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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Michelangelo de Merisi

Caravaggio’s paintings are dark, mysterious and violent, just as Caravaggio himself lived.
The Calling of Saint Matthew - 1599

The Calling of Saint Matthew - 1599

He was a true Baroque ‘Enfant Terrible’ whose life was as stark and alarming as his paintings. He was unreliable, often drunk and deeply violent. A contemporaneous account details his character: ‘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.’


The notorious bragart, murderer and gifted painter, Caravaggio, was born as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, on 28 September 1571 in Rome. Starting in Milan he had a brief career  between 1593 and 1610 in Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily.

His middle-class parents died when he was very young, six years old in the case of his father and eleven when his mother died. Two years later he began his apprenticeship with a former charge of Titian.

After the wounding of a policeman in Milan, Caravaggio arrived penniless in Rome. After a time as a studio assistant Caravaggio began to paint scenes of everyday life at the lower end of the social scale under his own banner which attracted the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, a powerful Roman cleric. Caravaggio painted chamber scenes of an overtly homo-erotic nature for his new patron — works included The Musicians, The Lute Player, a tipsy Bacchus, an allegorical but realistic Boy Bitten by a Lizard. The erotic nature of these works remained an unspoken taboo until Robert Hughes waded into the debate; “overripe, peachy bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream”. Since then his work has often been seen as overtly homosexual, with a particular emphasis on younger boys. It would seem he was scandalous in all he did, in such a way as could reverberate across the centuries.

Victorious Amor - 1601

Victorious Amor - 1601

In 1606 a brawl over a tennis match resulted in the death of a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni; Caravaggio fled Rome, a wanted man. This set the pattern for his relatively brief stays in his next ports of call.

Of course, being a walking tabloid headline generator he was very sought after and never lacked for high profile clients and commissions. The Counter-Reformation Church wanted a public image facelift in its opposition to Protestantism. The overwrought dramatic chiarascuro of Caravaggio’s work was a perfect counterpoint to the sombre tone of Northern European Protestant reform. The Roman Cathoilc Church of the time was wealthy and this filtered down to the parishes which commissioned lavish works and filled the painter’s purse. He enjoyed the protection of the Colonna family and later the Knights of Malta.

After a few months in Naples Caravaggio made his way to Malta, preceded by his notoriety and fame. The Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Alof De Wignacourt, had such pride having the famous artist as official painter to the Order, that he had Caravaggio inducted as a knight of the order. The honeymoon period was brief and before long the Order had expelled Caravggio “as a foul and rotten member.”

Caravaggio next undertook a tour of Sicily winning many commissions. He was under great mental duress at the time with contemporary reports detailing his bizarre behaviour  sleeping fully armed and clothed, ripping up a painting at a slight word of criticism and mocking the local painters.

After his sojourn in Sicily Caravaggio again headed for Naples under the patronage, and thereby protection, of the Colonna family. While awaiting a Papal pardon an attempt was made on his life in Naples, which was reported as being his death. He escaped with a disfigured face. In 1610 he died, apparently of fever, while making his journey by sea to the court of  Pope in Rome, expecting his pardon.

Supper at Emmaus - 1600

Supper at Emmaus - 1600

A Brief Note on Caravaggio’s Art

Artistically Caravaggio was often emulated. High profile artists found inspiration in his images – Rembrandt’s use of light and dark, Franz Hals’ informal portraits, Velaquez uncompromising visual dramas. Caravaggio’s paintings are intensely realistic to the point where he has been accused by various authorities of using optical devices such as Camerae obscurae. It known from contemporary sources that he painted directly from life, without drawings. He also often worked directly over previous unsuccessful pieces. Seen up close his brushwork is deliberate but delicate, subtle shades shimmer in the shadows and highlights glare threateningly out at the viewer.

He did not omit gratuitous gore – Thomas pokes his finger into Jesus’ side, Judith severs Holoferne’s head in a tsunami of arterial blood. This delight in violent depictions resulted in several commissions being rejected by the intended recipients. Though not always violent his ability to capture a moment and its psychological aspects are unparalleled.

Judith Beheading Holofernes - 1598

Judith Beheading Holofernes - 1598

Less than fifty works have been authenticated as being by the master, of which The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, was recently authenticated and restored. It had been in storage in Hampton Court, mislabeled as a copy

His pre-disfigurement face lives on in many of his paintings of which his severed head of Goliath must be the most gruesome.

David With The Head of Goliath - 1607/1610

David With The Head of Goliath - 1607/1610

Bacchus - 1597

Bacchus - 1597

A Little Extra

The Financial Times list of 5 Caravaggio facts

This article was posted by on Thursday, November 20th, 2008 at 05:11.
It is archived in Art, Biography, History and tagged , , , , .

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