Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi Amerighi da Caravaggio sadly died 18 July 1610 at the age of 38, under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon. He was born 29 September 1571 in Milan where his father, Fermo (Fermo Merixio), was a household administrator and architect-decorator to the Marchese of Caravaggio, a town not far from the city of Bergamo.[ His mother, Lucia Aratori (Lutia de Oratoribus), came from a nearby property owning family. In 1576 the family moved to Caravaggio (Caravaggius) to escape a plague that ravaged Milan, of which Caravaggio’s father and grandfather both died in 1577. The artist grew up in Caravaggio, but his family kept up connections with the Sforzas and with the powerful Colonna family, who were allied by marriage with the Sforzas and destined to play a major role later in Caravaggio’s life.
Caravaggio’s mother died in 1584, and following her death he began his four-year apprenticeship to the Milanese painter Simone Peterzano, described in the contract of apprenticeship as a pupil of Titian. Caravaggio stayed in the Milan-Caravaggio area after his apprenticeship ended, and visited Venice where he saw the works of Giorgione, he became familiar with the art treasures of Milan, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, and with the regional Lombard art, Which used simplicity and attention to naturalistic detail and was closer to the naturalism of Germany than to the stylised formality and grandeur of Roman Mannerism. Following his initial training under Simone Peterzano, in 1592 Caravaggio left Milan for Rome, in flight after “certain quarrels” and the wounding of a police officer.
In Rome he forged some extremely important friendships, with the painter Prospero Orsi, the architect Onorio Longhi, and the sixteen-year-old Sicilian artist Mario Minniti. Orsi, established in the profession, introduced him to influential collectors; while Longhi, introduced him to the dubious world of Roman street-brawls. A few months later he was painting for the highly successful Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII’s favourite artist, “painting flowers and fruit” and developed a considerable name as an artist, In Rome there was demand for paintings to fill the many huge new churches and palazzos being built at the time. It was also a period when the Church was searching for a stylistic alternative to Mannerism in religious art that was tasked to counter the threat of Protestantism. Caravaggio’s innovation was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro that came to be known as tenebrism. Minniti served Caravaggio as a model and, years later, would be instrumental in helping him to obtain important commissions in Sicily. Known works from this period include a small Boy Peeling a Fruit (his earliest known painting), a Boy with a Basket of Fruit, and the Young Sick Bacchus, supposedly a self-portrait done during convalescence from a serious illness that ended his employment with Cesari.
Caravaggio led a tumultuous life and was a violent amd easily provoked individual. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope. He was also notorious for brawling, even in a time and place when such behavior was commonplace, and the transcripts of his police records and trial proceedings fill several pages. In 1606, he killed, possibly unintentionally, a young man named Ranuccio Tomassoni from Terni (Umbria). The circumstances of the brawl and the death of Ranuccio Tomassoni remain mysterious. Several contemporary avvisi referred to a quarrel over a gambling debt and a tennis game. Whatever the details, it was a serious matter. Previously his high-placed patrons had protected him from the consequences of his escapades, but this time they could do nothing. Caravaggio, outlawed, fled from Rome to Naples.
In Naples, outside the jurisdiction of the Roman authorities Caravaggio was protected by the Colonna family. Whose connections led to a stream of important church commissions, including the Madonna of the Rosary, and The Seven Works of Mercy, this painting depicts the seven corporal works of mercy as a set of compassionate acts concerning the material needs of others. The painting is still housed in, the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples. Caravaggio combined all seven works of mercy in one composition which became the church’s altarpiece. Despite his success in Naples, after only a few months in the city Caravaggio left for Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, presumably hoping that the patronage of Alof de Wignacourt, Grand Master of the Knights, could help him secure a pardon for Tomassoni’s death. De Wignacourt proved so impressed at having the famous artist as official painter to the Order that he inducted him as a knight, and the early biographer Bellori records that the artist was well pleased with his success. Major works from his Malta period include a huge Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (the only painting to which he put his signature) and a Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page, as well as portraits of other leading knights. In 1608 he was arrested and imprisoned as the result of yet another brawl, during which the door of a house was battered down and a knight seriously wounded. He was imprisoned by the knights and managed to escape. By December he had been expelled from the Order “as a foul and rotten member.”
In 1607 Caravaggio made his way from Naples to Sicily To gain a papal pardon for his sentence. In Sicilly met his old friend Mario Minniti, who was now married and living in Syracuse. Together they set off on what amounted to a triumphal tour from Syracuse to Messina and, maybe, on to the island capital, Palermo. In Syracuse and Messina Caravaggio continued to win prestigious and well-paid commissions. Among other works from this period are Burial of St. Lucy, The Raising of Lazarus, and Adoration of the Shepherds. His style continued to evolve, showing now friezes of figures isolated against vast empty backgrounds. “His great Sicilian altarpieces isolate their shadowy, pitifully poor figures in vast areas of darkness; they suggest the desperate fears and frailty of man, and at the same time convey, with a new yet desolate tenderness, the beauty of humility and of the meek, who shall inherit the earth.”.
In 1609 After only nine months in Sicily, an increasingly paranoid Caravaggio returned to Naples. He was being pursued by enemies while in Sicily and felt it safest to place himself under the protection of the Colonnas until he could secure his pardon from the pope (now Paul V) and return to Rome. In Naples he painted The Denial of Saint Peter, a final John the Baptist (Borghese), and his last picture, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. In Naples, an attempt was made on his life, Which seriously disfigured his face. He painted a Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (Madrid), showing his own head on a platter, and sent it to de Wignacourt, he also painted David with the Head of Goliath, which he sent to the art-loving Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of the pope, who had the power to grant or withhold pardons. Throughout his life Caravaggio had displayed bizarre behaviour, and courted controvery. This got worse after Malta and Questions about his mental state arose from his erratic and bizarre behavior. In the summer of 1610 he took a boat northwards to receive the pardon, which seemed imminent thanks to his powerful Roman friends. With him were three last paintings, gifts for Cardinal Scipione.
Sadly though Caravaggio died 28 July 1610 under uncertain circumstances while on his way from Naples to Rome. Reports stated that he died of a fever, but suggestions have been made that he was murdered or that he died of lead poisoning. Recent research suggest that the artist died on that day of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany. Human remains found in a church in Porto Ercole in 2010 are believed to almost certainly belong to Caravaggio. Some argue that Caravaggio was murdered by the same “enemies” that had been pursuing him since he fled Malta, possibly Wignacourt and/or factions in the Order of St. John.
During his life, Caravaggio’s innovations inspired many Baroque paintings and his influence on the new Baroque style can be seen in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini, Rembrandt and the “Caravaggisti” or “Caravagesques”, as well as Tenebrists or “Tenebrosi” (“shadowists”) who incorporated the drama of chiaroscuro without the psychological realism.