Caravaggio was a man with a well rounded reputation. His fame as an artist spread along with stories of his cantankerous temper and determination to rise as victor in a brawl. His extreme and unusual nature is represented in his work, and he took subjects that were meant to be visualized as beautiful and perfect in all aspects and brought them down to earth, giving them a more natural and realistic representation. Caravaggio was an artist ahead of his time, rebelling against the norm to create something truly revolutionary.
Caravaggio arrived in Rome around 1593 at the approximate age of 22 and lived a nomadic lifestyle, never staying in one location for too long. Perhaps this was because of his tendency to constantly complain about his living conditions. Once instance in particular involved a man named Pandolfo Pucci who was kind enough to allow Caravaggio to stay with him, even commissioning Caravaggio for some work. Even though he was too poor to feed himself, Caravaggio named Pucci “Mr. Salad,” because that was apparently all he was fed, which gives some insight to how difficult a man Caravaggio was.
Living conditions aside, Rome was the catapult for Caravaggio’s career and it was here that his style developed. Caravaggio had a fascination with the aspects of all reality, the ugly being no exception. He even painted directly from his models, unheard of at the time, with no drawing preparation involved, in order to maintain the realism of his work. He was extreme in imitating nature, ignoring nothing that would increase the realistic impression he was trying to portray. He treated his art almost as a stage, painting a re-enactment of a scene, luring the audience into the drama. And what drama there was, with the extreme contrasts in his work from light to dark.
Light, and lack of it, played a major role for Caravaggio and his work. Tenebrism, a technique using dramatic contrasts between light and dark, was a style for which he was famous. He used light sources above his models to increase the three-dimensional qualities of his pieces and enhance the performance of the finished product. This light emphasized the action in the scene, and the extreme darkness around and behind the figures pushed them forward, making them less a part of a painting and more real to the viewer. This dramatic contrast in light and dark brings Caravaggio’s personality to the forefront. He saw the world in terms of polarities; everything was on one end or the other, nothing in between. He put his extremist mind to canvas, painting pitch black or intense light, emphasizing the way he saw the scene being played out and, perhaps, the world itself.
Caravaggio may have also brought some of his characteristics into the portraits he painted of young men. It seems to be left to assumption as to whether or not Caravaggio was homosexual or bisexual, but for some of his portraits, such as Boy with a Basket of Fruit (Figure 1), the subject was obviously intended for a homosexual audience. The boy, with flushed cheeks and full lips, does seem noticeably flirtatious, with his sleeve falling off h is shoulder, his eyes downcast, and his lips slightly parted. Caravaggio painted others such as Boy Bitten by a Lizard (Figure 2) that possessed the same qualities of eroticism. Once again, the boy’s sleeve is slipping off his shoulder, his lips are slightly parted, perhaps in pain, and he even has a flower tucked behind his ear. Were these subjects painted to be the object of a patron’s desire? Or was it Caravaggio’s desire that inspired these homoerotic pieces?
On a completely different note, the Counter-Reformation of the church played a very significant role on Caravaggio and his talents. The Counter-Reformation was a movement in which the church tried to appeal to the people once again and wanted to do so through emotion and feeling. One representative of the Counter-Reformation, St. Philip Neri, thought that religion should be open to everyone, including the poor, and should be simple and enjoyable, not pompous and extravagant. After all, to the illiterate poor, books and elaborate writing were meaningless. In order to grasp the concepts and stories of their religion, the poor turned to pictures and sculptures to understand and worship. The church wanted something the people could relate to on a personal and emotional level, and Caravaggio’s tendency toward naturalism fit perfectly with the ideas of the Counter-Reformation.
Although Caravaggio painted many Christian pieces, many were very controversial were rejected by the churches that commissioned him. Saints and martyrs were idealized at the time, imagined as more than human. Caravaggio favored realism and did not paint his figures with the ideas of the church in mind, but rather painted saints as ordinary people, flaws and all. One example would be The Death of a Virgin (Figure 3), in which Caravaggio portrayed a biblical scene in an unorthodox way. The virgin seems to already be dead and swollen with the start of decomposition and her dress is hiked above her ankles, revealing her feet. In fact Caravaggio did use the body of a drowned woman as his model for this scene, probably to imitate death more precisely. The church, however, did not appreciate Caravaggio’s dedication to naturalism as they thought the “sacred figures lacked decorum,” and refused the piece. His strange character and dramatically genuine images were almost guaranteed to conflict with the church’s images of sacred biblical figures, no matter how determined the Counter-Reformation was to relate to worshippers on an understandable level.
