Who Killed Caravaggio?

Leonardo is called da Vinci because he was born in a small town near Florence of that name. Michele Angelo da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is called Caravaggio because he was born in a small town of that name, located just outside Milan. He became a major figure in art and, as art was so fundamental to the times, he is a major figure in history. His dramatic use of light and his controversial presentations influenced all or nearly every artist since, from Atremesia to Rembrandt and well beyond. His aggressive behavior lead to an early death at the age of 39. We lost the opportunity to see what other innovations he might have developed.

He painted his principal subjects in shafts of light, contrasting the heavy use of shadow and darkness. He painted directly onto the canvas without the usual multiple drawings. He used live models, often the same ones. Some of his versions of religious figures were controversial, showing them as more earthly than the mores of the time allowed, such as his Madonna dei Palafrenieri (Madonna of the Groom). It was rejected by the Church, and ended up in the hands of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Notice that Jesus is uncircumcised, suggesting Jesus was not really Jewish, but of course he was.

Palafrenieri (Madonna of the Groom), Caravaggio
Madonna dei Palafrenieri (Madonna of the Groom), Caravaggio, 1606

We took a stroll with Guru Walks, our second walking tour in Rome with this group, which is tip based versus a fixed fee. It was billed as “Who Killed Caravaggio.” The guide took us past scenes of his violent acts and into churches where you can see some of his 100+ paintings.

The church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome has three famous Caravaggio’s, all about Saint Mathew. These paintings were Caravaggio’s first major commissions, which to our lasting benefit set him on the path to the work we see today.

In the Calling of St Mathew (1600), Jesus inspires Mathew to become a follower. The painting dramatically, brilliantly both figuratively and literally depicts the story from the Gospel According to Mathew: “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, “Follow me”, and Matthew rose and followed Him.” Matthew 9:9) The hat wearing (it’s not a yarmulke) Jesus is largely obscured by another figure. Jesus sports a trimmed beard, hugely unlikely to be what any Jewish man of that time displayed, and probably the only such portrayal in the history of art. The outfits are hardly Middle Eastern, except perhaps the one but even it has the man wearing a black shirt beneath the robe.

The Calling of Saint Matthew
The Calling of Saint Matthew. This painting greatly reminds of Rembrandt.

In The Inspiration of St Mathew, Mathew is listening to an angel as he writes his version of the story of Jesus. Mathew is awkwardly posed, as if he was about to sit down, ready to write, when his visitor appears, catching his attention, pen in hand and book (and not scroll) at the ready. The background is in darkness, the table lightly illuminated, focusing your attention on the figures. Plenty of robes in this painting.

People at that time believed, as many still do, that the Gospels were written by four apostles. It was not until the mid-1800’s that Christian scholars determined that the books were written in Greek by educated people, whereas both Jesus and the apostles spoke Aramaic and were unable to read or write, according to Paul. You’d think that if Jesus could write he would have, that he did not write himself and did not find someone to write for him a la Mohammed suggests further his inability to read and write. Christian scholarship also shows that the earliest of the gospels, Luke, was not written until after 50 CE. The Gospels themselves do not claim authorship at all. The titles were added around 200 CE, and only Luke claims the use of eye witnesses, but gives no details. See for example World History. org

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio
The Inspiration of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio

Madonna (literally “My Lady”) of Loreto depicts a barefoot Mary holding a large baby Jesus before two peasants. Not kings, but peasants! Barefoot! Peasants! Mary is almost always depicted wearing a crown and some pretty fancy duds befitting of the mother of Jesus. The room is bare, which is also unusual. The model he used was a known prostitute, well known locally and commented upon at the time. Caravaggio certainly was not constrained by tradition, at least not entirely.

Madonna of Loreto
Madonna of Loreto, 1606

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Popolo (St Mary of the People) at the Piazza del Popolo was also on our itinerary. According to the ancient tradition, after his death sentence was announced, Peter requested that he be crucified upside down, saying that no man is worthy to be killed in the same way as Jesus. This is a strange thing to say, it seems to me, as many were executed exactly as Jesus was, including the two hanging right next to Jesus. Crucifixion was a common method the Romans used, allowing the body to rot as a way of further intimidating the locals.

Here we have Caravaggio’s brilliant rendition of the horrendous scene about to unravel. Peter looks more like the poor fisherman he and most of the disciples were, continuing Caravaggio’s predilection for portraying the famous actors as ordinary, common people. The shadowing across his body is nothing short of brilliant. One figure seems to be wearing robes, the other shirt and trousers as they try to lift the heavy cross and body. Peter is dressed as Jesus normally is on the cross. He is trying to keep his head upright, delaying the rushing of blood to his head.

Crucifixion of St Peter 1601 and the Conversion of St Paul on the Way to Damascus

The Conversion of St Paul is a more genteel scene, although falling from a horse is no laughing matter and can be fatal. Caravaggio shows he can paint horses, this one with his hoof in the air, suggesting it is still in motion, obscuring the thorax of Paul’s groom. His clothing reminds of a Roman soldier, his sword and helmet lying on the ground. The figures are surrounded by darkness, presumably due to the storm whence came the bolt of lightning, leaving him isolated and vulnerable. No wonder he heard voices.

Saul is the Hebrew version of Paul. Paul did not change his name.

