Caravaggio FAQ

What was Caravaggio's full name?

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. During his lifetime he was referred to both Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Today to avoid confusion with the other famous Michelangelo, he is simply called Caravaggio. His fathers’ last name was Merisi and the family moved when Caravaggio was 4 years old from Milan to a town called Caravaggio. He became known as Michelangelo Merisi from Caravaggio.

When did Caravaggio start painting?

Around the age of 13 he started an apprenticeship with a painter in the Milan area. There was a lot of attention to detail and a heavy use of realism in this region, which would stay with him throughout his career.

What is Chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro is a term used in painting meaning “light dark.” It is literally the use of shadows and highlights to create depth and modeling. Artists like Caravaggio used it to an extreme to highlight the subject matters dramatic elements. It became a defining characteristic in the work of Caravaggio and the Baroque period as a whole.

How do we know what we know about Caravaggio?

We know that Caravaggio lived a tumultuous life filled with brawls, pranks, and lawsuits. Many of the details about his life are from those lawsuits. Court documents related to his fights and escapades are full of testimonies from police, victims, friends, and witnesses.

In one event from 1604 there is a testimony from a waiter who accused Caravaggio of hitting him in the face with a plate of artichokes and then grabbing a sword. Swords often got him in trouble. On more than one occasion he was arrested for carrying a sword without a permit.

One of his most famous quarrels, the one for which he had to flee Rome, has recently been studied in detail. In those documents the events and people involved with a fight on a tennis court where Caravaggio killed a man have been rediscovered and poured over by scholars. It has been thought that the fight was over a girl, but new thought has the basis of the brawl being over a gambling debt – a slightly less romantic story.

Why did Caravaggio flee Rome?

In May 1606 Caravaggio and 3 of his friends met 4 other men on a court used for a ball game like tennis. In what seems to be reminiscent of a scene out of a movie, the 2 groups met for a fight. It was previous thought that this fight with an old foe, Ranuccio Tommassoni, was over a girl. However, court documents show that it was a result of a gambling debt. In the ensuing brawls Caravaggio stabbed Tommassoni in the groin with a sword, killing him.

Previously Caravaggio was able to use his reputation and the favor of important people he painted for to get him out of trouble. However, murder was an offence that he wouldn’t be able to evade punishment for in Rome. In order to escape prosecution he was forced to leave Rome.

Why did he get pardoned?

One of the most tragic aspects of Caravaggio’s life is the events surrounding his exile and eventual pardon. The recurring theme running throughout his life was an inability or lack of desire to control his temper. After fleeing Rome Caravaggio headed to Naples and then Malta. In Malta he gained favor with the Knights of Malta by painting them a picture. This increase in social status would surely put him in good standing with the Pope. However, after a fight with another Knight, he was put in prison, where he escaped. He was banned from the order and on the run again.

After leaving Malta he went to Sicily and Naples where he finally had some good luck – if only for a moment. The powerful people that Caravaggio knew in Rome convinced the Pope to grant Caravaggio a pardon. With word of the news Caravaggio packed up his belongings and began the trip by boat back to Rome.

How did Caravaggio die?

On Caravaggio’s trip back to Rome he was arrested again. The details of this arrest are lost with time, but Caravaggio managed to buy his way out of prison. Unfortunately for him though, the boat with his belongings, including paintings for a Cardinal, continued on without him. Caravaggio was forced to make the journey to Rome on land. He never made it back to Rome. At some point along the trip he fell ill, perhaps with malaria. Caravaggio died in 1610, probably in the town of Porto Ercole. Reports to Rome said that he died of fever, but some modern scholars believe it was a result of lead poisoning.

Find out more about Caravaggio's life

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