Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da


Born Sept. 28, 1573, in Caravaggio, in Lombardy; died July 18, 1610, in Port’ Ercole, in Tuscany. Italian painter.

Caravaggio initiated the realist direction in 17th-century European painting. He studied under S. Peterzano in Milan from 1584 to 1588. He went to Rome between 1589 and 1593 and worked there until 1606. Caravaggio subsequently worked in Naples (1607 and 1609–10), on the island of Malta, and in Sicily (1608–09). His work, which does not belong to any definite artistic school, was a reaction against the dominant directions in Italian art during the late 16th and the early 17th centuries— mannerism and academicism.

Caravaggio’s early works (1592–98) are characterized by resonant color and subtle chiaroscuro. They reflect the traditions of 16th-century Northern Italian painting (for example, the work of G. Savoldo, L. Lotto, and A. Moretto). At the same time, these early works exhibited a number of essentially new elements. Caravaggio rejected idealized images and allegorical interpretations of themes, turning to individualistically expressive images (Sick Bacchus, Borghese Gallery, Rome) and a straightforward study of nature in simple surroundings (Boy With a Basket of Fruit, Borghese Gallery, Rome).

Disputing the artistic conceptions of mannerism and academicism, Caravaggio introduced playful and festive folk elements into a classical framework (Bacchus, 1592–93, Uffizi Gallery, Florence). He repudiated the prevailing systems of genres and contributed to the creation of new kinds of painting—the still life (Basket of Fruit, c. 1596, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan) and the genre painting (Fortune Teller, Louvre, Paris). Caravaggio interpreted religious themes in an innovative intimately psychological manner (Rest on the Flight Into Egypt, Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome).

In the late 1590’s, Caravaggio developed an original stylistic device. He illuminated the painting’s foreground with a bright shaft of light, setting it off against a background submerged in profound shadow. The figures in the foreground appear salient, and an impression of intimacy between the picture and the viewer is created (The Lute Player, Hermitage, Leningrad).

Caravaggio’s mature works (1599–1606) are compositionally complex and exceptionally dramatic. They are characterized by powerful contrasts of light and shadow, an expressive simplicity of gesture, energetic modeling, and resonant, rich colors. These elements reflect the emotional tension that arises during unexpected lofty and ideal occurrences in the ordinary life of people and during moments of man’s intellectual opposition to a hostile environment. Among Caravaggio’s mature works are The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599–1600, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome), The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul (1600–01, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome), Madonna di Loreto (c. 1603–06, Church of Sant’ Agostino, Rome), The Deposition of Christ (1602–04, Pinacoteca, Vatican), and Death of the Virgin (c. 1605–06, Louvre, Paris). The artist’s portrayal of earthy human types and his resolute affirmation of democratic ideals in painting aroused the bitter opposition of the supporters of official art. A number of his works were rejected by his clients.

From 1606 to 1610, Caravaggio wandered throughout Southern Italy. His late works, which date from this period, reflect the artist’s further development of realist tendencies and his broadening grasp of life’s phenomena (Seven Works of Mercy, 1607, Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples). Caravaggio also expressed a deepened sense of the tragedy of life in his late works. Along with notes of sorrowful estrangement, these paintings reflect a spirit of lofty stoicism (The Beheading of John the Baptist, 1609, Cathedral of San Giovanni, Valletta; The Burial of St. Lucy, 1608, Church of Santa Lucia, Syracuse). Caravaggio dealt with the theme of man’s loneliness in a vast world. He was attracted to the image of a closely knit human collective, united by an atmosphere of kinship and spiritual warmth. In Caravaggio’s late works, the light is soft and flickering, and the color palette tends toward tonal unity (The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1609, National Museum, Messina). Caravaggio’s technique in these works is characterized by free improvisation.

The innovative art of Caravaggio was imitated by artists in Italy and other European countries. It greatly influenced the development of realist currents in many European schools of art.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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