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.