Caravaggio, the outlaw Italian painter of the late 16th and early 17th century, only lived to be 38 years old.
Given his ungovernable temper and depraved behavior, it’s a wonder that he made it that far. And it’s equally implausible that in his turbulent life, where he found himself in jail fourteen times, Caravaggio could produce images of such enduring magnificence.
Calling Caravaggio “one of the most electrifyingly original artists to ever have lived,” biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon said that his life was like his art — “a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights.”
The Dallas Museum of Art offered a glimpse into this personal/professional dichotomy with a recent exhibit of Caravaggio’s early career masterpiece, Martha and Mary Magdalene. On loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the painting captures the moment when Magdalene, a prostitute, is being convinced to repent. Her sister, Martha, can be seen counting on her fingers the reasons for a conversion — it’s apparent, through the look on Magdalene’s brilliantly lighted face, that she is moving away from the vanity props (mirror, comb, fine fabric) that surround her. Yet there’s just enough darkness present to hint at the conflict this decision has churned: the contrast between a divine glow and material temptations is more than just subtext.
Caravaggio’s use of real life models (mostly street people) gives this sacred moment an underlying grit, real life flesh-and-blood drama. His figures, so adeptly realized in Martha and Mary Magdalene, are not saintly creatures who have never experienced the events depicted: they are totally believable, completely human in multiple dimensions. Caravaggio’s characteristic theatrical lighting brings the entire composition to a pointed narrative direction. Lightning in the dark.
Famed art critic Robert Hughes said this about Caravaggio: “He reclaimed the human form…there was art before him and after him and they weren’t the same.”
Born September 29, 1571, Caravaggio’s early life was defined by the “Black Death,” the grisly bubonic plague. It literally destroyed his family: his father, grandmother, and grandfather are believed to have died within a day of one another.
By the age of 11, Caravaggio was an orphan who had witnessed firsthand how capricious and nightmarish life could be. Biographers suggest that these early unstable years left him with a flawed foundation he could never escape. “He almost seemed bound to transgress,” Graham-Dixon concluded. He “had an unerring gift for getting into trouble. He had always been an outsider… a difficult and dangerous man.”
When Caravaggio was 13, he managed to land a paid apprenticeship with painter Simone Peterzano. Unfortunately, in keeping with his personality, Caravaggio was an unruly student who learned very little. As hard as it is to believe based on his masterly technique, Caravaggio was largely a self-taught artist.
He moved on to Rome and by 1595, Caravaggio was selling his work. Despite an obstreperous manner, success followed: he was awarded a commission for work at the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. The three paintings he did of St. Matthew launched him into his mature vision — religious images depicted with earthy realism and operatic lighting.
The Taking of Christ
Sunday May 28, 1606 was the date that Caravaggio’s unhinged temperament permanently derailed his life. In a swordfight, likely to have been a prearranged duel, Caravaggio killed nemesis Ranuccio Tomassoni. The source of the dispute is unknown, but Graham-Dixon has traced it to aspersions that Caravaggio cast upon Tomassoni’s wife — it may have involved more than just insults, but the record is unclear.
Although Caravaggio was injured, he managed to flee to Naples and then Malta. He was a man on the run, but he continued to paint successfully and continued to brawl.
In July of 1610, Caravaggio was on a return trip to Rome, where a pardon for the Tomassoni murder was imminent, when he died of causes that are still shrouded in mystery. Historians have posited many possibilities: fever from malaria, pneumonia, heart attack, lead poisoning, or the lasting effects of a wound received in an earlier altercation. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Despite his tragic life, Caravaggio’s work continues to fascinate. On the 400th anniversary of his death, nearly 600,000 visitors passed by an exhibit of his work in Rome.
For more information check out his website at www.caravaggio-foundation.org