You could say the Italian painter Caravaggio was the rock star of the 17th century! He was very talented, popular, violent and famous. A dangerous combination! And like many troubled, but gifted artists, he died young.
He was born Michelangelo Merisi in northern Italy in 1571. He became known as Caravaggio because that was the name of the small town from which he came. At 13 he was apprenticed to a local artist, but his career began in Rome when he was 21.
Caravaggio at first painted small still-life pictures–fruits and flowers–and portraits of boys who were sometimes dressed to look like figures from ancient myths, like the Bacchus here.
Caravaggio’s talent soon attracted attention of a powerful and wealthy cardinal and he began painting large religious pictures for churches in Rome. These paintings depicted religious figures as ordinary people of his own day. They were not the usual beautiful and composed saints of Raphael paintings. Caravaggio’s saints were old, some were ugly and dirty. This concept was so shocking at that time that some of Caravaggio’s paintings were rejected by the priests. But other people thought that he was the greatest painter of his time–an opinion shared by art historians today.
The way Caravaggio portrays light is called chiaroscuro. Everything appears to be in shadows, and he portrays bright light to accentuate the part of the painting that he wants to highlight. One of many painters inspired by Caravaggio was Rembrandt. His use of light and shadows is famous, but it all began with Caravaggio!
Caravaggio had a violent temper. In 1606 he killed a man and fled Rome. He continued to paint in the South of Italy and eventually was allowed to return to Rome. Sadly, he died on the way back in 1610.
Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness
It is hard to see on this page, but if you could look at the original picture you could see the grimy toenails! This kind of realism was very unusual. Strong contrasts between light and dark make the figure almost pop off the canvas, sort of like a 3-D effect.
This painting is located at a museum in Kansas, Missouri.
The Denial of St Peter
Showing the emotions, telling the whole story with the movement of the hands is another innovation of Caravaggio’s. His paintings are often dramatic and memorable. The Denial of St Peter you can see at the Metropolitan museum in New York city.
Medusa was a gorgon, a terrifying creature with snakes instead of hair, from Greek mythology. She was so repulsive that anyone who looked at her turned to stone. Greek hero Perseus was given a shield by the goddess Athena, so that he could avoid looking at Medusa, as he beheaded her.
Caravaggio depicts the horror in Medusa’s eyes as she understands that her head was cut off. This painting shows an intense level of realism, and Caravaggio uses dark and light contrasts so effectively that Medusa looks three-dimensional, as if she is coming off the round painting located at Galeria Uffizi in Florence.