was the son of Fermo Merisi, steward and architect of the Marquis of
Caravaggio. Orphaned at age 11, Caravaggio was apprenticed in the same
year to the painter Simone Peterzano of Milan. At some time between 1588
and 1592, Caravaggio went to Rome. He was already in possession of the
fundamental technical skills of painting and had acquired, with
characteristic eagerness, a thorough understanding of the approach of
the Lombard and Venetian painters, who, opposed to idealized Florentine
painting, had developed a style that was nearer to representing nature
and events. These first five years were an anguishing period of
instability and humiliation.
According to his biographers, Caravaggio was "needy and stripped of everything" and moved from one unsatisfactory employment to another, working as an assistant to painters of much smaller talent. He earned his living for the most part with hackwork and never stayed more than a few months at any studio. Finally, probably in 1595, he decided to set out on his own and began to sell his pictures through a dealer, a certain Maestro Valentino, who brought Caravaggio's work to the attention of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, a prelate of great influence in the papal court. Caravaggio soon came under the protection of Del Monte and was invited to receive board, lodging, and a pension in the house of the cardinal. Through the cardinal, Caravaggio was commissioned, at age 24, to paint for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. In its Chapel Caravaggio's realistic naturalism first fully appeared in three scenes he created of the life of St. Matthew.
The task of completing the work was an imposing one. The scheme called for three large paintings of scenes from the saint's life: St Matthew and the Angel, The Calling of St Matthew, and The Martyrdom of St Matthew. The execution of all three, in which Caravaggio substituted a dramatic contemporary realism for the traditional pictorial formulas used in depicting saints, provoked public astonishment. Perhaps Caravaggio was waiting for this test, on public view at last, to reveal the whole range of his diversity. His novelty in these works not only involves the surface appearance of structure and subject but also the sense of light and even of time.
The first version of the canvas that was to go over the altar, "St Matthew and the Angel",(shown here) was so offensive to the canons of San Luigi dei Francesi, who had never seen such a representation of a saint, that it had to be redone. In this work the evangelist has the physical features of a plowman or a common laborer. His big feet seem to stick out of the picture, and his posture, legs crossed, is awkward almost to the point of vulgarity. The angel does not stand graciously by but forcefully pushes Matthew's hand over the page of a heavy book, as if he were guiding an illiterate. What the canons did not understand was that Caravaggio, in elevating this humble figure, was copying Christ, who had himself raised Matthew from the street.
In the "Martyrdom of St Matthew" (shown below), Caravaggio represented the event as a nearly silent, dramatic narrative. The sequence of actions before and after this moment can be easily and convincingly re-created. The tax-gatherer Levi (Saint Matthew's name before he became the apostle) was seated at a table with his four assistants, counting the day's proceeds, the group lighted from a source at the upper right of the painting. Christ, His eyes veiled, with His halo the only hint of divinity, enters with Saint Peter. A gesture of His right hand, all the more powerful and compelling because of its languor, summons Levi. Surprised by the intrusion and perhaps dazzled by the sudden light from the just-opened door, Levi draws back and gestures toward himself with his left hand as if to say, "Who, me?", his right hand remaining on the coin he had been counting before Christ's entrance. Caravaggio's work was already becoming scattered in his lifetime.
He was changing all the time, and in his last canvases, such as "The Beheading of St John the Baptist" (shown at top of page) and "Adoration of the Shepherds" Caravaggio was using black space as a powerful character in the composition, threatening to overwhelm the lit areas, sometimes crowded into a mere quarter of the canvas. These experiments were the most important happenings in art, at least so far as artists themselves were concerned, since Leonardo painted. Moreover, Caravaggio, despite all his difficulties, always finished each piece of work if he possibly could, then went directly on to another, with fresh ideas and new experiments.
There is no doubt about the impact Caravaggio's work had on other artists. In the years immediately after his death, he was imitated by more artists than any other master of whom we have records. Caravaggism was a kind of fever which spread over the art world. In the last century, the art historian Benedict Nicolson spent much of his life collecting photographs of early seventeenth century works in the Caravaggio manner which eventually filled three large volumes. Caravaggio had a direct or indirect influence on all the greatest spirits of the century.
Probably the most revolutionary artist of his time, the Italian painter Caravaggio abandoned the rules that had guided a century of artists before him. They had idealized the human and religious experience. Caravaggio is considered the first great representative of the roque school of painting. Famous and extremely influential while he lived, Caravaggio was almost entirely forgotten in the centuries after his death, and it was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. Yet despite this his influence on the new Baroque style which eventually emerged from the ruins of Mannerism, was profound. Andre Berne-Joffroy, Paul Valéry's secretary, said of him: "What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting." And in the years following his death, Caravaggio was more imitated by other artists than any other master for whom we have record.