(bapt. Milan. 30 Sept. 1571; d Port’ Ercole, 18 July 1610).
The most powerful, original, and influential Italian painter of the 17th century. Although his career was brief (he was only 38 when he died) and his output was fairly small (there are about 70 surviving pictures by him), he had an immense impact on his contemporaries, creating a bold and naturalistic style that broke decisively with the prevailing vapid Mannerism and inspired a host of imitators. His baptismal record, discovered in 2007, indicates that he was born in Milan, but he grew up in Caravaggio, near Bergamo, and takes his name from the town. From 1584 to about 1588 he served an apprenticeship in Milan under the undistinguished painter Simone Peterzano (c.1540–c.1596) and by about 1592 he had moved to Rome, which was to be the main centre of his activity. His career there is not firmly documented until 1599 and in his early years he is said to have endured hardship, taking on whatever hackwork he could to scrape a living. He progressed to assisting Giuseppe Cesari, then to independent work, and in the mid-1590s a dealer sold some of his pictures to Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who became his first important patron (Caravaggio was a paid retainer in his household for about three years, c.1597–1600). Del Monte was a sophisticated and many-sided man who enjoyed various pleasures, including music and, so it is said, parties at which boys dressed up as girls. Caravaggio's earliest surviving works are mainly pictures involving fleshy, effeminate young men, and they presumably reflect his own sexual tastes (he seems to have been bisexual but predominantly homosexual) as well as those of his patron. These pictures are fairly small in size and very intimate in feeling, with a startling sense of physical presence: the strongly lit, sharply detailed figures are brought up close to the front of the picture space and typically gaze at the spectator with a look of blatant erotic invitation (Bacchus, c.1597, Uffizi, Florence). Caravaggio kept this sense of immediacy and closeness throughout his career, his figures usually standing out against a plain background with little sense of depth, but in the late 1590s he abandoned clear lighting in favour of the murky chiaroscuro that is one of the most distinctive features of his mature paintings: Bellori describes his early work as ‘sweet, clean and without those shadows that he later used’.
It was probably through del Monte that Caravaggio gained his first public commission—two large canvases of the Calling of St Matthew and the Martyrdom of St Matthew for the side walls of the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi dei Francesi; they were painted in 1599–1600 and are his first documented works. An altarpiece of St Matthew and the Angel was added in 1602 and by this time Caravaggio had already completed a second major public commission—two paintings for the Cerasi Chapel in S. Maria del Popolo: the Crucifixion of St Peter and the Conversion of St Paul (1600–1). All these pictures, and particularly the last two, were immensely original in their dramatic use of light and shade, their economy and force of design, and their down-to-earth realism—the familiar stories being seen in a totally new way and played out by solid, substantial, flesh-and-blood people rather than the traditional idealized figures. They established Caravaggio as the most exciting painter in Rome and changed the direction of his career: from now on he devoted himself mainly to large, deeply serious religious pictures for public settings, rather than intimate works for the rarefied taste of connoisseurs. From the beginning of his public career, his work was controversial, as many contemporaries found his realism inappropriate or abhorrent in a religious context. Several of his major works were refused on such grounds of decorum or theological incorrectness and were replaced with more conventional pictures by Caravaggio himself or other painters. Among the rejected paintings was the Death of the Virgin (1605–6, Louvre, Paris), which shows the Virgin as a thoroughly believable corpse rather than in the traditional way as a woman who appeared to be merely sleeping before being received into heaven. It was turned down by the church of S. Maria della Scala and replaced with a picture by Saraceni. Baglione writes that Caravaggio's picture was removed because he ‘so disrespectfully made the Madonna swollen up and with bare legs’, and another early account says that her figure was based on the body of a drowned prostitute fished out of the River Tiber. However, the controversial painting was soon bought by Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (on the recommendation of Rubens), and Caravaggio's other rejected pictures were likewise quickly acquired by discerning collectors, including Cardinal Scipione Borghese .