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The other Michelangelo.

In his continuing series on revolutionary artists, Kenny McEwan looks at Carravagio.

Unlike his illustrious namesake, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was intensely disliked by most of Rome's clergy and nobility in his lifetime and almost forgotten for two hundred years after his death. And yet now in the words of Ellis Waterhouse, the art historian: "you could be forgiven for supposing that his (Caravaggio's) place in the history of civilisation lies somewhere in importance between Aristotle and Lenin". How did this huge contradiction between the two views of Caravaggio come about? The answer to this conundrum can be found at the heart of the society that he lived and work in. Born in 1571 at Caravaggio in northern Italy, Michelangelo Merisi entered a world riven with religious upheaval. The Reformation had become the Counter Reformation and the inquisition was in full swing against heretics both outwith and within the Roman church. In particular the area in the north around Milan, sandwiched between Protestant France and Calvinist Switzerland, was thought to be particularly infiltrated by heretics. Almost weekly there were arrests and public executions of supposed heretics led by Cardinal Carlo Borrmeo, later canonised for his good deeds.

This was the extremely violent world that Caravaggio inherited. Many had hoped that The Council of Trent 1, (1545) would have attempted to reach a compromise with the Reformation, instead it moved the Catholic Church in completely the opposite direction. Rather than removing religious art as the Protestants did, calling it profane, the Pope and his cardinals instead called on artists to come to Rome to undertake commissions which would show the world that Rome was still the epicentre of Christianity. A new explosion of art took place there, and a new art style was created to produce the kind of art desired by the Church. Mannerism replaced the Renaissance art of an earlier generation. Now elaborate paintings of the Virgin, Jesus and the Saints adorned the walls of the Vatican, churches, and private collections. These paintings depicted their subjects in graceful, sophisticated poses full of beauty and elegance. Or in balletic, contorted, contrived poses in an attempt to convey nobility, poise and style in the characters. Sometimes this led to extreme exaggerations of body parts to convey this as in 'The Virgin with the long neck' by Mazzuola. Whilst many paintings were of the highest standards, most were predictable and contrived, lacking the power and drive of the earlier Renaissance. Caravaggio's arrival in Rome would turn this convention on its head, revolutionising art henceforth. Of course revolutionaries are not welcome by those they seek to overthrow or their supporters, and in a climate where patrons are essential some one like Caravaggio found it very difficult to secure patronage.

However, even in the very conservative, dangerous and competitive world of the papacy in 16th century Rome there were those who were willing to take on new and radical painters.

Like many at the time he struggled in the beginning to establish himself particularly due to his style, being realist, quickly executed and in complete contrast to Mannerism. His early works are generally half-length figures with still lives; mostly they are male figures in mythical poses, for example Cupid or Bacchus. There is such great beauty in these paintings, colourful, and lifelike, however, they are also very real and though not romanticised are very sensual or homoerotic. Bacchus (1596) in particular displays a young man seductively offering a glass of wine to the viewer, clearly though, this is not really the God of wine, the young man a friend of Caravaggio's is not the muscular bronzed god of legend but someone masquerading as him. Also in this painting beside Bacchus are fruits arranged in a bowl, which on closer inspection show the fruit to be over ripe and full of wormholes. This symbolises the transient nature of youth and beauty, a reoccurring theme in his paintings.

Other paintings of this time are of a similar nature, beautiful young men in seductive or erotic poses; this led to the charge that Caravaggio was having affairs with the men involved, a very serious charge, at that time though probably true. In any case it did not stop him getting commissions or patrons, though to ensure a reliable income at that time you needed to paint religious art and he gradually changed his subject matter to reflect this. He did not change his style and this caused much consternation and no little danger for himself.

The world was still a very volatile place as could be testified to by the likes of Gallileo and Giordino Bruno. Bruno was a scientist, philosopher, and advocate of the Copernicus planetary system, which was later confirmed by Gallileo. In 1600 after a seven-year trial for heresy he was burned at the stake at Campo de Fiori in Rome for refusing to recant. Clearly this was not the time to upset the establishment, but this is exactly what Caravaggio did. He had perfected a new technique called chiaroscuro meaning light and dark, previous paintings had light all round the figures whether in doors or out, however, in real terms an indoor painting should have only one or possibly two light sources, i.e. a candle or a lamp. The effect of using chiaroscuro is to highlight the main figure or scene and remove background, thus intensifying the drama of the setting and force the viewer to concentrate on the central focus of the painting.

This alone was enough to cause great criticism of his work but it was his realism that caused him danger and derision. Most religious painting of the time depicted the Holy family or the saints in a contrived, idealised way, full of piety and grace. Caravaggio's use of chiaroscuro, linked with his rejection of idealism in favour of realism created a new and revolutionary art form which would have a profound effect on the development of art. In 'Supper at Emmaus' (1600) this technique is used to great effect to produce a powerful composition which is almost three-dimensional in appearance. The subject matter is Christ revealing himself to two of his disciples at a supper. Both models for the disciples were friends of the painters from the streets of Rome dressed in contemporary clothing, a far cry from the idealised saints normally depicted. This view of saints and religious figures as ordinary people was practically heretical and it was only the intervention of powerful patrons that often saved him from prosecution.

While many of his commissions were rejected, several of his paintings were accepted and placed in churches. Two of which, 'The Crucifixion of Peter' and 'The Conversion of St Paul' (1601) are in the Cerasi Chapel. Not only are these powerful paintings but placed along side Carracci's 'Assumption of the Virgin' painted at the same time, they look like they belong to a completely different era. Caravaggio continued to outrage the Church with his paintings, none more so than with the 'Death of the Virgin' (1605) where it is rumoured he used the body of a dead prostitute as a model for the Virgin. True or not, the fact is this very realistic and moving painting of a dead woman is not the idealised death and assumption that the church wished.

Compounding Caravaggio's difficulties with the authorities was the fact that he was arrested several times, for brawling and drunkenness, again his powerful patrons would bail him out. On one disastrous occasion however, no one could help him, and he had to flee Rome never to return. Rome in the 17th century was a hot bed of rival groups and families each with its own gang of supporters. In 1606, Caravaggio and a group went to a tennis court to see Ranuccio Tomassoni over a wager; Tomassoni was from a large family linked to the powerful Farneses and a row quickly ensued. Swords drawn, a serious fight broke out during which Tomassoni tripped and fell, Caravaggio probably trying to inflict an insulting wound cut the artery in Tomassoni's leg and he died. In very grave trouble he fled to Naples, outwith Papal control, a year later he moved to Malta to await a Papal pardon.

During this period he continued to produce exquisite paintings sometimes portraying very graphically the martyrdom of many saints, continuing to use real people as models, often in contemporary setting to heighten the effect. Again scandal struck and he had to flee Malta. Here his past caught up with him and he was nearly killed in an assault which left him severely wounded, it is thought members of the Tomassoni family were responsible for this. He then decided to move nearer to Rome to wait for his pardon, whilst doing so he somehow lost his boat and set out to find it, that was the last anyone ever seen of Caravaggio, he had not yet reached his fortieth birthday.

Whilst essentially a religious painter he nevertheless produced some of the greatest art of the 17th century and in his own way defied one the most powerful regimes in the world. His challenge to mainstream art paved the way for some of the greatest artists of our time.


(1) Council of Trent (1545) assembled by the Catholic Church attempts to reform abuses and redefine doctrine. Went some way towards meeting this but reaffirmed Catholic doctrine.