Caravaggio is considered one of the greatest and most influential artists in history, but his genius had an extremely dark side. The original article I wrote can be found here, and be sure to check out my graphic novel, The Tenebrist, a fictionalized account of Caravaggio’s tragic life and death.
Michelangelo Merisi was likely born in Milan in 1571, and later took the name Caravaggio after the small town where he grew up. During his short life he produced little more than forty paintings that survived, but what he lacked in quantity he more than made up for in spectacular skill, which brought him great fame and the admiration of many wealthy patrons. After his rather ignominious death, the groundbreaking techniques he applied in his work would inspire and influence artists for years to come. But Caravaggio’s great intelligence and limitless talent was undercut by a fiery temperament that often landed him on the wrong side of the law.
Caravaggio’s Early Life (and Crimes?)
The artist grew up in a middle-class family, and was apprenticed to Milanese painter Simone Peterzano in 1584, where he learned the craft of painting in oils, along with drawing and anatomy. At this point Caravaggio was a young teenager, but there is some hint that a taste for the low life was already starting to develop; though nothing appears in police records of the time, one of Caravaggio’s early biographers claims that some unknown crime was responsible for the artist fleeing Milan.
Caravaggio in Rome
Caravaggio finished his apprenticeship when he was seventeen, and spent some time back in his hometown over the next three years. When his mother died in 1592, he inherited a tidy sum, and used some of it to move to Rome later that year. He lived in poverty at first, but slowly his reputation grew, and by 1594 he was beginning to attract wealthy patrons. By the end of the 1590s, Caravaggio had become quite rich and famous, and was one of the most sought-after artists in Rome.
The ensuing years also saw the buildup of Caravaggio’s extensive rap sheet. Between 1600 and 1606, he appeared in police records fourteen times, and was jailed on at least six occasions. Most of these were minor offenses—insulting police, carrying a sword without permission, tossing a plate of artichokes at a waiter—but a few involved serious violence. While the Rome of the early 17th century was not the most law-abiding of cities, Caravaggio’s penchant for troublemaking was notable, especially in one so feted. His fame and powerful friends often came in handy, vouching for him and springing him from jail, but in 1606 he would drastically raise the stakes.
Caravaggio Commits Murder
It was May, and a friendly tennis game was about to turn ugly. Caravaggio lost money to his opponent, Ranuccio Tomassoni, and started an argument that soon escalated into a brawl, as both men began hitting each other with their tennis rackets. A challenge was issued, and later that evening Caravaggio and Tomassoni turned up armed for a duel. Caravaggio wounded Tomassoni on the thigh, and when Tomassoni fell to the ground, Caravaggio ran him through with the sword. Wounded himself, Caravaggio immediately went on the lam, spending several months in surrounding fiefdoms that fell outside the jurisdiction of Roman papal authority. He later turned up in Naples and continued painting commissions.
Caravaggio in Malta
In 1607, Caravaggio received news that the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, based on the island of Malta, had offered him a knighthood and some lucrative commissions. Caravaggio seized the opportunity, and was soon enjoying the patronage of the powerful Knights, and producing several major works over the next year. But even here, trouble found him; after causing some unspecified “insult” to one of the Knights, he was thrown into prison. With no wealthy patrons to bail him out, Caravaggio took matters into his own hands and escaped, fleeing to Sicily. The Knights subsequently stripped him of his knighthood, and there is evidence they set out in pursuit of their absconded jailbird.
Caravaggio’s Last Years
Weary and paranoid, Caravaggio still managed to complete three large altarpieces in Sicily before moving on to Messina in early 1609, where his temper caused more minor problems. Back in Naples later that year, he was nearly killed in a bar fight, but still managed to finish at least one painting in his nine months there.
Proving that he still had connections in high places, in 1610 Cardinal Gonzaga absolved Caravaggio of Tomassoni’s murder, thus allowing the artist to return to Rome without fear of prosecution. Taking a circuitous sea route back to Rome for reasons known only to him, Caravaggio landed in southern Tuscany and was immediately jailed, this time simply because he was mistaken for someone else.
Upon his release two days later, all his possessions had disappeared, and he seemed to have contracted an unknown illness, possibly malaria. He set off walking along the beach, and made it as far as Porto Ercole before collapsing, feverish and delusional. He was found and taken to a hospital, but only lived another two days, dying on July 18, 1610 at the age of 38. Fortunately for him, subsequent centuries have seen his artistic genius overshadow his troubled life.
Moir, Alfred (1989). Caravaggio. Harry N. Abrams Inc. ISBN: 0810931508.
Robb, Peter (2001). M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. Picador. ISBN: 0312274742.