We finished on the steps of this church (aside from Caravaggio the small church also contains works by Raphael and Bernini among others) with the mystery of who killed Caravaggio.

Caravaggio was often fleeing from one part of Italy to another, near the end to Malta, then Sicily and then Naples. Reports show bizarre behavior in addition to much violence. While in Naples he was attempting to negotiate a pardon with the Cardinal Scipione Borghese, offering a painting in exchange.

He died on the way to Rome, but the cause is unknown. There were rumors that the powerful Tommasoni family of Rome, whose son he killed causing him to flee Rome, or the Knights of Malta had him killed, and also that he died of syphilis. Painters until modern times used white paint with lead in it, and other paints containing toxic substances, which might have contributed to the strange and violent behavior in contemporary reports, and could also cause death. There are reports of wounds from a sword fight in Naples leading to sepsis.

So the mystery remains with us, along with his fabulous works.

Drawings of Caravvagio paintings

After seeing the Caravaggio and His Times Exhibit in Rome last week I did some rough-ish drawings of some of his paintings in conte crayon. The man certainly could draw very well in the manner of his day. That did not make him unusual as an artist for that time. Rather it was his perfecting the dramatic use of lighting in his paintings.

caravaggio boy bitten
From Boy Bitten by Lizard
lute  sm
from The Musicians
caravaggio figures
St Francis of Assissi in Ecstasy
caravaggio bachus
From Bacchus

Caravaggio, Influences and Followers

Michelangelo Merisi (Michele Angelo Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio 1571 – 1610) is commonly known as Caravaggio. He is the subject of an exhibition at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Il tempo di Caravaggio (Caravaggio’s Time) that displays items from the collection of Roberto Longhi. Longhi was a Professor of Art History at the University of Bologna and later at the University of Florence. His 1911 dissertation was about Caravaggio. His exhibitions on the painter in the 1950’s spurned interest in Caravaggio, who had been largely forgotten.

Here I will show you examples of the work of Caravaggio and other artists featured in the exposition. Photos were not allowed so I had to use photos I found in the public domain. I did not note the names of the paintings so I used examples that show affinity to Caravaggio.

Otavo Leoni (1578-1630)

portrait of carravaggio Ottavio Leoni
Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, included here just for curiosity’s sake

Caravaggio is a master of light. He did not invent the approach but he did it with great skill, igniting an international following. Here is a good example of his approach, allowing a good comparison to the paintings of his followers that follow below.

The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio 1602, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
boy-bitten-by-lizard-carravaggio in longhi collection
Boy Bitten by Lizard, Carravaggio, in the Longhi Collection. This work is far less dramatically lit than the works for which he has become so famous.

Battista de Moro  (1512 – after 1568) is one of few painters, perhaps the only in the exhibition, who came before Caravaggio.

Santa Nicola Agostino and Antonio Abate, 1535


Bartolomeo Passrotti (1529–1592) worked primarily in his hometown of Bologna.

Bartolomeo Passrotti Le Pollarole

Pier Francisco Mazzucchelli 1573–1626 

Beheading of St John the Baptist (Decollazione del Battista), Mazzucchelli

Angelo Caroselli or Carosèlli (1585–1652) 

Angelo_Caroselli, Singing Man

Domenico Fetti  (c 1589-1623)

Accademia - La Meditazione by Domenico Fetti 1618
La Meditazione, Domenico Fetti 1618

Valentin  de Boulogne (c 1591 – 1632) French

Valentin de Boulogne, John and Jesus

Gerrit Van Honthorst

Gerard van Honthorst, Granida and Daifilo

Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)

Gioacchino Assereto, Death of Cato

Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari (1598–1669)

Ferrari, Semiramis Receiving Word of the Revolt of Babylon

Dirck Van Baburen Dirck Jaspersz. van Baburen (c. 1595 – 21 February 1624), Dutch and one of the group called the Utrecht Caravaggisti. 

De luitspeler
Lute Player, Babur Compare to Caravaggio’s painting of a lute player below
Caravaggio_Lute Player_NY
Lute Player by Caravaggio

Matthias Stom or Matthias Stomer (c. 1600 – c 1653) was Dutch or Flemish.  He was influenced by the Utrecht Caravaggiasts.

Matthias Stom, “The Death of Brutus”

From  https://www.lavocedinewyork.com/en/arts/2020/09/17/roberto-longhi-foundation-exhibits-its-caravaggios-at-the-capitoline-museums/


...  The Times of Caravaggio opens with four small panels by Venetian Lorenzo Lotto who inspired Caravaggio’s interest in bright light, and Bolognese Bartolomeo Passarotti’s canvas of a market scene, which possibly triggered his obsession for still lifes and portraits of “low-class” people. Of particular interest in this first of five rooms is Longhi’s canvas, A Boy Peeling Fruit. There are three other copies of this early work all dating to 1592-93, all believed by many scholars including Longhi, who included it in the 1951 exhibition, to be Caravaggio’s earliest work painted upon his arrival in Rome. …Longhi also suggested that Caravaggio borrowed the motif of the bitten finger from a Boy Bitten by a Crab, a drawing by a prominent Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anuissola.  As for the model, some scholars suggest Mario Minniti, Caravaggio’s companion and the model for several other Caravaggio paintings.  Others believe it is a disguised self-portrait.