacchae, he destroys Thebes by luring its citizens with wine and revelry to the mountains and sending them mad. The picture, as an allegory, thus represents the carnal, impassioned side to Caravaggio’s complex character: the heavy-drinking, promiscuous, fiery-tempered brawler of the artists’ district, with the latent capacity for chaos and total self-destruction.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
The Death of the Virgin by Caravaggio, Rome,1604-06. Wikimedia Commons

8. The Death of the Virgin

The Death of the Virgin is the last of Caravaggio’s great altarpieces, finished c.1605-06. It was commissioned by the Carmelite Friars for their church at Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. The painting depicts of the death of the Virgin Mary, and once again Caravaggio takes a unique approach to his subject. Customarily, the event would be depicted with a choir of angels looking on, to give some sense of the divinity of the event. However, Caravaggio opts instead for stark realism. Besides the thin, shaded halo over Mary’s head, there is nothing to indicate what is being depicted.

The drab, contemporary setting, led the art historian Roberto Longhi to call it ‘a death in a night refuge’. However, there is nothing profane in Caravaggio’s depiction. Instead, the understated setting gives the picture an almost overwhelming sense of pathos lacking in other depictions. Instead of depicting theatrical levels of grief, Caravaggio has his mourners react in a realistic manner to the death of an individual. The central, balding mourner even shields his face, giving an overall emotional rawness to proceedings. The realism is assisted, too, by the sheer scale of the painting, which makes the figures near life-sized.

Tenebrism is, again, central to the painting’s impact. Where most of the mourners are cloaked in shadow, Mary is illuminated by a stark, dazzling light. Along with the compactness of the scene, this serves to draw the beholder’s eye towards Mary, the subject of the picture itself. Although there is none of the devotional iconography of other depictions of Mary’s death, Caravaggio makes the event one of human tragedy, and as a devotional object in itself it is wildly successful. Nonetheless, the Carmelite patrons rejected it, either because of Caravaggio’s growing notoriety… or because a famous prostitute posed for Mary.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
Amor Vincet Omnia (Love Conquers All) by Caravaggio, Rome, 1602-03. Wikimedia Commons

9. Lifestyle

Whilst he was accumulating critical acclaim, Caravaggio was also leading a private life of scandal and ill-repute. A description of Caravaggio’s lifestyle in 1601 (when The Death of the Virgin was commissioned) by his contemporary and fellow-artist, Floris Claes van Dijk, recalls that ‘after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him’. His was a life of chiaroscuro.

One of Caravaggio’s defining characteristics was his short temper. In one memorable incident of 1604, he was dining at the Tavern of the Blackamoor in Rome. When he was brought a plate of artichokes, Caravaggio asked the waiter if they were cooked in oil or butter. The waiter replied that he should find out by smelling them, and Caravaggio took it as an insult against his provincial sense of taste, smashed the plate on the waiter’s head, and threatened him with a sword. He also called the man a becco fottuto (‘f****d-over cuckold’), and was later prosecuted by his victim.

Brawling was common in late-16th and early-17th-century Rome, so it says something of Caravaggio’s behaviour that he was notorious for his love of fighting. Between 1600 and 1606, he was recorded in police records 14 times, in 6 instances of which he was arrested. Caravaggio was also often stopped for carrying a sword or dagger without permission, from which charge he would defend himself by naming a prominent patron or acquaintance who had given him permission. Violence was a way of life: he threatened to beat-up both artists copying his style, and his landlady when the rent was due.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
Boy with a Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio depicts a beautiful young man, Rome, 1592-93. Wikimedia Commons

10. Sexuality

Caravaggio’s sexuality has long-been the subject of intrigue. It is unusual that the most famous painter in Rome, with all his connections and wealth, to say nothing of his near-permanent state of intoxication, did not marry or have any children. Looking again at his paintings, it is notable that he never painted eroticised female figures, and yet beautiful, nubile young men were a frequent subject. Rumours of his homosexuality dogged him: the model for Amor Vincit Omnia (above), Cecco Boneri, was said to have been his lover, and Caravaggio’s rival, Giovanni Baglione, painted a sodomite devil with Caravaggio’s face.

