By Anne Leader

Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was likely born on 29 September 1571, for scholars agree that he was born in the fall of this year, and  29 September is the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, Caravaggio’s namesake.

A highly original and influential artist, Caravaggio is one of the best known and most loved of the Italian Baroque painters. His name derives from his birthplace near Milan, but he spent the majority of his life in central and southern Italy. Upon his arrival in Rome at about age 17, Caravaggio began his career in the studio of Cavaliere d’Arpino painting copies, still lifes, and secular works. His naturalism caught the attention of high-ranking ecclesiastical patrons and led to important commissions including the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi dei Francesi and the Cerasi Chapel in Sta Maria del Popolo, after which he concentrated on large-scale religious paintings. 

Equally famous for his turbulent and scandalous private life, Caravaggio fled Rome after killing an adversary in a brawl over a bet. He was able to continue his career in Naples, Sicily, and Malta. Though he had no students, numerous European artists from Spain to Holland, known collectively as the ‘Caravaggisti,’ emulated his dramatic use of light and darkness known as tenebrism. The National Gallery in London recently dedicated an exhibition to the phenomenon of Caravaggism: Beyond Caravaggio (12 October 2016-15 January 2017).

Long reputed to have died in July 1610 from fever resulting from his wild lifestyle, recent research suggests lead paint may have been the culprit.

Reference: John Gash. “Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. .

Further reading: Catherine Puglisi, Caravaggio (2000); Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (2011).

Fortune Teller, oil on canvas, ca. 1594-5 (Rome, Musei Capitolini)

Basket of Fruit, oil on canvas, c. 1598–1601 (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana); Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

Calling of St. Matthew, c. 1599-1600 (Rome, S. Luigi dei Francesi, Contarelli Chapel)

Entombment, oil on canvas, 1603–4 (Rome, Pinacoteca Vaticana); photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

Denial of St. Peter, oil on canvas, ca. 1610 (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Herman and Lila Shickman, and Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1997)

Crucifixion of St. Andrew, oil on canvas, 1606-7 (Cleveland Museum of Art)

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, ca. 1621. Florence: Biblioteca Marucelliana

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