Caravaggio, 1571-1610

Caravaggio,  The Musicians,  1595, oil on canvas, 92.1 x 118.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Caravaggio, The Musicians, 1595, oil on canvas, 92.1 x 118.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

By Lily Spencer

Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi, on the 29th September 1571. He has come to be known as Caravaggio after the small town near Bergamo where his family were from and in order to avoid confusion with Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (of David and the Sistine Chapel).

In 1592 Caravaggio fled Milan and the authorities after a violent incident and he ended up in Rome. Here he was destitute. He ended up doing minor work in various workshops around Rome, painting mainly still lifes. He also painted quarter-length figures and allegorical scenes, which he sold on the street. Famous paintings from this early period are The Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594) and The Musicians (1595). Even in this period, his unique style began to show through. They are striking for their sensual depiction of handsome young men, but also for their heightened naturalism. The fruits and flowers are highly detailed but they are not painted to show perfection; many of them are overripe or rotting. This is reflected in his representation of the people who are neither heroic nor Biblical. He took his models from the street and, particularly in The Boy Bitten by a Lizard, their facial expressions are not necessarily beautiful. It appears that he used this period to study expression and to practise painting the body in different positions and from different angles.

In 1595 he was discovered by Cardinal Francesco del Monte who became his private patron. Through this acquaintance Caravaggio received his first public commissions, and he soon became one of the most famous artists in Italy. He painted religious scenes in a way that had never been seen before. His paintings were often set in contemporary surroundings and very close to the picture plane, so that the viewer is integrated into the image. He is also known for his use of chiaroscuro; the use of extreme contrast between light and dark, which not only made his paintings striking, but also acted as visual indicators, reinforcing the message of the painting. For example, in the The Supper at Emmaus (1601), the disciples that have recognised Christ have illuminated faces, while the other remains, both figuratively and literally, in the dark.

Caravaggio’s time in Rome ended abruptly after he killed someone in a fight over a woman or a tennis match and he, once again, fled. He spent the last years of his life between Malta, Naples and Sicily, but he soon died, possibly of malaria, at the age of 39.


Artsy, "Caravaggio" profile. Accessed 24th September, 2017.

National Gallery, London, "Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio" profile. Accessed 24th September, 2017.

Treves, Letizia. Caravaggio: His life and style in three paintings | National Gallery, National Gallery, London: 2016. Accessed 24th September, 2017.