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.
Caravaggio was born in 1571 in the city of Milan. His full name was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, linking him with the most famous Italian artist of the 16th century. Caravaggio was still a boy when a devastating plague swept through Milan in 1576. The plague killed several of his family members, including his father, grandfather, and grandmother in less than three days. At 10, Caravaggio's mother also died.
That same year, the young artist began an apprenticeship with the painter Simone Peterzano in Milan. Peterzano was a student of Titian, and he helped train Caravaggio and launch his artistic career. But the early traumas of Caravaggio's childhood haunted him throughout his life.
Caravaggio's paintings aren't just dark in tone - the content is also often brutal and violent. The artist had a particular affection for paintings of severed heads, which show up in a number of his works. One of his most famous, of Medusa, shows the screaming monster just after losing her head, blood pouring fom her neck, and the snakes encircling her head still writhing. In other paintings, Caravaggio tackled the beheaded Goliath and the beheaded Holofernes.
Violence followed Caravaggio even off the canvas. In 1604, a published description of Caravaggio claimed that "after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him."
In 1599, all of Rome wept when the beautiful young noblewoman Beatrice Cenci was executed by the pope, alongside her family. Her crime was plotting the murder of her own father, an abusive man who raped Beatrice repeatedly. To many Romans, Beatrice's crime was justified. But the pope couldn't allow patricide, so Beatrice was beheaded in a very public ceremony. Caravaggio was in the audience that day, watching Beatrice's poise as she faced the executioner.
Beatrice Cenci's tragic story inspired Caravaggio to paint the Biblical scene of Judith killing Holofernes.
Caravaggio knew he was an amazing painter, and he wasn't shy about criticizing his rivals. His contemporary Giovanni Baglione said, "At times he would speak badly of the painters of the past, and also of the present, no matter how distinguished they were, because he thought that he alone had surpassed all the other artists in his profession." And just to make it clear, Caravaggio even used his paintings to insult his rivals. His "Conversion of Saint Paul" featured a very large horse (even bigger than the saint), and when displayed in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, the horse's rump is aimed directly at a rival's saccharine painting of the Virgin Mary.
Apparently not everyone got the joke. A church official demanded to know why the horse was the middle, while the saint was lying on the ground. Caravaggio replied, "He stands in God's light!"