A Short Introduction to Caravaggio, the Master Of Light

Like many a great artist, the for­tunes of Michelan­ge­lo Merisi da Car­avag­gio rose and fell dra­mat­i­cal­ly. After his death, pos­si­bly from syphilis or mur­der, his influ­ence spread across the con­ti­nent as fol­low­ers called Car­avaggisti took his extreme use of chiaroscuro abroad. He influ­enced Rubens, Rem­brandt, and Velázquez—indeed, the entire Baroque peri­od in Euro­pean art his­to­ry prob­a­bly would nev­er have hap­pened with­out him. “With the excep­tion of Michelan­ge­lo,” art his­to­ri­an Bernard Beren­son wrote, “no oth­er Ital­ian painter exer­cised so great an influ­ence.”

But lat­er crit­ics sav­aged his hyper-dra­mat­ic, high-con­trast real­ism. His style, called “tene­brism” for its use of deep dark­ness in paint­ings like The Call­ing of St. Matthew, is shock­ing by com­par­i­son with the fan­ci­ful Man­ner­ism that came before. In the video above, Evan Puschak, the Nerd­writer, explains what makes Caravaggio’s work so strange­ly hyper­re­al. He “pre­ferred to paint his sub­jects as the eye sees them,” the Car­avag­gio Foun­da­tion writes, “with all their nat­ur­al flaws and defects instead of as ide­al­ized cre­ations…. This shift from stan­dard prac­tice and the clas­si­cal ide­al­ism of Michelan­ge­lo was very con­tro­ver­sial at the time…. His real­ism was seen by some as unac­cept­ably vul­gar.”

Also con­tro­ver­sial was Car­avag­gio him­self. His wild life made an ide­al sub­ject for Derek Jarman’s 1986 art­house biopic star­ring Til­da Swin­ton. Famous for brawl­ing, “the tran­scripts of his police records and tri­al pro­ceed­ings fill sev­er­al pages.” He nev­er mar­ried or set­tled down and the male eroti­cism in his paint­ings has led many to sug­ges­tions he was gay .(Jarman’s film makes this an explic­it part of his biog­ra­phy.) It’s like­ly, art his­to­ri­ans think, that the painter had many tumul­tuous rela­tion­ships, sex­u­al and oth­er­wise, with both men and women before his ear­ly death at the age of 38.

Despite his pro­fane life, Caravaggio’s paint­ings evince a “remark­able spir­i­tu­al­i­ty” and illus­trate, as Puschak notes, exact­ly the kind of pas­sion­ate inten­si­ty the counter-Ref­or­ma­tion Catholic Church want­ed to use to stir the faith­ful. Caravaggio’s pop­u­lar­i­ty meant com­mis­sions from wealthy patrons, and for a time, he was the most famous painter in Rome, as well as one of the city’s most infa­mous char­ac­ters. Car­avag­gio paint­ed from life, stag­ing his intri­cate arrange­ments with real mod­els who held the pos­es as he worked.

His fig­ures were ordi­nary peo­ple one might meet on the 17th cen­tu­ry streets of the city. And Car­avag­gio him­self, despite his enor­mous tal­ent, was an ordi­nary per­son as well, stereo­types of trag­ic, tor­tured genius­es aside. He was deeply flawed, it’s true, yet dri­ven by an incred­i­ble long­ing to become some­thing greater.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Liv­ing Paint­ings: 13 Car­avag­gio Works of Art Per­formed by Real-Life Actors

Paint­ings by Car­avag­gio, Ver­meer, & Oth­er Great Mas­ters Come to Life in a New Ani­mat­ed Video

Why Babies in Medieval Paint­ings Look Like Mid­dle-Aged Men: An Inves­tiga­tive Video

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Waquoit says:

    How time­ly! I just viewed a won­der­ful Car­avag­gio today, Saint Fran­cis of Assisi in Ecsta­sy at the Wadsworth Atheneum. If you are ever in Hart­ford, check it out.

  • Baruch Arbel says:

    Read Andrew Gra­hahm Dixon’s authri­ta­tive biog­ra­phy of Car­avg­gio, then make a Car­avag­gio tour in Rome and Naples (Napoli). High­ly reward­ing!

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