Caravaggio

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Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is considered as one of the forefathers of modern painting. He was born in 1571 in Italy, just before the start of before the Battle of Lepanto. His father was named Fermo Merisi, an architect by profession. Caravaggio was orphaned and left alone in the world at the age of six, when his father and most of his family were killed by the bubonic plague. Without any familial guidance, Caravaggio grew up in the streets. Here he met a group of artists and vagabonds who lived a nomadic existence and lived by the motto ‘without hope, without fear’. At the age of 11, he moved to Milan to work as an apprentice for the painter Simone Peterzano. Around 1588, he moved to Rome to work as an apprentice for other artists. He was penniless and aimless, moving around from one place to the next.

Within a few years, Caravaggio had established himself as a painter in his own right. He started selling his paintings through a dealer, and began to paint prolifically. He soon made an impression in the art world when he came under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who provided him with a house and a steady income. Some of his famous paintings during this time include “Boy with a Basket of Fruit,” “The Young Bacchus” and “The Music Party”. His paintings featured nude or loosely clothed young boys, including his assistant named Cecco, who is also believed to have been his lover.

In 1596, at the age of 26, Caravaggio was awarded a contract to paint and decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. This was a very important assignment for such a young painter. He was required to paint three large paintings, which were “St. Matthew and the Angel”, “The Calling of St. Matthew” and “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew”. The paintings were finished in 1601 but they caused a lot of controversy because of the way he depicted saints and religious figures as ordinary people. He painted biblical scenes but littered them with thieves, beggars and prostitutes, whom he had encountered growing up on the streets.  These paintings caused so much controversy that Caravaggio was required to redo them. He continued to paint prolifically, including “The Crucifixion of St. Peter”, “The Conversion of St. Paul”, “The Deposition of Christ” and “Death of the Virgin”.

As Caravaggio became more famous, he also became more belligerent, drinking profusely and indulging in bar fights. In 1606, he attacked and killed a pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni. The exact reason is unknown; it may have been about an unpaid debt or because of a woman. Caravaggio fled from place to place to avoid imprisonment, eventually settling in Malta. Here he was knighted and awarded an Order of Malta as a Knight of Justice, a title which was stripped when his crime was discovered. He still continued to paint, with one of his most controversial and well known paintings being “Resurrection” in which he depicted Jesus Christ as a scruffy beggar, escaping from his tomb in the middle of the night. He was constantly in fear of his life and became more and more nervous and paranoid. Some of his friends applied to the Pope for a pardon on his behalf, but he died on his way back to Rome on July 18, 1610. The cause of his death is unknown but he is believed to have died from lead poisoning. His work came to be widely recognized after his death, and his influence extends to painters such as Diego Velazquez and Rembrandt.

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