A Self-Portrait detail in The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600) by Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Caravaggio, Italy, Italy (Photo courtesy of San Luigi dei Francesi)
A Self-Portrait detail in The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600) by Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The baroque master of chiaroscuro, turning the dance of darkness and light into story and character

Caravaggio (1571-1610) was probably the most influential painter after Michelangelo on Italian painting style as it transformed from the formal, neo-classical Renaissance into the more earthy, vibrant, and melodramatic baroque style.

The fact that Caravaggio's real name actually happened to be "Michelangelo" as well is just a coincidence.

(Like many painters, Michelangelo Meresi was known by the name of his hometown: Caravaggio, a small town near Milan).

Caravaggio's painting: Birth of the baroque

Caravaggio reinvented Baroque painting, using peasants and commoners as models and including their earthy realism (dirty bare feet were a favorite) in his works.

Caravaggio also pioneered the chiaroscuro style of painting (sometimes called "tenebrism")—contrasting dark, even black areas of deep shadow with planes of color light by strong light and highlights, showing this off to great effect in the wrinkles on faces (he loved those) and folds in clothing.

He painted in manner that was at once intensely realistic and naturalistic, yet also exaggerated and emphasized—sort of a heightened, hyper-realism. The influence of his patented style would echo down the next several centuries, greatly informing the works of Bernini, Ribera, Rubens, Rembrandt, and a host of others.

Whereas it had been mildly scandalous when Renaissance painters first started casting Tuscan peasants in the choirs of angels and groups of monks and Biblical bystanders of their frescoes, it was downright outrageous when Caravaggio used prostitutes to pose for his Madonnas and street hustlers for his saints.

Partly this was down to using the cheapest models possible, but they were also probably people Caravaggio happened to know.

Caravaggio's life: The original bad boy artist

Caravaggio was a hard-living man, always getting into trouble with drinking, gambling, brawling, sword fighting, and whores (both male and female—and it was decidedly not OK to be gay in a 16th-century Rome ruled by the church).

In fact, he ended up in Rome after he had to leave Milan in 1592 following "certain quarrels."

Even having big-time patrons like the Cardinal Scipione Borghese couldn't save him after he murdered a young man in a street brawl in 1606.

He fled Rome and became an itinerant painter, moving first to Naples, where the influence of his style pretty much defined Neapolitan painting for centuries to come, then to the protection of the Knights of Malta (he became an honorary Knight of Malta, but had to leave after another fight in 1608), then to Sicily before making his way back up to Naples.

Caravaggio also amassed many enemies, and had to flee Naples after an attempt on his life (and, yes, another brawl) in 1509.

He ended up in the scruffy town of Porto Ercole on Monte Argentario, an island-like peninsula in southern Tuscany, drinking himself into a stupor and waiting for his allies in Rome to try to get him a pardon on the old murder rap.

Caravaggio died, anonymously on a tavern table, of sunstroke after a walk on a brutally hot day.

His body was tossed into the pile of a pauper's pit grave at the edge of town.

He was 38 years old.

Photo gallery
  • A Self-Portrait detail in The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600) by Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Caravaggio, Italy (Photo courtesy of San Luigi dei Francesi)
  • Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Nazionale d
  • Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All) (1602–03) by Caravaggio in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Caravaggio, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Gemäldegalerie)
  • The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1600–01) by Caravaggio in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, Caravaggio, Italy (Photo courtesy of Santa Maria del Popolo)
  • Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio in the National Gallery, London, Caravaggio, Italy (Photo courtesy of the National Gallery)
  • Death of the Virgin (c. 1606) by Caravaggio in the Louvre, Paris, Caravaggio, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Louvre)
  • The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600) by Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Caravaggio, Italy (Photo courtesy of San Luigi dei Francesi)
  • The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599–1600) by Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Caravaggio, Italy (Photo courtesy of San Luigi dei Francesi)

Selected works by Caravaggio in Italy


"Sleeping Cupid" (1608) by Caravaggio in the Palazzo Pitti: Galleria Palatina, Florence

"The Toothpuller" (1608–10) by Caravaggio in the Palazzo Pitti: Galleria Palatina, Florence

"Madonna of the Pilgrims" (1603–05) by Caravaggio in the Sant'Agostino, Rome

Narcissus (1594–96) by Caravaggio in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) by Caravaggio in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome

St. Francis in Meditation (1606–07) by Caravaggio in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome

"John the Baptist" (1603) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Corsini, Rome

"Saint Francis in Prayer" (1606) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Corsini, Rome

"Boy with a Basket of Fruit" (1593) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

"Madonna with the Serpent" (1606) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

"David with the Head of Goliath" (1610) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

"John the Baptist" (1610) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

"Saint Jerome Writing" (1605–06) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

"Self-Portrait as Bacchus" (1593) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

Supper at Emmaus (c. 1606) by Caravaggio in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The Entombment of Christ, or Deposition, (1602–03) by Caravaggio in the Vatican Pinacoteca, Rome

Basket of Fruit (1597–1600) by Caravaggio in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

"Rest on the Flight into Egypt" (1597) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome

"Saint John the Baptist" or "Youth with a Ram" (1602) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome

"Maria Maddalena (Mary Magdalene)" (1594–96) by Caravaggio in the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome

"Saint John the Baptist" of "Youth with a Ram" (1602) by Caravaggio in the The Capitoline Museums, Rome