Baglione had an axe to grind with Caravaggio, however. In 1603, Baglione brought a libel suit against the Milanese because he had composed a satirical poem at his expense entitled Giovanni Coglione (‘Johnny Bollocks’). Baglione alleged that a male prostitute, often hired for his usual duties by Caravaggio, had distributed Caravaggio’s lewd rhymes around the city. Though Caravaggio was imprisoned, Cardinal Del Monte’s intervention saw him released without charge, and so we can divine little of the truth from the end of the matter, either. Homosexuality, too, was punishable by death, and thus was a common, slanderous accusation.

Ultimately, there is no definitive evidence for Caravaggio’s homosexuality. As Andrew Graham-Dixon summarises, ‘there is no absolute proof of it, only strong circumstantial evidence and much rumour… the balance of probability suggests that Caravaggio did indeed have sexual relations with men… but he certainly had female lovers’. One of his female lovers, one Lena, was even mentioned in a court case of 1605, described as ‘Michelangelo [Caravaggio]’s girl’. Sexual relations with men were common throughout the Early Modern Period – one has only to think of the works of Shakespeare – and so in this probable bisexuality Caravaggio was far from unique.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, Rome, c.1599-1600. Wikimedia Commons

11. Murder

Caravaggio’s penchant for heavy drinking, sword-wielding, and brawling was bound to end in tears. One of his many enemies in Rome’s seedy underworld was Ranuccio Tomassoni, and the pair’s rivalry culminated in a duel in 1605, that saw Tomassoni slain by Caravaggio. Traditionally, it was held that the pair had been playing a tennis match, inevitably started arguing, and fought a duel to settle their differences that resulted in Tomassoni sustaining a fatal wound and bleeding to death. Caravaggio sustained a head injury from one of Tomassoni’s companions, but fled before he could be further injured (or arrested).

Evidence unearthed by Andrew Graham-Dixon in the Vatican archive, however, suggests that the fight actually took place over a female prostitute, Fillide Melandroni, whom both men wished to hire for the night. Tomassoni, a pimp, was actually killed in a botched attempt at castration. Street fights in Rome in the early 17th century were something of an art, and ‘if a man insulted a man’s woman he would get his penis cut off’. The surgeon who treated Tomassoni suggested that he was knocked to the floor during the duel and then injured in the femoral artery, which supports Graham-Dixon’s theory.

Either way, after killing Tomassoni, Caravaggio did not stick around. Having fled Rome, Caravaggio was convicted of murder in absentia and sentenced to bando capital, meaning that anyone from the Papal States could kill him with impunity and be rewarded upon production of his body or severed head. Caravaggio initially hid in Naples, where his childhood connections from Caravaggio town, the eminent Colonna family, gave him protection. He also painted David with the Head of Goliath, which he sent to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, possibly in hope of pardon. After all, Goliath’s severed head was modelled on Caravaggio himself…

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
Fort St Angelo, Valletta, Malta, where Caravaggio found himself imprisoned. Spotting History

12. Exiled in Malta

Details are few, but it seems that Caravaggio did not mend his ways, and was forced to flee Naples after yet another unwise brawl. In 1607 he travelled to the small island of Malta, headquarters of the Order of St John, Catholic soldiers who waged war against Islam. By becoming a member, Caravaggio would be automatically pardoned for murdering Tomassoni, a ruse possibly suggested by the Colonna family, who had used the loophole in the past. Caravaggio successfully won favour with his paintbrush, and Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt received Papal permission to make Caravaggio a knight of the Order.

The Order of St John was fantastically wealthy, and at the time of Caravaggio’s arrival was in the process of decorating the recently-completed St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. They must have been delighted with the good fortune of Rome’s most famous artist arriving on their tiny island. Thus, having joined the Order of St John, Caravaggio got to work on the Beheading of St John the Baptist (discussed in detail below). The picture so pleased de Wignacourt that he gave Caravaggio two priceless gold necklaces and a couple of slaves. Several other paintings followed, and Caravaggio lived like a king.

