Caravaggio was a Baroque artist and the greatest Italian painter of the 17th century.
Michelangelo Merisi was born in September 1571 in Caravaggio, near Milan and was always known by the name of his hometown. In 1584, he was apprenticed for four years to Simone Peterzano, an artist working in Milan. Caravaggio moved to Rome in the early 1590s. He specialised in still lifes and later in half-length figures such as 'Boy with a Basket of Fruit'. An early patron was Cardinal del Monte, a leading art connoisseur in Rome.
It was probably through the Cardinal that in 1599 he obtained the commission to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the French church in Rome with scenes from the life of St Matthew. These paintings were his first public work and they caused a sensation with their extreme realism and dramatic contrasts of light and shade. He then secured a string of prestigious commissions, many of them religious works.
Caravaggio seems to have lived a tempestuous life, frequently getting involved in brawls. In May 1606, during a game of racquets he quarrelled with his opponent and stabbed him to death. He was forced to flee Rome, settling in Naples and then travelling to Malta, Sicily and around southern Italy. Many of his paintings from this time are dark and melancholy, such as 'Salome Receives the Head of St John the Baptist'.
In 1609, Caravaggio was severely wounded in a brawl in a tavern in Naples. In 1610 he was pardoned for the murder he had committed in Rome but died of a fever in July of the same year.
Caravaggio, whose fiery masterpieces included "The Death of the Virgin" and "David with the Head of Goliath," and who inspired generations of artists, was born as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1571 in Italy. The world he arrived in was violent and, at times, unstable. His birth came just a week before the Battle of Lepanto, a bloody conflict in which Turkish invaders were driven out of Christendom.
Not much is known about Caravaggio's early family life. His father, Fermo Merisi, was the steward and architect of the marquis of Caravaggio. When Caravaggio was six, the bubonic plague rolled through his life, killing almost everyone in his family, including his father.
According to writer Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of the 2011 biography "Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane," the artist's troubled adult years stemmed directly from that traumatic loss of his family. "He almost seems bound to transgress," Dixon writes. "It's almost like he cannot avoid transgressing. As soon as he's welcomed by authority, welcomed by the pope, welcomed by the Knights of Malta, he has to do something to screw it up. It's almost like a fatal flaw."
Orphaned, Caravaggio took to the streets and fell in with a group of "painters and swordsmen who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, 'without hope, without fear,'" wrote an earlier biographer.
At the age of 11, Caravaggio relocated to Milan and began apprenticing with the painter Simone Peterzano. In his late teens, perhaps as early as 1588, a penniless Caravaggio moved to Rome. There, to keep himself fed, Caravaggio found work assisting other painters, many of them far less talented than he. But as instability defined his existence, Caravaggio jumped from one job to the next.
Sometime around 1595, Caravaggio struck out on his own and started selling his paintings through a dealer. His work soon caught the attention of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who adored Caravaggio's paintings and quickly set him up in his own house, with room, board and a pension.
A prolific painter, Caravaggio was known to work quickly, often starting and completing a painting in just two weeks. By the time he had come under the influence of del Monte, Caravaggio already had 40 works to his name. The lineup included "Boy with a Basket of Fruit," "The Young Bacchus" and "The Music Party."
Much of Caravaggio's early work featured chubby, pretty young boys done up as angels or lutenists or his favorite saint, John the Baptist. Many of the boys in the paintings are naked or loosely clothed. Caravaggio's only known assistant was a boy named Cecco, who appears in a number of Caravaggio's works and who may have also been his lover.
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