Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da CaravaggioRevolutionary, madman, iconoclast, and murderer. Michelangelo Merisi’s complex life is mirrored in his radical art. He defied centuries of tradition to present ordinary scenes with models from the lower classes. His use of chiaroscuro- dramatic light and dark effects- was an important discovery that will be copied by many other artists and in different mediums.

Michelangelo Merisi was born in the Lombardy hill town of Caravaggio on September 28, 1573. His professional name is derived from his hometown. He was apprenticed to the painter Simone Peterzano of Milan at the age of 11. He spent four years under Peterzano’s tutelage before heading for Rome in 1593. He then entered the employ of the painter Giuseppe Cesari for whom he painted genre paintings.

Caravaggio’s talent was discovered by his first major patron, the Cardinal Francesco del Monte. He was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the church of San Luigi dei Francesci. There he fully unveiled his realistic and dramatic artistic style. The combination of figures in contemporary dress inhabiting a religious scene was not new, but the impression the picture made of an event from the distant past unfolding before the viewer’s own eyes was unmatched. Caravaggio pushed the figures up against the picture plane and used light to enhance the dramatic impact and give the figures a quality of immediacy. These devices were much imitated.

This new approach to painting was sometimes at odds with the function of the altarpieces as the focus of devotional practice. Should a depiction of the death of the Virgin emphasize the theological importance of the event and show the Madonna as the ageless mother of Christ, as worshippers had come to expect, or should it emphasize the physical reality of death—as Caravaggio’s painting seemed to do? Should Christ’s burial be depicted as a tragic drama or as a sacred event? Much of Caravaggio’s work, such as his spellbinding Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, reveals the artist dealing with these crucial issues. In his last paintings, such as The Denial of Saint Peter, he revealed the psychological rather than merely physical dimension of the narrative.

Despite increasing fame, Caravaggio’s life was far from peaceful. He was often in trouble with the law and was often in prison. He was charged with murder in 1606 and fled Rome. He spent several months in Naples painting several works and encouraging other artists to follow his techniques. He travelled to Malta and was again arrested. He escaped jail and went to Sicily. It was in Sicily that he painted his masterpieces including the Burial of Saint Lucy and the Raising of Lazarus. He achieved the height of his art with the use of multi figured compositions of great drama and lighting. Unfortunately he died of a fever in 1610 from complications brought about by a wrongful arrest.

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