xxxxxThe Italian artist Caravaggio spent a life on the move, often to avoid arrest. During a tempestuous career he worked in Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily, and died of a fever while travelling on foot from Palo to Rome. His work showed an exaggerated, dramatic management of light, a skilful use of foreshortening, and great attention to detail. Above all, however, the treatment of his subject, religious or not, was often coarse and gruesome, as in his David with the Head of Goliath, Medusa, and the Beheading of John the Baptist for Valetta cathedral. But not all his content was grisly. There was his The Calling of St. Matthew, The Conversion of St. Paul, and his masterpiece, his second version of the Supper at Emmaus, all remarkable for the directed light and the facial expressions. His three large canvases of the Life of St. Matthew, painted in Rome in 1599, brought him fame and fortune, but it was soon after this that he killed a man and in 1606 was obliged to take flight. He is likely to have been influenced by Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Tintoretto and, in his turn, to have influenced the work of Velasquez and Rembrandt.



Portrait: by the Italian artist Ottavio Leoni (1578-1630) – Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence. Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus – Galleria Brera, Milan; The Beheading of St. John the Baptist – Co-Cathedral of St. John, Valetta; The Entombment (detail) – Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome; Boy with basket of fruit (detail) – Galleria Borghese, Rome; Boy bitten by a lizard (detail) – National Gallery, London. Carracci: Pietá – Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Roman River Landscape (detail) – Staatlich Museum, Berlin; The Bean Eater – Galleria Colonna, Rome; Ceiling fresco – Farnese Palace, Rome; Satyr and Shepherd – Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome.

xxxxxCaravaggio, a troubled and often violent man, takes his name from the small Lombardy hill town where he was born in northern Italy. He was trained in the nearby city of Milan, but was working in Rome before he was twenty. He was somewhat of a maverick and a rebellious one at that, spending much of his life on the move to avoid the long arm of the law. During one of the numerous brawls in which he was involved, he killed a man and was obliged to take flight. He went to Naples in 1606, and then travelled on to Malta, where he completed a number of fine works. Soon in trouble again, however, he was thrown into prison but managed to escape to Sicily where he worked in Syracuse, Messina and Palermo. He then returned to Naples and took a boat to Rome, hoping to receive a pardon from the Pope. It appears that during this voyage the boat put in at Palo and on going ashore he was mistaken for somebody else and found himself in prison again. By the time he was released, two days later, the boat had departed. In desperation he began walking along the malaria-infested coast and, catching a fever, died at Porto Ercole, a garrison town on the border with the Papal States.

xxxxxLike his life-style, his art was far from conventional, but it was successful nonetheless. His work shows an exaggerated, dramatic management of light, a skilful use of foreshortening, and a painstaking attention to detail, but it is in the reality of his interpretation, bordering often upon the gruesome, that Caravaggio both shocks and shines. From an early age he saw art as of no worth unless it portrayed life as it was - dirty fingernails and all. Biblical personalities - hitherto afforded a dignity befitting their religious importance - are given the demeanour and dress of peasants. We are told that his girlfriend, a prostitute, was a model for his painting of the Virgin Mary, and that for the same subject he once used the bloated body of a woman found floating in the Tiber. In fact his Death of the Virgin was rejected by the Carmelites because of her bared legs and distended stomach and, on the advice of Rubens, was bought by the Duke of Mantua.

xxxxxDoubtless as a result of his turbulent and brutal life - he would often go out looking for a fight! - he took great delight in subjects of a gruesome nature. His Judith Beheading Holofernes, David with the Head of Goliath, and the Beheading of St. John the Baptist leave nothing to the imagination, and his Sacrifice of Abraham and Medusa are studies of wild terror on the faces of the victims. These were glimpses of compelling realism. But not all his works were grisly in content. For example, his The Calling of St. Matthew, the first version of Supper at Emmaus, and The Conversion of St. Paul, though somewhat theatrical in style, are brilliant above all for their directed light, the incredible regard to detail, and the expressions on the faces. And earlier works, such as Bacchus, The Gipsy Fortune Teller, and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt show a softer side to his art if not to his nature. In this regard, his second version of the Supper at Emmaus (illustrated), a much more subdued and moving interpretation, must be numbered among his masterpieces.

xxxxxHis first years in Rome were spent in extreme poverty, but by about 1599 he had come to the attention of Cardinal Del Monte, a well-known music and art lover, and was working as a member of his household. The Cardinal, it would seem, had a liking for young boys, and that is probably the reason why some of Caravaggio's early works, including altar pieces, depicted adolescents and comely cherubs. It was almost certainly through his patron's good offices that he obtained the commission to paint three large canvases depicting the life of St. Matthew. He struggled for a while, but the finished work brought him fame and fortune in 1599, despite the fact that he had to redo one of them (St. Matthew and the Angel) because the Saint's plebeian features gave offence! From then on he was never short of orders, but this all came to an abrupt end with his flight from the law in 1606. He spent about nine months in Naples, where he completed three large altarpieces, including his Flagellation of Christ, and then sailed for Malta, arriving there in July 1607.