From the year 1600 and on, Caravaggio developed his moody reputation and earned many positions in police records. These infractions were mostly brawls and name-calling, but one day Caravaggio went so far as killing a man named Ranuccio Tommasoni and was forced to flee Rome under threat of capital punishment. Caravaggio moved from place to place as a fugitive, making more enemies, all the while his friends tried to have him pardoned for his murderous crime. Caravaggio himself used his talents as a way of asking for forgiveness. He painted a gruesome picture, David with the Head of Goliath (Figure 4), and sent it as a gift to the art connoisseur Cardinal Scipione Borghese in hopes of gaining pardon. This scene is Caravaggio’s way of saying,”Here is my head.” Goliath’s head is a self-portrait, perhaps representing a substitute for the head Caravaggio might have been forced to surrender.
Caravaggio’s last four years as a fugitive had significant effects on his art until his death in 1610. His gestures were increasingly subtle, bringing attention to only the most significant subjects and actions instead of his usual attention to every single natural detail. Just as Caravaggio allowed every other aspect of his life and view of the world to affect his art, the urgency in his new life as a fugitive triggered restlessness, resulting in substantial experimentation with his work. He included a new emotional power in his work, creating a mood that was much more serious and grave. There is a noticeable difference, for example, inThe Raising of Lazarus (Figure 5). The brushstrokes are not so defined and the attention to nature is not as extreme. The colors are very subtle, as well as the differences between dark and light, and there doesn’t seem to be as much movement or fluidity. The figures are a part of the canvas, unlike the previous three-dimensionality of Caravaggio’s paintings in which the subjects seemed to come alive and reach out toward the viewer. Comparing The Raising of Lazarus to an earlier work such as Boy Bitten by a Lizard, the variations are great, almost to the point that each looks like it was painted by a different artist. Caravaggio, like many great artists, allowed his mood and temperament to show in his work, giving each piece a feeling of its own.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio may have had a short-lived career as an artist, but his genius has not gone unnoticed and his influence in the art world has been great. His foul temperament and almost bipolar view of the world greatly affected his life, and in turn, had significant influence in his art. His tendency toward realism and his extreme consideration of detail, including the unattractive qualities of his subjects, made him a revolutionary of his time.
Adams, Laurie Schneider. Key Monuments of the Baroque. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
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Gale, 2009. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (accessed July 15, 2009).
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 Laurie Schneider Adams, Key Monuments of the Baroque, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000), 37.
 Felix Witting and M.L. Patrizi, Caravaggio, (New York: Parkstone Press International, 2007), 22.
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 Witting and Patrizi, 27.
 John Gash, “Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da,” Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online,http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T013950 (accessed June 26, 2009).
 Gash, 2009.
 “Caravaggio,” 1998.
 Gash, 2009.
 Adams, 39.
 Adams, 39.
 “Caravaggio,” 1998.
 ”Caravaggio,” International Dictionary of Art and Artists, Biographical Resource Center,(Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009) http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (accessed July 12, 2009).
 "Caravaggio," Gay & Lesbian Biography, Biography Resource Center, (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009) http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (accessed July 15, 2009).
 Adams, 39.
 “Caravaggio,” 1997.
 Witting and Patrizi, 43.
 Gash, 2009.
 Gash, 2009.
 Gash, 2009.
Figure 1: Caravaggio. Boy with a Basket of Fruit. Oil on Canvas, 1593. Galleria Borghese, Rome.
Figure 2: Caravaggio. Boy Bitten by a Lizard. Oil on Canvas, 1596. National Gallery, London.
Figure 3: Caravaggio. Death of the Virgin. Oil on Canvas, 1604. Musee de Louvre, Paris.
Figure 4: Caravaggio. David with the Head of Goliath. Oil on Wood, 1607. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Figure 5: Caravaggio. Raising of Lazarus. Oil on Canvas, 1609. Museo Regionale, Messina.