The Early Years (1571–1592) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born on September 28, 1571, in the Lombardy region of Italy to Fermo Merisi and Lucia Aratori. His father was one of the best-known physicians in the area, and his mother came from an old Milanese family that was well-respected in the community. Unfortunately, he had two older brothers who died before he was born and one sister who died when he was still very young.
This enigmatic Italian painter left behind influential works that continue to be iconic today, but what was his life like? What led him to pursue art? First, let’s look at his story of struggle and triumph and some of his most famous works that remain standing today.
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The Early Years
There is a lot to learn about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He (1571–1610) was a famed Italian painter who burst onto the art scene in Rome around 1600, but whose violent life ultimately ended with his death at age 38. He is known for works such as The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, paintings featuring large groups composed of bold strokes with little detail.
Michelangelo Merisi did not receive formal training, although he may have studied with artists in Milan or Rome. At age 17, Michelangelo Merisi moved to Rome, where he became an assistant to a famous painter named Francesco Scaramuccia.
It is believed that during his time working for Scaramuccia, Michelangelo Merisi began painting under his new name, Caravaggio (meaning little boy from Caravaggio). He also started using models instead of religious figures for his paintings. The Calling of Saint Matthew is thought to be one of these early works by Caravaggio, which features two men at a table called upon by Jesus Christ himself.
The Story Behind the Crucifixion of Saint Matthew
The story behind Caravaggio’s most famous painting, The Crucifixion of Saint Matthew, is as fascinating as it is bloody. In 1606, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio—already known for his shocking portraits—painted an image unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.
It showed a realistic portrayal of Jesus Christ being crucified, but with a twist: Instead of having Jesus look off into heaven or toward Mary and John on either side, he has him looking directly at you. This depiction caused such a stir in Rome that Caravaggio fled to Naples to escape persecution by those who found it offensive. Some of Caravaggio famous paintings became popular instantly, which led to his becoming one of Rome’s most celebrated painters.
The Killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni
In 1606, Painter Caravaggio killed a man in Rome named Ranuccio Tomassoni during a fight over a tennis match. The two were play-fighting when they began to argue, leading to an all-out brawl that left Tomassoni dead on the street. While there’s no doubt that Caravaggio was responsible for his death, it’s still unclear precisely what happened; most accounts say he struck Tomassoni with a cane or stick, while others claim he used his sword.
Whatever weapon he used was enough to kill him and send Caravaggio fleeing from Rome. He used to spend more than twelve years in exile before returning under papal protection. Finally, in 1607, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death; luckily for him, Pope Paul V pardoned him based on his talent as an artist.
It’s unclear how much time passed between Tomassoni’s death and Caravaggio’s pardon—but one thing is sure: The painter never forgot what happened that day in Rome. His famous painting The Death of Ranuccio Tomassoni depicts his murder and escape from justice.
Death By A Sword
Once in Naples, he accepted a commission from an influential man to paint a portrait. However, Caravaggio kept his subject waiting for so long that he finally stormed out of his studio during its creation. The painter followed him out into the street and stabbed him to death with a sword. He was eventually brought back to Rome, where he died in 1610 at age 38.
Though he left behind hundreds of works, they weren’t all appreciated during his lifetime. Some were rejected outright. It wasn’t until after his death that art critics started to realize how much potential Caravaggio had as an artist.
The Death of Mario Minniti
In 1606, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was arrested in Rome for murdering a man during a street brawl. The victim, Mario Minniti, had insulted Caravaggio’s friend Ranuccio Tomassoni and then punched him when Tomassoni responded. The death was accidental, but authorities arrested Caravaggio anyway. He fled to Naples, where he remained until his pardon three years later. However, his trial left him with a criminal record that made it difficult to find work.
Although he was pardoned, Caravaggio had a lot to overcome. He struggled with bouts of alcoholism, physical violence toward patrons and associates, financial troubles, and poor health throughout his career. Yet, despite these personal struggles, many consider him one of Italy’s most significant artists.
The Death of Fillide Melandroni
Although Caravaggio is best known for his religious paintings, he didn’t have a name for himself until he painted The Death of Fillide Melandroni.
Shortly after his success with The Death of Fillide Melandroni, another incident threatened to destroy everything he had worked for. In 1606, he killed a man in Rome during a fight over gambling debts. He fled to Naples, where Pope Paul V put out an arrest warrant for him. After two years on the run, Caravaggio returned to Rome, where he faced charges of murder and was sentenced to death by beheading in 1610.
Learn about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, one of Europe’s greatest painters. Follow his career from its humble beginnings to his sudden rise to fame. While it was met with mixed reviews, today, some of his most famous paintings are housed in important museums around Europe and Asia. While he may not have created a self-portrait while alive, you can learn more about him through written accounts from his contemporaries.