Who Was Caravaggio and Why Was He So Important?

We’re so eager to know something—anything—concrete about the elusive Caravaggio that fragments of a femur, cranium, and spine were exhumed 400 years after his death in the hope that they might be his. Depending on whom you believe, those bones did or did not belong to the mercurial Baroque artist, and they may or may not be proof that he had syphilis and lead poisoning. What is clear, regardless, is that centuries after his death at age 39, we still know little about Caravaggio the man.

Caravaggio’s oil paintings of genre scenes, mythological subjects, and biblical stories have survived, but their popularity is a relatively new phenomenon. The artist was commercially successful in his lifetime, but his contemporaries started chipping away at his reputation early on, claiming among other things that he followed nature too closely and ignored the idealization that was so prized during the High Renaissance. One of Caravaggio’s early biographers, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, wrote in 1672 that the artist “lacked invention, decorum, disegno, or any knowledge of the science of painting. The moment the model was taken from him, his hand and his mind became empty.” In other words, according to this oft-repeated critique, Caravaggio’s only talent was that he could copy nature well.

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That wasn’t true, of course. He pioneered tenebrism, a style in which figures are cloaked in shadow but dramatically illuminated by a single light source. Another invention was his depiction of biblical characters as contemporary figures, painting them warts and all, with dirty fingernails, tan lines, and wrinkles. Still, Caravaggio’s reputation declined until he was rediscovered in the 20th century, when a 1951 exhibition of his paintings in Milan helped reignite interest in him among the general public and scholars.

Caravaggio helped craft the dramatic Baroque style of the Counter-Reformation, but interest in him also stems from his reputation as a troublemaker. He was known to carry an unlicensed sword and look for a fights, a fact verified in records of the 11 trials against him that took place between October 1600 and September 1605. Much of what we know about Caravaggio, in fact, comes from criminal records. They tell us that he once cut a hole in his ceiling to allow more light into his studio, which led his landlord to evict him; that he threw stones at his landlady’s house and sang songs outside her window, hurled a plate at a waiter because he thought a dish of artichokes was undercooked, teased a rival with lewd sexual insults, assaulted a man on the street, and killed a man in a swordfight. He spent much of his adult life as a fugitive. In short, Caravaggio made a singular name for himself both inside and outside his studio.

Source: artnews.com

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