The Contarelli Chapel with its Caravaggio paintings on "The Life of St. Matthew" in the San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

"Calling of St. Matthew" (1599–1600) by Caravaggio in the Capella Contarelli in the San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

"The Inspiration of St. Matthew" (1602) by Caravaggio in the Capella Contarelli in the San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

"Martyrdom of St. Matthew" (1599–1600) by Caravaggio in the Capella Contarelli in the San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Flagellazione di Cristo , or The Flagellation of Christ (1607) by Caravaggio in the Museo Capodimonte, Naples

Satyr by Annibale Carracci, featuring a portrait of Caravaggio in the Museo Capodimonte, Naples

The Cerasi Chapel, with paintings by Annibale Carracci (center) and Caravaggio (left and right) in the Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

"Crucifixion of Saint Peter" (1600) by Caravaggio in the Cerasi Chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

"The Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus" (1604) by Caravaggio in the Cerasi Chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Caravaggio's Portrait of a Knight of Malta (Fra Antonio Martelli) (1610) in the Sala Verde in the Palazzo Pitti: Appartamenti Reali, Florence

Where to find works by Caravaggio in Italy

★★★
"The Birth of Venus" (1484–85) by Sandro Botticelli (Photo Public Domain)
Uffizi
Florence: Centro Storico

Visiting the Gallerie degli Uffizi is like taking Renaissance 101: A smorgasbord of paintings by Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Botticelli—including his iconic "Birth of Venus"

 
★★☆
 (Photo by Dimitris Kamaras)

"Uffizi Part II": A stellar collection of High Renaisance and baroque art in the princely Renaissance Pitti Palace

 
★★★
Room XII (17th century) (Photo by Petar Milošević)

The Vatican Museum's Pinacoteca is the best painting gallery in all of Rome

 
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St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504–07) by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini in Room 8 (Photo by SunOfErat)

Milan's Brera is one of the top painting galleries in Northern Italy, with works by Raphael, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Mantegna, Bellini, and Piero della Francesca

 
★☆☆
The Sala Verde (Green Room) in the Appartamenti Reali of the Pitti Palace, Florence (Photo by Jean Louis Mazieres)

The elaborately decorated Royal Apartments and state rooms of the Medici and Lorraine Grand Dukes in the princely Renaissance Pitti Palace

 
★★★
"Venus of Urbino" (1538) by Titian (Photo Public Domain)
Uffizi 2nd floor
Florence: Centro Storico

Visiting the Gallerie degli Uffizi is like taking Renaissance 101: A smorgasbord of paintings by Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Botticelli—including his iconic "Birth of Venus"

 
★★☆
The Pinacoteca and Bilblioteca Ambrosiana (Photo by George M. Groutas)

A formerly private painting gallery and library with Raphael's cartoon for School of Athens and Da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus

 
★★☆
The Imperial Room, with Bernini's Rape of Persephone (Photo by Damian Entwistle)
Galleria Borghese
Rome: Via Veneto & Villa Borghese

Rome's Borghese Gallery is packed with amazing works by Bernini, Caravaggio, and Raphael, and ranks as one of my top three small museums in the world

 
★★☆
The Cerasi Chapel, with paintings by Annibale Carracci (center) and Caravaggio (left and right) (Photo by Frederick Fenyvessy)
Free

Rome's church of Santa Maria del Popolo is like a primer on the development of art and architecture from the early Renaissance through the baroque

 
★☆☆
AD 2C equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (Photo by schizoform)
Capitoline Museums
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

These museums atop Rome's Campidoglio connected by the Tabularium house iconic ancient statues (she-wolf, colossal statue of Constantine, Lo Spinario, Dying Gaul, etc.) and great art by Caravaggio, Titian, and Rubens

 
★★☆
Room 2 in the museum (Photo courtesy of the museum)
Museo Capodimonte
Naples: Capodimonte

The most important painting gallery in all of Southern Italy

 
★☆☆
Narcissus (1594–96) by Caravaggio (Photo Public Domain)
Palazzo Barberini
Rome: Via Veneto & Villa Borghese

Rome's Palazzo Barberini serves as half of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, a collection of Old Masters from Raphael to Caravaggio

 
★☆☆
San Pietro
Southern Perugia

A Gothic church filled with great art by Perugino and others

 
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The Contarelli Chapel with its Caravaggio paintings on "The Life of St. Matthew" (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
Free
San Luigi dei Francesi
Rome: Tiber Bend

The church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome is a festival of Caravaggios

 
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The Hall of Mirrors (Photo by Andy Rusch)
Galleria Doria-Pamphilj
Rome: Tiber Bend

Rome's Galleria Doria-Pamphilj is a princely private collection

 
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 (Photo by Patrick Rasenberg)
Galleria Corsini
Rome: Trastevere

Great Renaissance and baroque paintings at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in the Palazzo Corsini alla Lungara

 
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The Siracusa art museum has some fine Renaissance and baroque works by Antonello da Messina, Caravaggio, and Domenico Gagini housed in the Palazzo Bellomo

 
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The nave (Photo by David Bramhall)
Free
Sant'Agostino
Rome: Tiber Bend

The church has works by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Sansovino—and lies just off Piazza Navona—yet sadly sees few visitors

 
☆☆☆

A little church with a Caravaggio

 
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