Unfortunately, trouble was never far behind Caravaggio. On the night before his Beheading of St John the Baptist was to be officially unveiled on the Baptist’s Feast Day, Caravaggio violently assaulted Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, a more senior Knight of the Order. Giovanni was wounded with a pistol, and Caravaggio was thrown in the imposing Fort St Angelo (above). Barely four and a half months after he was admitted to the Order, Caravaggio was kicked out of it for being ‘a foul and rotten member’. However, with the aid of an accomplice, Caravaggio managed a daring escape from his mighty prison.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio, Valletta, 1607. Wikimedia Commons

13. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

The Beheading of St John the Baptist was the largest painting ever produced by Caravaggio, and the only one he ever signed. It has since been lauded as his magnum opus, and one of the greatest paintings of all time. It commemorates the death of the Order’s patron saint, John the Baptist, who was beheaded after King Herod rashly promised a dancing girl, Salome, anything she desired, and was forced by honour to grant her cruel request for John’s head. Caravaggio depicts the decapitation taking place under the fearsome gaze of a Turkish janissary, one of the Order’s hated enemies.

Caravaggio focuses on the degrading, hurried circumstances of St John’s savage death, again affording no glorious elements to a profoundly human event. Herod had been mid-feast when he was compelled to order the beheading, and here the executioner has bungled the rushed first attempt, and is about to finish the job with a knife. Instead of taking place at a formal place of death, St John is simply beheaded outside the prison. The picture is enlivened by Caravaggio’s characteristic use of chiaroscuro, which makes the features of the contemporary Maltese building, in particular the window and doorway, appear three-dimensional.

It seems that Caravaggio knew that the painting would be a celebrated work. He has made his signature a fundamental part of the painting and event itself, by forming it from the blood spilling from the Baptist’s neck. That is, he is linking his own immortality to that of St John, whose martyrdom will bring him eternal life. Whether Caravaggio was thinking in secular (posthumous fame) or sacred (eternal life, as a result of the forgiveness of his sins after joining the order) immortality, is unclear. But God, like the Knights, was surely impressed by the 3.7 x 5.2-metre undertaking.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, Naples, c.1609-10. Wikimedia Commons

14. Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist

In this, one of his last paintings, Caravaggio returns again to the beheading of St John the Baptist. In a sense, it is a sequel to the event of the monumental painting of subject he produced during his brief stay on Malta. There, we saw John the Baptist shortly before he lost his head, and here we see the result of that incident. Salome, we must remember, was promised anything in the world by Herod because of her seductive dancing at his feast. Requesting the Baptist’s head on a platter was her mother’s idea. But does she look happy?

Salome, holding the platter, is anything but. She turns her gaze from the grisly, severed head whilst the other two figures gaze directly at it. Salome looks somewhat jaded by the whole thing, whilst the old woman – possibly her mother, Herodias – has a paradoxical expression of mourning. Even the executioner, who still brandishes his sword, lacks any sense of triumph and in fact seems profoundly miserable. Once again, the glorious moment of a Biblical event, at which St John was martyred and thus began his eternal life in heaven, is reduced to the bare bones of human tragedy.

John Gash has aptly called the painting ‘a profound meditation on death and human malevolence’. The painting may in fact relate to events in Caravaggio’s own life. The subject matter itself directly concerns the Order of St John, and Caravaggio actually sent it to Alof de Wignacourt. The overwhelming sense of futility may be a plea for an end to the vendetta pursued for events in Malta: the painting suggests that revenge does not bring satisfaction, and the contrast of beautiful girl and withered crone suggests that they never end. The head on the platter is, tellingly, another penitential self-portrait.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
The Martyrdom of St Ursula, Caravaggio’s last painting, Naples, 1609-10. EPPH

