Introduction to Caravaggio: my November travels

I am travelling to London to join a study tour of the paintings by the artist known as Caravaggio.

This will be a solo trip because evening lectures and getting out of bed early in the morning are not the Dear Husband’s idea of a vacation.

The tour leaves from London to Rome, the location of most of Caravaggio’s major works, and then follows Caravaggio’s travels over the last four years of his life: Naples, Sicily and Malta.

The pages of academic writing on Caravaggio now exceed that of any other artist including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. If Caravaggio is not familiar to you, here is a very brief description.

Michelangelo Merisi was born in Milan in 1571. His family came from the town of Caravaggio near Milan. He arrived in Rome some time in the early 1590s, during the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation period. He started his Rome career painting small works for private purchasers. He was not part of a workshop and initially did not have a patron. In other words, he must have struggled in his early years in Rome.

The Cardsharps (Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth)

His fame erupted in 1600 with the display of his first major public religious painting, The Calling of St. Matthew, in the Contarelli chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

Between 1600 and 1606, he painted approximately 30-40 works, some still in the chapels for which they were commissioned and many others now in Rome’s and other cities’ art museums.

In 1606, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni. What happened between the two men remains a mystery. Biographers of Caravaggio love to speculate about a possible argument or rivalry with Tomassoni, a gangster-type. Caravaggio fled Rome. In abstentia, he was convicted of murder. The penalty at that time–death–could be carried out by anyone wanting the reward.

Between 1606 and 1610, Caravaggio travelled to Naples, Malta, Sicily, then back to the Naples area, painting and evading enemies all the while. His enemies by then included the Knights of Malta, from whose prison in Valletta he somehow escaped. Just before he died, Caravaggio, expecting to receive a papal pardon for the murder, headed towards Rome.

His death in July 1610 is another mystery. Reports at the time claimed he died of fever. One document claimed he died in Civitavecchia, a town on the coast near Rome, but the place name was scrubbed out and replaced with Porto Ercole. Porto Ercole is almost 100 miles north of Rome. If Caravaggio was travelling from Naples, which is about 150 miles south of Rome, to Rome, why would he be in Porto Ercole? Nor is it clear what caused his death. Some scholars argue he did not die of fever, but was murdered, or died of poisoning from the lead used in his paints.

Despite dying at 38 years of age, he produced over 80 paintings; at least, experts agree on about 80 paintings. Disputes continue over 10-12 additional paintings, which may be copies, and mostly owned by private individuals. World War II bombings in Berlin destroyed at least three of his paintings. One painting, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, was stolen in 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy. Rumours placed the painting in the hands of the mafia, although most experts believe if the painting still exists, it would be damaged beyond recognition. From time to time, lost works get found. Jonathan Harr’s book Lost Painting: the Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece tells the true story of the discovery of one painting, Taking of Christ, in a Jesuit residence in Ireland.

I have seen 51 Caravaggio paintings. Many I saw with Allie at the 2010 exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome on the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death.

This is one of my favourites, David with the Head of Goliath, which hangs in the Galleria Borghese in Rome (but where photography is prohibited):

Rome has the most Caravaggio paintings but I have looked at his paintings in London, New York, Florence, Paris, Vienna, Madrid and Berlin. Here’s one that hangs in the Louvre in Paris, Death of the Virgin:

Here’s his Judith Beheading Holofernes, which hangs in Rome in the Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica, also called the Palazzo Barberini, another no photography place:

Here’s his unusual Medusa, painted on a wooden shield, and displayed in the Uffizi in Florence, again, a no photography museum:


I included photos of some of his paintings in past posts. If you click on the category or tag ‘Caravaggio’, you can see my old posts about where I saw his paintings.

I am looking forward to 12 paintings I have never seen. I plan to explain more about his works and their significance in my posts as I progress through this study tour.

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