xxxxxAt first he was well received in Malta, his fame as an artist having preceded him, and in return for portraits painted on behalf of the Knights of Malta, including one of the Grandmaster, he was made an honorary member. This distinction was short-lived! His violent nature was soon revealed, and he was expelled from the Order and stripped of all his honours. It was while on the island of Malta that he produced for Valetta cathedral his largest and one of his most gruesome works The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, the Order's patron-saint (detail illustrated). We are told that he actually signed this painting, writing his signature in blood. We must be generous towards him and assume that it was his own blood! There then followed a short stay in Sicily, living off the payments from various altarpieces, (such as the Resurrection of Lazarus and the Adoration of the Shepherds) before his return to Naples. The story goes that, before leaving Sicily for his fateful, uncompleted journey to Rome, some of his enemies caught up with him and so badly disfigured him that, from then on, he was hardly recognisable.

xxxxxIt is believed that Caravaggio privately studied the works of Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and this would certainly have had an effect upon his colour and composition. In his harsh use of light - often manipulated for his own ends - he might well have been inspired by Tintoretto. It was this extreme contrast of light and deep shadow (hence known as tenebrism), plus his insistence on reality - his uncompromising "naturalism" - that were to have so marked effect upon art in Italy and beyond. In his homeland his technique contributed to the Baroque style then emerging, and was followed by a host of artists known as the Caravaggisti. Further afield, his work was to influence masters like Velazquez and Rembrandt. Shown here are details from The Entombment, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, and Boy Bitten by a Lizard.





xxxxxIt was in 1595, when Caravaggio was completing his early painting, The Gipsy Fortune Teller, that another Italian artist, Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), left his native city of Bologna and began work on his masterpiece, the interior decoration of the Farnese Palace in Rome. It was here that a set of mythological frescoes depicting the loves of the pagan Gods, painted on the vaulted ceiling of the Gallery, brought him instant fame. Indeed, so well was this series received (especially the central theme The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne), that he was regarded as a worthy successor to the Renaissance giants, Michelangelo and Raphael. His workmanship, characterised by powerfully modelled figures, rich colours and a pervading sense of vigour, now became much in demand. He went on to produce a number of fine altarpieces, and in 1601 he worked alongside Caravaggio while painting his Assumption for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Among his other religious works were his The Dead Christ Mourned, a highly theatrical study, and his Pietá, a moving portrayal in which the pathos is enhanced by the soft, cool blue of both garment and shroud (illustrated).

xxxxxBut apart from his religious paintings and frescoes, he produced a number of realistic genre scenes, such as The Butcher's Shop and Boy Drinking (both in Christ Church College, Oxford), and his landscapes became noted for their classical settings, a feature which was later employed and developed by others, including the French artists Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. He also left a vast collection of drawings - some two hundred are now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle - and many were made as preparatory pieces for his work in the Farnese Palace.

xxxxxLittle is known of his early life, but he came from an artistic and fairly humble family. As a young artist he greatly admired the paintings of Correggio and, while in Venice, studying the works of Titian, he met both Tintoretto and Veronese. He was devoted to his work as an artist, and would seem to have been a kindly, well-meaning man, but he was prone to fits of depression and he produced little during the last five years of his life. He died at the age of 49 and was buried in the Pantheon, the resting place of Raphael, the artist he so much admired. Forxsome years he was assisted in his work by his brother Agostino Carracci (1557-1602). They were both prominent members of the Bologna school of painting, founded by their cousin Lodovicio in 1585. Under their guidance, this school, emphasising as it did the need to draw from live models, played an important part in bringing about the decline of Mannerism and the development of the early Baroque style.

xxxxxShown here are The Bean Eater, Decoration in the Farnese Palace, and Satyr and Shepherd.

xxxxxAnother Italian artist at this time was Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). He began his masterpiece, the interior decoration of the Farnese Palace in Rome, in 1595, and this won him wide acclaim. Indeed, his mythological frescoes depicting the loves of the pagan Gods, painted on the vaulted ceiling of the Gallery, was regarded as comparable to the work of Michelangelo and Raphael. He painted a number of fine altarpieces, notable for their powerful figures and rich colours, and in 1601 he worked alongside Caravaggio while painting his Assumption. Particularly noteworthy among his religious works are his The Dead Christ Mourned and his moving Pietá, a study enhanced by his use of a soft tone of blue. He produced a number of genre paintings, such as The Butcher’s Shop, and his landscapes were noted for their classical settings, seen later in the works of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Some 200 of his drawings are now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. A member of the Bologna school of painting, he much admired the works of Correggio and Titian, and while in Venice met both Tintoretto and Veronese.

xxxxxIncidentally, it is very likely that Carracci was the first artist to produce caricatures, and that it was he who coined the word "caricatura", from the Latin verb caricare meaning "to overload", i.e. "exaggerate". A series of portrait caricatures poking fun at the conceit and pretence of local courtiers was produced at this time (illustrated) and, since he openly criticised such ostentation, they were probably drawn by him.