The Crowning with Thorns (1602/1604) by Michelangelo Merisi, called CaravaggioKunsthistorisches Museum Wien
More than four centuries after his death, the work of Caravaggio remains as powerful, groundbreaking and shocking as it was during his lifetime. The psychological clarity of the figures, the warts and all depictions of reality, and his pioneering use of light and shade (known as chiaroscuro) all make his paintings instantly recognizable.
Caravaggio’s work is all about story telling. These are not just paintings, they are narratives, with each character playing a role, creating the effect of a great drama across the canvas. In many ways his paintings are a perfect depiction of the artist’s life, which was colorful to say the least. Here are a few things you might not know about the Baroque master.
The Cardsharps (c. 1595) by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi)Kimbell Art Museum
1. He was really called Michelangelo
However, it turned out there was already an artist with that name on the scene. Who knew? Caravaggio was the small town in northern Italy where he was born, so this became the name by which he was known.
2. He had a very traumatic childhood
Much of the darkness in his work and his own private troubles (more of which later) probably stemmed from his traumatic childhood. A plague swept through his hometown when he was just 6 years old, claiming the lives of a number of his family members, including his father. His mother died just 5 years later, leaving him an orphan at just 11.
Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Michelangelo Merisi da CaravaggioThe National Gallery, London
3. He had a very short fuse
Caravaggio developed a unique code of honor and reacted very badly when he felt he had been slighted. A number of violent incidents, including attacking a rival with a sword, saw him flee from Milan to Rome. Luckily for him, it was there he was able to secure some of his most important patrons and create his best work.
4. The realism of his paintings was controversial
One of the defining characteristics of his work was the gritty realism of the scenes he painted. Whether it was a Bible scene or some ordinary folk playing cards around a table, his subjects would often stand out. He would achieve this by employing models from marginalized parts of society, such as vagrants or prostitutes. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with the religious authorities at the time.
Martyrdom of St. Ursula (1610) by CaravaggioMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
5. He was fiercely competitive
Rather than foster encouraging relationships with other artists at the time, Caravaggio was almost always scathing about his contemporaries. He would bad mouth artists from the past and his present, no matter how well respected. He would even incorporate slights against other artists into his work.
The Fortune Teller (16th Century) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), musée du LouvreOriginal Source: Paris, Louvre museum