15. Death

Having escaped Malta, Caravaggio now had two sets of prominent enemies (that we know of) baying for his blood: Tomassoni’s powerful and vengeful family, on the one hand, and the entire Order of St John and Giovanni Rodomonte Roero’s family, on the other. From Malta, he thus fled to Sicily, where he secured some important commissions for which he produced masterpieces. After a few months in Sicily, Caravaggio returned to Naples in 1609. There he stayed with the Colonna family again, and continued to paint for wealthy and delighted customers. But even the Colonnas could not always protect him…

At the end of the year, he was leaving the Osteria del Cerriglio, a tavern with a reputation for violence and debauchery, when he was ambushed by four armed men who had followed him there. The attack left Caravaggio with a severe wound to his face, and he was dangerously ill for several months. The facial wound is important: it symbolised the avenging of an insult at the time, and Andrew Graham-Dixon has compelling evidence that it was the revenge of Giovanni Rodomonte Roero. As he convalesced, Caravaggio continued his attempts to negotiate a pardon for the murder of Tomassoni.

It seems that he got his pardon, for on July 9th 1610 he set off for Rome with several paintings as part of a settlement. However, he was imprisoned after landing at the port of Palo, where he intended to hire a cart to complete his journey, and his paintings were sent on to Porto Ercole. After buying his way out of prison, he set off to retrieve them, but died soon after reaching Porto Ercole. He was already in a perilous state of health, and it is thought that he simply succumbed to the heat of the Tuscan summer.

However, it may not be quite that simple. Caravaggio was still living in fear of revenge for the murder of Tomassoni and the assault on Giovanni Rodomonte Roero. Though the latter probably orchestrated the facial wound in Naples, this may not have been the end of the matter. An alternative, rather romantic theory, is that Caravaggio died of lead poisoning from his own paint. The exact location of Caravaggio’s grave is unknown, but one historian has archival evidence that bones found at San Sebastiano cemetery in Porto Ercole are his. When tested, these contained unusually high levels of lead.

The Controversial Life and Works of Caravaggio
The Raising of Lazarus by Caravaggio echoes his reputation’s posthumous revival with the Baroque and Realist masters, Sicily, c.1608-09. ArtWay

16. Legacy

Caravaggio’s epitaph, composed by his friend, Marzio Milesi, is a rather neat summary of his artistic identity (even if it gets his age wrong): ‘Michelangelo Merisi, son of Fermo di Caravaggio – in painting not equal to a painter, but to Nature itself – died in Port’ Ercole – betaking himself hither from Naples – returning to Rome – 15th calend of August – In the year of our Lord 1610 – He lived thirty-six years nine months and twenty days – Marzio Milesi, Jurisconsult – Dedicated this to a friend of extraordinary genius’. Although not everyone could look beyond his recent crimes when he died, this soon changed.

We have dealt already with Caravaggio’s iteration of the established practice of chiaroscuro, tenebrism, but we should remember that it was Caravaggio who refined it into a style productive of the finest art. It enabled Caravaggio to depict scenes in vivid and realistic detail, and hence he was ‘equal… to nature itself’. Think of all the great art you’ve ever seen, pre-Impressionism. The violence, realism, and darkness that characterised his work were repeated again in his acolytes of the Baroque movement – Rubens, Bernini, Giuseppe Ribera, and Rembrandt, to name but a few – and 19th-century Realism (Courbet, Manet, Cezanne).

In the immediate aftermath of the unveiling of his illustrations of the life of St Matthew, Caravaggio unwillingly accumulated a group of followers known as the Caravaggisti, many of whom he physically threatened for their unoriginality. Even Caravaggio’s techniques were influential. To the disgust of most contemporaries, Caravaggio preferred to paint straight on the canvas without resorting to preliminary sketches. The history of art would have been unrecognisable without Caravaggio, most notably the Baroque era. In the words of the great art historian Bernard Berenson, ‘with the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence’.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Central Italian and North Italian Schools. Oxford: Phaidon, 1968.

Fried, Michael. The Moment of Caravaggio. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Gash, John. Caravaggio. 2003

Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. W. W. Norton & Company 2011.

Graham-Dixon, Andrew. “Caravaggio”.

Kington, Tom. “The mystery of Caravaggio’s death solved at last – painting killed him”, The Guardian, June 16th 2010.

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