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A Prodigious Artist or A Wanted Criminal; Who was Caravaggio?

Personal Note: Before learning about Caravaggio, I had never heard of such a compelling and controversial artist. I can see why the story of his life is just as provocative as his paintings.

Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni

The leading Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio of the late 16th and early 17th centuries was well known through his unsettling and realistic paintings but even more infamous for his short temper and rebellious history.

On at least 11 occasions, Caravaggio was brought to trial for various charges that included launching a plate at a waiter's face because he believed his undercooked artichokes were insulting, cursing at a constable, and roaming around with an unlicensed sword.

In 1606, a Roman pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni died at the hands of Caravaggio during what appeared to be a simple game of tennis. Tomassoni had insulted a prostitute whom Caravaggio admired, and the two men fell into a brawl. The specific context of the death of Tomassoni is still debated by art historians, but Caravaggio ended up being issued a death warrant over Ranuccio's murder.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio

Forced to flee Rome, he spent the rest of his life hiding in the homes of noble families and continued to work throughout his exile. During these years, some of his most beloved and influential works were produced, including The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

Even during his years of exile, Caravaggio would continuously travel back to Rome to seek a pardon from the Pope for his death warrant. He even tried to leverage his paintings of David with the Head of Goliath and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist to mediate a pardon from the Pope. Caravaggio died before ever being pardoned.

What was revolutionary about Caravaggio was that he did not bother with the academic study of drawing like other artists of his time. He had the ability to elevate still life, which was regarded as the lowest genre, and often lavished as much attention on inanimate objects as he did on people. Caravaggio used people on the streets as his models, which was completely unorthodox, and painted them directly from life.

To this day, Caravaggio's style of utilizing light and shadows is still regularly referenced by modern contemporary artists and poets.

If you enjoyed this introduction on the life of Caravaggio, come join Sevan's upcoming Armchair Journey on September 8, the first session of his new series, ARTBLAZING III: Museums, Part 2, for a more in-depth discussion of how Caravaggio became one of the fathers of modern painting.


Written by

Allyshia Tran, Artful Journeys Virtual Intern

Allyshia is an Aussie born, aspiring Public Relations Student who is completing her final year of study while interning for Artful Journeys. With music, art, and beauty being some of her passions, Allyshia thoroughly enjoys singing, writing, and visiting Australian museums and art galleries (when a global pandemic hadn’t taken over our lives) whenever she isn’t swamped with school assignments. She sincerely hopes you enjoy her upcoming blogs, and please leave comments in reply to them!

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