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Tormented genius

Caravaggio was as talented as he was temperamental

The dark, urgent style of Caravaggio's paintings of his last days echoed his state of mind.

BORN MICHELANGELO MERISI on September 28, 1573 in Caravaggio, Italy, he became known by the name of his birthplace. In a short life (he died on July 18, 1610 at the age of 37) Caravaggio ruffled quite a few feathers with his dramatic painting style and equally volatile temper. His temper saw him kill an acquaintance over a game of tennis — that was not his first brush with the law. He was accused of hitting a fellow painter, wounding a soldier, hurling a plate of artichokes at a waiter's face, throwing stones at the Roman guard, misuse of firearms and injuring a man in defence of his mistress.

Giovanni Peitro Bellori narrates: "Caravaggio, although occupied by his painting, still found time to keep up his troublemaking. After spending several hours of the day at his painting, he would swagger along the city streets, with a sword at his side, clearly proving he had other interests beyond his art."

Constantly on the run, Caravaggio fled to Naples in 1607 and to Malta in 1608 where he offended one of the knights and was forced to flee to Palermo in Sicily. In 1610, he set sail for Rome from Naples but after an argument with a sailor, was ejected from the ship. The ship sailed away with his belongings and a distraught Caravaggio ran along the beach in the scorching sun for three days trying to locate the vessel. He died alone on the beach of exhaustion and fever. A document granting him clemency arrived from Rome three days later.

Caravaggio rejected the lengthy preparations and worked directly from the subject in oils. He aimed to make paintings that depicted the truth. He was the best example of naturalistic painting — striving to transform Mannerism into reality. Caravaggio scorned the traditional idealisation of religious subjects and took his models from the streets and painted them realistically. Thus his St. Matthew has the physical features of a ploughman or common labourer. He embarked on what was to be a lifelong quest — the search for light that, born from nowhere, represents a revelation of divine origin. The light in his work not only portrays reality but also helps us understand the reality being depicted.

Caravaggio may have used a lantern hung to one side in his shuttered studio while painting his models. The result in his paintings is a harsh, raking light that strikes across the composition, illuminating parts of it while plunging the rest in deep shadow. The technique, known as tenebrism, became a hallmark of Baroque art.

He has an equal number of critics and admirers. So on the one hand you have Nicolas Poussin saying of his Death of the Virgin: "I wont look at it, it's disgusting. That man was born to destroy the art of painting. Such a vulgar painting can only be the work of a vulgar man. The ugliness of his paintings will lead him to hell," while on the other you have Baglione saying: "A head by his hand was more expensive than a large-scale composition by his rivals: so great was the public favour in which he basked."

Caravaggio influenced a whole generation of artists who called themselves Caravaggists. As Bellori observes: "The young ones gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and looked on his work as miracles. They outdid each other in imitating his works, undressing their models and raising their lights." Caravaggio's influence can be seen in greats like Rubens, Vermeer and Rembrandt.


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