1. Caravaggio was orphaned at a young age.
Caravaggio was born in 1571, when the bubonic plague was still ravaging much of the population of Europe. His father, grandfather and grandmother each died of the plague in the span of three days when Caravaggio was just six years old, and his mother succumbed to the disease four years later. At the age of twelve, he began an apprenticeship in the studio of Simone Peterzano, which secured his career as an artist when he was still a child. The artist’s real name was Michelangelo Merisi, though he was ultimately named after the town where he spent much of his early childhood, Caravaggio.
2. Caravaggio’s works were in the service of the Counter Reformation.
In the late 16th and early-17th centuries, the Catholic Church was building a campaign known as the Counter Reformation as a response to the Reformation, which would counter the growing threat of Protestantism. As part of this program, the Church turned to painters, sculptors, and architects to visually confirm the dominance and power of Catholicism and woo back Catholics who had converted to Protestantism. Caravaggio’s paintings synthesized the two major approaches to artistic production during this period, of both theatrical, highly dramatic light and compositions, alongside scenes which welcome believers of all social echelons, painting religious figures in dark, dingy taverns, filled with the poor and marginalized members of society.
3. Caravaggio was the quintessential Italian Baroque painter.
Caravaggio was a pioneer of tenebrism, a technique which implements intense chiaroscuro (an effect of contrasted light and shadow) for dramatic ends, dominating the painting with darkness and producing a spotlight effect. The theatricality of tenebrism was a key element of Baroque painting and stemmed from the chromatic experimentation of Mannerism. Caravaggio’s facility with tenebrism was matched by his observational naturalism, which allowed for heightened intellectual and emotional engagement with the contemporary viewer.
4. Caravaggio worked quickly.
Caravaggio died young at the age of 38, but while he lived, he was a highly prolific artist who consistently produced large-scale paintings. His observational technique lent itself to working rapidly and intuitively; he preferred painting directly onto the canvas without sketches or drawings, and usually painted from live models. He would work in an intense fury, often staying up all night, or famously painting for two weeks straight.
5. Caravaggio was a dangerous criminal.
Caravaggio had a reputation for a short temper and was quick to fall into bar or street brawls. He committed relatively light but bizarre infractions, such as swearing at a constable or roaming with an unlicensed sword. In one instance, he cut a hole in his ceiling to allow more natural light while painting; this impromptu carpentry gave his landlord cause to throw him out. Beyond this, he was brought to trial for significant crimes at least eleven times, including scarring a guard and throwing a plate at the face of waiter because he believed his undercooked artichokes were an insult.
6. Caravaggio once killed a man in a duel.
Art historians continue to debate the specific details and context of the death of Ranuccio Tomassoni, though he certainly died at the hands of Caravaggio. Tomassoni was a Roman pimp who had somehow insulted a prostitute whom Caravaggio admired. Caravaggio asked Tomassoni to play a game of tennis as a cover to start a duel. Some scholars believe the tension between the two started over a gambling debt, while others believe Caravaggio did not intend to kill Tomassoni during a brawl over the tennis game.
7. He spent some of his later years in exile.
As punishment for Tomassoni’s murder, Caravaggio was issued a death warrant, which could be executed at any time in Rome. He fled to Naples, where he hid in the homes of noble families including the Sforzas and the Colonnas, and to Malta, an independent sovereignty that welcomed him safely. Throughout his exile he continued working, traveling to Sicily to paint some of his most beloved and influential works, including The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.
8. He escaped from prison after assaulting a high-ranking knight.
While in Malta, Caravaggio was offered a knighthood by the Grand Master of the Knights of Saint John, which would have presumably secured Caravaggio a pardon for his death warrant. However, he assaulted a higher-ranking knight during another brawl, which left Caravaggio in prison and stripped of his knighthood. He escaped and made his way to Sicily, where he lived in constant fear. His paranoia was founded in reality; a group of men ambushed and attacked him, likely in retaliation for the attack on the knight in Malta, leaving his face permanently disfigured.
9. He tried to leverage paintings for a pardon from a death warrant.
Throughout his four years in exile, he was in constant pursuit of a pardon from the Pope for his death warrant after having murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni. He sent paintings including David with the Head of Goliath and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist to powerful friends and family members who had the ear of the pope, with the hope that they could mediate a pardon. He died before ever being pardoned.
10. The subsequent artists whom he influenced were called the Caravaggisti.
Caravaggio and his work left enormous impacts on the artists of each city he visited. Many artists of his time and of the generations that followed incorporated Caravaggio’s tenebrism and truncated compositions, and often referred to themselves as Caravaggisti. In Rome, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Carlo Saraceni, and in particular, Artemesia Gentileschi looked to Caravaggio as the forefront of the cutting edge of painting. In Naples, Battistello Caracciolo and Carlo Sellitto led the Neapolitan Caravaggisti. His works had influence on major artists around western Europe, including Rubens, Rembrandt and Velázquez.