Caravaggio, Before Fame

Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), or Caravaggio, orphaned at the age of 11, (1582) was apprenticed to the painter Simone Peterzano of Milan.   Soon deemed capable of the fundamental and technical skills of painting, he developed a style that represented natural surroundings and events.  Arriving in Rome around 1592, he settled into the society of Campo Marzio in a decaying neighborhood of inns, eating-houses, temporary shelters and little picture shops; his living suited his circumstances, without means; his inclinations always toward anarchy and against tradition.

These first years were an anguishing period of instability and humiliation, moving from one unsatisfactory employment to another, he worked as an assistant to painters of much smaller talent, earning a living with hackwork and never staying more than a few months with any studio.   His work during this intermittent period was for Lorenzo Siciliano and Antiveduto Grammatica, but his first serious employment was in the prosperous studio of Giuseppe Cesari, later known as the Cavaliere d’Arpino; a favorite of two popes and several cardinals, Cesari was prickly and difficult.  He used the young painter’s talents in the decorative representation of flowers, fruit and other miscellany.  During this time two of Caravaggio’s earliest paintings are created, Sick Bacchus (1593) and Young Boy with a Basket of Fruit (1593).  Both works graced Cesari’s collection until 1607, being seized by Pope Paul V and given to Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1576-1633).  Caravaggio left the studio under a shadow cast by a mysterious accident and convalescence at the Hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione, but this event also brought about a change to his fortunes.

Sick Bacchus, 1593-94

Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1576-1633

Finding a dealer, the biographer Giovanni Baglione identifies as Maestro Valentino, and ultimately a purchaser for The Gypsy Fortuneteller and The Cardsharps (1594) in Cardinal Francesco Maria Borbone del Monte (1549-1627), a generous collector and an important figure in the Roman art world; a confidant of Cardinal Ferdinando d’Medici, and coincidentally, with a weakness for gambling.  This patronage brought board, lodging and a pension from Cardinal del Monte and Caravaggio moved to the Palazzo Madama with other painters and musicians and his early model Mario Minniti.  One of the many residents was a Spanish singer at the Sistine chapel, the castrato Pedro de Montoya, who served as a model for The Lute Player (1596).  The Music Party (1595) and The Stigmatization of Saint Francis (1594) were part of the del Monte catalog at his death, having hung side by side on the first floor of the Palazzo.  A fresco on the ceiling of the Cardinal’s alchemy room painted by Caravaggio, depicts the gods Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto (1595).

The Cardsharps, 1594

The Fortune Teller, 1595

The Stigmatization of Saint Francis, 1594-95

The Music Party, 1595

The Music Party 1595

The Lute Player, 1596

Fresco in Alchemy Room of Cardinal Del Monte, 1595

The artist’s innovative approach to the light reached perfection at this time.  Using a strong light from above with a single window and walls painted black, so that having the lights bright and the shadows dark, gives depth to the painting, but with a method that is not natural, nor thought of by any of his contemporaries such as Titian, Raphael or Correggio.  Such a complex illustration of refracted light was unprecedented and the result of collaboration with scientists in Del Monte’s circle.  These included Galileo Galilei, but more notably, Giovanni Battista della Porta, revered as the seer of scientific curiosity at the turn of the century.

Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, 1549-1627

Through the Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio was commissioned at the age of 24, to paint for the Cantarelli Chapel of the San Luigi dei Francesi Church, coincidentally across the street from Palazzo Madama.   The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, all made for Cantarelli Chapel, catapulted the artist to the attention of Rome.

The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, 1602


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  1. Pingback: Cabinet of Curiosities | This write life

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