Michelangelo Merisi know as Caravaggio, an artist always on the run because of his social “misadventures”, but whose artworks are spectacular and innovative: that leave you breathless.
Despite his short life (1571-1610), Caravaggio left us a wonderful artistic heritage. Rome was the city where his success began to grow. Here he probably arrived around 1594 and was noticed by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who took him under his protection and also became his patron.
His artworks are spectacular, he was able with his pictorial technique to give them a strong expressiveness. Giovan Pietro Bellori, art historian of the time, wrote “he aspired to the only praise of color, so that the incarnation, the skin, and the blood, and the natural surface would appear to be true”. Make the characters as real through a skilful use of color was his aspiration. His paintings offer a great novelty: the truth in painting.
Grow up and trained in the Lombardy area, it is from here that his unique style originates. Lombard painting of the time, in fact, focused on simple elements and on the humblest part of the world, choosing the objects to be painted from everyday life. Caravaggio generally set the scene in commonplace and modest places, almost always pervaded by darkness. Bellori wrote: “Caravaggio, […] became more know every day for the color he was introducing, […] using a lot of black to give prominence to the bodies. He never let any of his figures come out into the sun, but found a way of viewing them within the brown air of a closed room, taking a high lamp, which descended plumb over the main part of the body, and leaving the rest in the shade”. Michelangelo Merisi used darkness to highlight the characters painted in his masterpieces, making them the protagonists of the scene. This technique of his brought many painters to Rome, who came there to admire “the only imitator of nature” and to “attend to study and teachings”. Humility also characterizes the subjects portrayed: in many cases they wear typical clothes of the time or even are real characters.
An example, in this sense, is the Penitent Magdalene, which he probably built around 1595 and which can be admired today at the Doria Pamphili Gallery in Rome. This was one of the first artworks that shocked the art historians of the time since never before had a sacred subject been depicted in painting as if it were a common people. Bellori wrote: “Michele painted a girl sitting on a chair with her hands in her bosom, in the act of drying her hair, he portrayed her in a room, and adding to the ground a pot of ointments, with jewels and gems, he pretended to Magdalene“. The woman, therefore, can be identified as the Magdalene simply by the bottle of ointment and by the jewels present at her side, which are a clear reference to the woman’s rejection of sin precisely because she is in an act of penance. Moreover, the young woman, in addition to wearing contemporary clothes, is portrayed in a humble and bare place that isn’t hidden at all. Caravaggio transforms the common portraiture into a sacred artwork.
A artwork that caused scandal was the “Death of the Virgin”, created around 1605 and exhibited today in the Louvre. The painting was supposed to be an altarpiece for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, but was contested and rejected by the clergy because it depicts a death that is “too real”, whithout angels and taken into heaven. Giovanni Baglione, painter and art historian of the time, motivated the refusal: “Because he had done the Madonna swollen with little decorum, and with bare legs, she was taken away”. Many were the criticisms addressed to this masterpiece “without decoration and invention“. The body of the Virgin looked like that of a simple commoner, swollen and with inappropriate clothes; the great art historian Roberto Longhi called it “the death of a commoner from the neighborhood“. Which faithful could ever have thought that it was the Virgin and give him the lighting of a candle? Another contemporary writer even speculated that Caravaggio “imitated a swollen dead woman”, according to some readings even a prostitute. The painting wasn’t very successful within the religious circle for the excessive adherence to the real of the depiction, but it met success among the artists who immediately understood its innovative and revolutionary value. The work was greatly appreciated by Pieter Paul Rubens, a Flemish painter who had recently arrived in Italy, employed by the Duke of Mantua who was immediately convinced to buy the refused altarpiece.
Masterpieces of Caravaggesque expressiveness are the two paintings depicting “Judith and Holofernes“, probably made around 1599 and today in Palazzo Barberini, and the Shield with the Head of Medusa, from around 1598 and today in the Uffizi Gallery. The Judith of Palazzo Barberini is a young Jewish woman depicted at the height of the action, blocked in a single instant for eternity, intent on cutting off the enemy’s head with a scimitar to save the independence of her people. The Assyrian general Holofernes, with his army, had besieged the Jewish city of Betulia, which is why Judith studied a plan: seduce Holofernes and make him drunk and then kill him. The expression of horror on the young woman’s face, the almost lifeless gaze of Holofernes, the blood gushing from his throat, his scream of pain mixed with terror: all this contributes to making the image more real. It is evident that Caravaggio highlighted the victim’s pain by highlighting the tense muscles through the alternation of light and shadow, which he also used to highlight the “actors” of the scene.
The same cry of pain is in the Shield with the Head of Medusa that Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte commissioned to Caravaggio to donate it to the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando I de’ Medici. Thanks to his skill, the painter was able to give particular emphasis to the snakes on the gorgon’s head, which intertwine with each other and appear to be alive. The empty gaze, the mouth wide open for the scream, the blood gushing from the severed head: everything sharpens the drama of the scene.
Caravaggio, in addition to leaving us an inestimable artistic heritage, with his extraordinary ability to adhere to the truth, has given rise to an artistic revolution that has inspired many painters from all over the world. Figurative art was transforming.