Michelangelo Merisi, commonly known as Caravaggio, is one of the top representatives of Italian art of all times, able to stand out with his paintings not only thanks to several masterpieces made during his short life – reaching an extraordinary fame – but also to leave a deep mark in the artists that came after him.
Michelangelo was born in Milan in 29 of September 1571, as proved in the research of Vittorio Pisani, who in 2007 discovered the baptism certificate of the great painter in the archives of the Church of Santo Stefano in Brolo in Milan, drawn up the day after his birth, debunking the idea that the painter was born in Caravaggio, which was the birth place of his parents Fermo Merisi and Alicia Aratori. Fermo, in fact, had moved to Milan probably to take part in the developing of the Fabbrica del Duomo. In 1577, however, the Merisis leave Milan to escape the plague returning to Caravaggio, but regardless of that the head of the family was infected and died shortly after. In 1584, at the age of 13, Michelangelo went back to Milan in the workshop of the Mannerist painter Simone Peterzano, pupil of Titian, where he stayed for four years. And possibly, he remained in the capital of Lombardia until 1592
After that, he probably travelled between Venice and Rome, where he decided to stay in 1594, progressively becoming part of the artistic acne of the eternal city. He started to work in the workshop of the Sicilian painter Lorenzo Carlo, to then reach that of Giuseppe Cesai, known as Cavalier d’Arpino. The first acknowledgment of his work arrived from Francesco Maria del Monte, who bought mainly paintings, among which the famous I bari, and who hired him.
It is from this moment onward that his fame started to grow, able to strike Roman aristocracy with his painting that was considered quite revolutionary, highlighting a deep attention for the human physique, extra-ordinary correspondence with the live portraits – often depredatrice of the people – and, most of all, for the innovative use of light, set against a dark background.
In this period Caravaggio created Riposo durante la fuga in Egitto, and in 1599 he was commissioned by Del Monte three big paintings for the Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, a project that sanctioned the extra-ordinary success of the painter from Milan, opening the way to extremely prestigious works. He painted the Nativity with Saints Lawrence and Francis of Assisi in Palermo, the the Crucifixion of St Peter and the conversion of St Paul for the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, and then Saint Matthew and the Angel for the church of St Luigi dei Francesi.
Starting from 1600, however, Caravaggio began having problems with the law, problems that would further worsen a few years later. That year, while he was staying Palazzo Madama with the Cardinal Del Monte, the painter hit with a stick Girolamo Stanpa da Montepulciano, a guest of the cardinal, and was sued. After that, he stood out for an increasing number of fights and brawls and, in some case, he ended up in jail for this reason. In 1601, after having been locked up, he painted the capture of Christ and Amor vincit omnia, but after two years he ended up in court, this time for slandering of the painter Giovanni Baglioni: convicted, he was then set free through intercession of a French ambassador. In 1604, he was then arrested again and again for arm possession and abuse of the city guards, and was denounced for aggression by a young busboy. The year after, after gravely wounding the notary Mariano Pasqualone of Accunoki after a fight for Lena, who was his model and lover, he moved to Genoa and when he came back he was then sued for late payments by his landlord.
Things went south on 28 May 1606, when Michelangelo killed, during a brawl which took place in relation to a game of pallacorda, Ranuccio Tommasoni da Terni, getting also himself injured. Caravaggio was condemned to death for decapitation, and so he was forced to quickly escape the eternal city. He received help by prince Filippo Colonna, who hid him in some of his properties in Lazio, to throw them off his scent whilst the great painter created some masterpieces such as the Cena di Emmaus. Then Caravaggio went to Naples, where he stayed for a year, and here he created several paintings, among which are Giuditta that decapitates Olopherne, Salomè with the head of Baptist, David with the head of Goliath, one Crucifixion of Saint Andrew, and the Madonna del Rosario. Furthermore, in Naples have been preserved two pieces of art that have reached modern days: the seven works of mercy and the flagellation of Christ
After a year in Naples, Caravaggio went to Malta, always thanks to the help of the Colonna family, getting in touch with Alof de Wignacourt, great master of the order of the knights of Malta, with the goal of becoming a knight and obtain immunity to escape his sentence. It is exactly for this reason that the painted declared to be born in Caravaggio, so as to be under Bergamo’s jurisdiction. In the meantime, he painted the Beheading of St John the Baptist for the cathedral of Saint Giovanna, in La Valletta, and a writing Saint Girolamo. In 1608. Finally, he was sworn in as knight, but he was then arrested due to a fight he had with a higher ranking knight and was incarcerated. He managed to escape in an improbable way and sought shelter in Siracusa, he then was expelled from the order.
In Siracusa, guest of the friend Mario Minniti, he studied Hellenistic and Roman art, and painted a burial of Saint Lucia, for the church of Saint Lucia al Sepolcro, while in Messina he developed a resurrection of Lazarus and adorations of the shepherds. In the summer of 1609 Caravaggio returned to Naples were he was assaulted – in the Locanda del Cerriglio – by men sent by a rival from Malta who left him with a transfigured face. During this period he painted painting such as the Reclining Baptist, the Denial of Saint Peter and one David with the head of Goliath. For the church of Saint Anna dei Lombardi he made a Saint Francis that receives the stigmata, one St Francis in meditation and one Resurrection. The last painting of the second period in Naples was the Martyrdom of Saint Orsola.
When he learned that Paul V would drop his sentence he went to Palo di Ladispoli, not far from Rome, where he would wait for the annulment of the sentence to then return to the city. Very possibly, the painter was stopped for routine checks in Palo di Ladispoli, while the boat continued his travel toward Porto Ercole, in Tuscany, taking his three paintings that were supposed to be the payment in return of his freedom: Maria Maddalena in ecstasy, Saint John the Baptist and the Reclining Saint John the Baptist. The Oraini family lent him a boat to reach the boat to reach Porto Ercole and get his possessions back: here the painter arrived, perhaps too late, and stayed here due to a illness that caused his death prematurely at the age of 38 years old. Following his traces were the Caravaggeschi who explicitly claimed to be inspired by him.
Cover Image: raicultura