Every artist knows the importance of light. Only a small handful have become its master.
His given name was Michelangelo Merisi, but because Italy already had a famous Michelangelo, Merisi’s hometown became his signature — Caravaggio. As a rebellious, violent teenager, he was shipped off to bustling Milan where, in 1584, he enrolled in an art academy. There he read Vasari’s life of Leonardo, saw “The Last Supper,” and perhaps read his Treatise on Painting. But while the visionary Leonardo sought a light as blessed as a balmy afternoon, Caravaggio preferred the light that pierced the night. And by the time he left Milan for Rome, the volatile he was well-acquainted with darkness.
He was not in Rome long before the name Caravaggio began appearing among art patrons and on police records. He was known for strutting the streets, shaggy and goateed, his sword and rapier close at hand. Rumors said Caravaggio had spent a year in jail, possibly for slashing a prostitute. He was frequently arrested for brawling, a common crime in Rome at the close of the 1500s. The city was enjoying a building boom that spawned dozens of villas, churches, and palaces. Meanwhile the surrounding countryside was in turmoil, its farms untended, its landowners bankrupted by papal taxes levied to fund the mightiest construction project of all, St. Peter’s. Into the streets of Rome poured beggars, thugs, and thieves. Caravaggio, by all descriptions short and homely, bawdy and brilliant, fit right in, making Rome his set piece and personal den of sin. When the mood struck him, he painted.
Art historians still debate the metaphor suggested by every work by Caravaggio. Can his paintings, with their coal-black shadows and blinding light, be compared to his reputation for crime? “No one who loves Caravaggio,” wrote biographer Howard Hibbard, “believes that his use of chiaroscuro was merely a technical device.” Biographer Peter Robb went further: “The light and darkness of the world, he was reminding people, was also the light and darkness of the mind.” One thing all agree on is that no artist before him infused light with such raw power. Leonardo had cautioned against “too much light. . . too much dark,” but Caravaggio scorned caution. From his first surviving work, “Boy Peeling Fruit,” his audacity was on display. The boy, a street urchin Caravaggio often used as a model, is caught in descending beams that streak across his white shirt, leaving the background as black as pitch. After “Boy Peeling Fruit,” Caravaggio briefly tamed his light, but by 1600, he was painting in a darkened studio with black walls, the only light coming through a window while he stood at his easel in shadows, real and imagined.
In a career that spanned just twenty years, Caravaggio shocked the public with scenes of androgynous boys, compromised women, and violence previously witnessed only in alleys. The Biblical Judith with the head of Holofernes was a common subject but Caravaggio caught Judith in the act of beheading. Abraham had stopped short of slaying Isaac but Caravaggio painted the shiny blade just inches from the naked throat. Even when painting a minor mishap, as in “Boy Bitten by a Lizard,” Caravaggio proved himself a master of a light so bright it hurt. Beside the grimacing boy stands a vase and in its glass shines the next two centuries of Western painting.
Though Leonardo knew the effects of luster, “always more powerful than light,” he preferred the light that fell softly across clothing and faces. Yet Caravaggio displayed – some might say “showed off” – a luster that turned fruit into satin and vases into tinsel. In “Boy Bitten by a Lizard,” Caravaggio renders a vase whose every reflection, every surface droplet is highlighted as if by the sun itself. Never had light been painted with such devotion nor in such sublime detail. Some still saw light as the embodiment of God, but Caravaggio’s light came from a less holy source.
When finished with a painting, Caravaggio took to the streets, drinking, whoring, fighting. Once back in the studio, his portraits, like that of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, reflected his darkening soul. As his name appeared more often on police records, his mastery continued to astonish. Behold the shimmering reflection of Narcissus gazing into his pool, the gleaming armor of soldiers capturing Jesus, the radiant faces staring into the divine light summoning St. Matthew. Together, these masterpieces made “chiaroscuro” a fixture of Western imagery.
By 1605, when his possessions were confiscated as payment for overdue rent, Caravaggio’s fame extended to Northern Europe. “A certain Michael Angelo van Caravaggio is doing wondrous things at Rome,” an Amsterdam art critic wrote. “Already he has achieved with his works great repute, honor and a name… so setting an example for our young artists to follow.” Several Dutch painters in Rome, known as the Caravaggisti, were already competing to capture that light. Soon another report from Rome clouded the aura surrounding their idol. “The painter Caravaggio has left Rome badly wounded, having on Sunday evening killed another person who had provoked him in a fight.”
The fight was over a gambling debt. Surrounded by thugs, Caravaggio flashed his sword and cut a man down. Another sword came in high. Nursing a gash in his head, he fled the city. He spent the next four years in exile, still painting while dodging the law, including a papal price on his head. He died, alone on a beach in 1610, of malarial fever. His work remained popular in Rome for another decade, then fell into disrepute. By then, however, Dutch Caravaggisti had taken his style home, home to where light was being rendered with a precision that still stirs awe.