Brutal and Brilliant Life of Caravaggio

Detail of Supper at Emmaus of Caravaggio - CaravaggioOn this day in 1572 (maybe), the great Baroque painter Caravaggio was born. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that he was the inventor of Baroque painting. There is no doubt that he was hugely influential in its earliest development. Baroque painting was a response to Mannerism. Where as Mannerism was highly intellectual and artificial, Baroque painting was dramatic. Artists played a lot with light and shadow and they showed scenes in medias res — things were already happening.

Take for example, everyone’s favor Old Testament story: Judith’s Beheading of Holofernes. It tells the story of the Jewish widow Judith who is none too happy about what pussies the Israelite men are being about the Assyrians. So she goes and visits the Assyrian commander, Holofernes. She gets cozy with him, promising him intelligence about the Israelites, and probably more, if you know what I mean. So she enters his tent one night when he is passed out drunk. And she cuts off his head and brings it back to the Israelites to inspire them. It’s amazing that people not only let their children read this stuff, they tell them it is the most moral Book in the world.

Anyway, a great example of a Mannerist approach to this painting was done by Cristofano Allori, where we just see it after the fact, with Judith holding Holofernes’ head while her maid looks on. (It’s still a great painting!) Caravaggio, provided a Baroque approach, which I think you will agree is very dramatic:

Judith Beheading Holofernes - Caravaggio

Not all of Caravaggio’s work is so cold blooded. Much of it is really quite sweet. But it is always quite dramatic with very rich colors and lots of light and shadow.

As for his character, well, it seems to not have been so great. He was a hard drinking man, much inclined to bar brawls. In 1606, he killed a young man in a brawl, and had to flee Rome. He continued to work and to get into trouble. And along the way, unsuccessful attempts were made on his life. He made a lot of enemies. He died in 1610 at the age of only 36. It is unclear exactly why. Murder is a good possibility. Despite his brief life, there are over 80 known paintings of his. And given the great detail of them, that is a lot. He was probably the greatest painter of his time — and extremely fast.

Happy birthday Caravaggio!

2 thoughts on “Brutal and Brilliant Life of Caravaggio

  1. Also, when he fled Rome, he left behind an unhappy landlord. It seems Caraveggio hacked a hole in his roof to get the exactly right lighting conditions for those dramatic light-from-above scenes he liked to paint …

    • I had not heard that; it’s great! It’s hard to know quite what to think of him. My general impression of life before 1900 is that men spent pretty much their entire lives drunk. I imagine that he was rather like Christopher Marlowe, who also came to a bloody end.

      I’d love to see some of his actual work. I’m very curious about how he used the brush. The images look so perfect.

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