• Weird History

Orphaned At 10, Caravaggio Became One of Italy's Most Famous Artists - But His Art Got Him Killed

You've seen Caravaggio's stunning paintings, but do you know the story behind the images? Caravaggio was a violent and tragic figure who likely died because of his commitment to his art. He became "the most famous painter in Rome" in 1600 and gave birth to the Baroque style and the technique of chiaroscuro, but when he wasn't painting, Caravaggio surrounded himself with thieves, prostitutes, and fights.

It doesn't take a degree in Renaissance art symbols and codes to notice the violence in Caravaggio paintings. Caravaggio may hold the Renaissance record for the most paintings of severed heads, and his religious paintings angered the Catholic Church because he used a prostitute as his model for the Virgin Mary. The life of Caravaggio was tragic – he was orphaned at only 10 after losing most of his family to the plague. And after witnessing the brutal execution of a young noblewoman in 1599, he started painting avenging women cutting off men's heads. 

Who was Caravaggio? We may never fully know the mystery behind the most stunning paintings of the Baroque period, but a look at Caravaggio's history reveals some of his secrets.

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  • Photo: Caravaggio / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Caravaggio Could Paint An Amazing Still-Life, But He Thought They Were Boring

    In 1592, the young Caravaggio finished his apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano in Milan and moved to Rome. Or, technically, he fled to Rome. He was involved in "certain quarrels" that resulted in a wounded police officer. The impoverished artist looked for work and found it in the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari. Cesari was Pope Clement VIII's favorite artist, but Caravaggio found the work stifling. He was stuck "painting flowers and fruit" (which were very good) in a factory-like workshop.

    Caravaggio got into a fight with Cesari and eventually struck off on his own to make a name for himself.

  • Photo: Caravaggio / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Recognize That Beheaded Goliath? It's Caravaggio

    Caravaggio included himself in many of his paintings, but not always in the most flattering way. While other artists, like Botticelli, included self-portraits in their works that made them appear handsome and wise, Caravaggio's often had a dark element.

    One of his earliest works, Young Sick Bacchus, is thought to be a self-portrait made when the artist was ill (but who paints a self-portrait when they're sick?). Even more gruesome, Caravaggio put his own features on the severed head of Goliath in his painting of David holding Goliath's head.

  • Photo: Caravaggio / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Caravaggio Used Prostitutes To Model Saints, And The Church Didn't Like It

    Around 1600 in Rome, the Catholic Church was the most important source of patronage for artists like Caravaggio. But he didn't hesitate to push artistic boundaries, even it if offended the Church's sensibilities. One of Caravaggio's most controversial moves was using models from Rome's poorest classes, including thieves, vagrants, and prostitutes. 

    In 1601, Caravaggio lost a commission to paint an image of the Virgin Mary for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome because he used a well-known prostitute as his model for the Virgin Mother. But the painting that scandalized the Catholics in Rome found favor outside of Italy: it was later acquired by Charles I of England and then entered the French royal collection.

  • Photo: Caravaggio / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Violence And A Short Temper Got Caravaggio Into Hot Water

    More than once, the course of Caravaggio's life was changed because of a fight. In 1592, he fled from Milan to Rome after wounding a police officer. In 1606, he was forced to flee Rome after murdering Ranuccio Tomassoni in a duel. Caravaggio refused to back down from a fight because of Italy's strict honor code. Caravaggio expert Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote, "When a Roman waiter questioned [his] taste, he responded by smashing a plate into the man’s mouth. When a young painter insulted him behind his back, Caravaggio stalked him by night and then attacked his rival from behind with a sword.”

    Even in the last year of his life, Caravaggio attacked a knight in Malta and was nearly killed. His face was permanently disfigured from the encounter.