The Roman Carnival of Caravaggio

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, March 2010 | Go to article overview

The Roman Carnival of Caravaggio


Stern, Fred, The World and I


His name was Michelangelo Merisi, but maybe you know him as "Caravaggio." The talent and artistry of Merisi Caravaggio (1573-1610) are legendary in the history of painting. And almost as legendary is his reputation for a violent lifestyle, but more on that later.

This year, 2010, marks 400 years since the tremendously gifted and innovative young Lombard painter perished at Porto Ercole a coastal town in Italy's Tuscany region. He had been trying in vain to board the ship that was to take his last paintings to Rome where a probable papal pardon for past crimes awaited him.

In a practice typical among artists of his time, Caravaggio acquired a new name as an adult--that of the town in which he was born. Thus the Lombard village Caravaggio could be readily identified as his birthplace, and vice versa.

As a talented teenager Caravaggio served a four year apprenticeship in Milan, and then by age 21 he felt ready for "the big time." He made his way to Rome. There among the glittering palaces, the richly endowed private chapels, the princes of state and church, he sought to make his fortune. Rome in the last quarter of the Sixteenth Century was a Mecca for squadrons of talented artists, all with aspirations of success, all competing for lucrative commissions to create altarpieces, frescoes and ceilings of palatial mansions, and more. Artists and artisans came from Flanders, the Netherlands, France and Germany and from all the provinces of Italy including Bologna and the Florence of the Medici to serve the popes, who at that time were also all scions of the Italian aristocracy.

Merisi Caravaggio's first job in Rome was in the studio of the painter Cavaliere d'Arpino. The studio system was the inexpensive way for established artists to take on as many commissions as possible. The master artist would train his assistants, teaching essentials of composition, color and technique. He would then make the necessary corrections and finally submit the finished work.

In the workshop, evidently d'Arpino wisely took advantage of his young pupil's background--still life painting was a rich, firmly established Lombard tradition--so Caravaggio was mainly occupied with the rendering of still lifes and flowers while other assistants worked on portraits, landscapes or historical paintings. His was not just casual work at the fringes of art, however. "It costs me as much of an effort to paint a good flower piece as a picture with figures in it," he is quoted as saying.

Still Life and First Portraiture

We still marvel at the glow of fruit baskets, flowers and pearly grapes that mark Caravaggio's early set of efforts. According to art historian Jules Janick of Purdue University, there are currently twelve known still life paintings attributable to Caravaggio, dating from 1592 to 1603, some executed even before his apprenticeship. All are painted from life and constitute the familiar varied subject matter, from apples to water melons.

His successful experimentation with still life painting would later serve Caravaggio in good stead. When as a more mature artist he painted his religious scenes, he would put that early expertise to good use, skillfully incorporating still life components in such dramatic compositions as "Supper at Emmaus."

Caravaggio did portraits, too, often including young men in his still lifes. Who were his models? His choice was clearly influenced by his economic straits. Most looked suspiciously similar to the artist himself: a likely looking 20 year old too poor to hire a model (or perhaps too interested in viewing himself). Some of his other sitters are clearly recruited right off the street. The art critic Robert Hughes described the Caravaggio portraits of adolescents as, "... overripe, peachy bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream."

Tricksters, Taverns and the Underworld

You may think of great artists of the past as being sensitive, aesthetic, and genteel men somewhat coddled or sheltered to protect their delicate hands. …

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