Porto Ercole, Lombardy
Summary of Caravaggio
The intensity of Caravaggio's paintings was matched only by his tempestuous lifestyle. Despite being a hot-headed, violent man often in trouble with the law and implicated in more than one murder, he created striking, innovative paintings and pioneered the use of dramatic lighting and the representation of religious figures in modern clothes and attitudes. Working from life and without the aid of preparatory sketches, Caravaggio paired close observation of his models with the use of strong beams of light to focus attention on certain elements of his images, contrasting these well-lit areas with dark shadows elsewhere on the canvas. This use of chiaroscuro became a core part of Caravaggio's highly individualized style and was widely imitated by his contemporaries. Even though he only lived until the age of 39, Caravaggio had a profound influence on the painters around him and on later art movements notably Baroque art and 19th-century Realism.
- Caravaggio's populist portrayals of religious figures were groundbreaking, showing biblical characters in a non-idealized fashion through the addition of signs of age and poverty and the use of contemporary clothing. This served to humanize the divine, making them more accessible to the average viewer. In doing this Caravaggio's work represented a type of spiritual populism. The bare, dirty feet of Caravaggio's figures united the artist's works with church teachings which emphasized the poverty of Christ and were also consistent with calls for a simplicity in religious art following the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Despite this alignment with current dogma, these portrayals drew some of Caravaggio's harshest criticism.
- Whilst the technique of chiaroscuro was not introduced by Caravaggio, he was the first painter to incorporate the technique as a dominant stylistic element, making the shadows darker and using clearly defined rays of light for emphasis and to highlight the narrative of the image. The style became increasingly prevalent in his later work and has subsequently become synonymous with his more mature images.
- As far as records show Caravaggio never married and had no children, this alongside his many sensual portrayals of young men (in conjunction with a lack of erotic female characters in his work) has led to a debate surrounding his sexuality and there have been a number of contemporary homoerotic readings of his work.
Biography of Caravaggio
Reliable biographical information on Caravaggio is scarce and what does exist has been pieced together from court and municipal records and other surviving documents. As a child, Caravaggio was known as Michelangelo Merisi, a reference to his birth on the feast day of the Archangel Michael. The artist grew up between the quiet agricultural town of Caravaggio in Lombardy and the bustling city of Milan where his father, a master stone mason, worked. Though of lower social status, Caravaggio's family had elite ties. Caravaggio's aunt had served as a wet-nurse to the children of the Milanese Sforza nobility, and members of the Sforza family, notably the Marchese Francesco I Sforza di Caravaggio and his wife, Costanza Colonna, witnessed the wedding of Caravaggio's parents in 1571. Costanza Colonna would later become a supporter of the artist during his many flights from the law, although she never personally acquired a painting.
Important Art by Caravaggio
It is probable that Caravaggio executed this self-portrait whilst in the employment of frescoist Giuseppe Cesari and the painting's carefully worked still life elements demonstrates the influence of Cesari's tutelage. Caravaggio's 17th-century biographer Giovanni Baglione identifies this painting as one of a group of the artist's early self-portraits painted with the aid of a convex mirror, a contention supported by the figure's awkward pose, as if turned to ensure better visibility in the mirror surface. The image may have been a 'cabinet piece' but was not, as far as is known, a commissioned work.
The title Sick Bacchus, a seemingly apt title for the subject's pallor and dark, hooded eyes, can be attributed to art historian Roberto Longhi, who believed that the artist painted it after he was discharged from the hospital, following an incident in which the artist was kicked by a horse and sustained severe injuries. Alternatively, the image's greenish coloration might simply be ascribed to a nighttime setting appropriate for the bacchanalia which was about to ensue. Bacchus was a fitting alter-ego for Caravaggio as he was the deity of wine, theater, ritualized displays of ecstasy and was synonymous with inspiration and destruction. The portrait, however, differs from traditional representations of Bacchus where he is depicted in the midst of unbridled celebration, often in a verdant landscape. Caravaggio's image adheres to the conventions of many of the artist's other works, presenting the mythological figure in a sparse interior. In addition, the artist's pallor and sedentary pose suggest not a deity in his prime, celebrating the virtues of wine and festivity, but rather the consequences of over-indulgence. Indeed, the ivy leaves encircling the artist's head have started to wither, a few of the grapes in his hands have begun to shrivel, and the two lush apricots in the painting's foreground betray the beginning brown spots of rot.
Cindy Sherman later famously reinterpreted this painting, posing herself as Caravaggio's Bacchus, in her 1990 photograph Untitled #224 (after Caravaggio's Bacchus).
This work is one of two paintings representing the same subject matter; the other painting is in the Roberto Longhi Foundation in Florence. Here, a young boy, an example of the tousled, curly-haired youth who populated many of Caravaggio's early secular pieces, recoils in pain and surprise after having reached for one of the fruits on the table only to be bitten by a lizard, concealed among the pile of cherries. Though Caravaggio condemned Classical statuary, the boy's expression may have its root in the expression of horror found in the statue of Laocoön and His Sons, and the lizard is reminiscent of the reptile portrayed in the ancient Roman sculpture Lizard Apollo, which would have been in Rome in Caravaggio's time.
On the table, Caravaggio demonstrates his skill rendering the play of light over and through different textures. In keeping with Caravaggio's wider style, the boy exists in a nondescript, timeless interior, with blank walls punctuated only by a stark, diagonal light source originating from the upper left, and outside the frame of the painting. This heightens the intense expression of the piece, as it highlights the boy's bare right shoulder, raised as he recoils from the bite; his furrowed brow and mouth open in a gasp. The work is notable in large part for its striking sexual subtext. In the Italian street slang of Caravaggio's time, bitten fingers represented a wounded phallus, and the artist's inclusion of jasmine, a traditional symbol of sexual desire, in combination with the lizard lurking beneath the cherries and apples, each signifiers of temptation, suggests that the painting illustrates the perils of indulging in sexual appetites.
This work is an example of the Venetian pictorial genre of a 'concert' picture, exemplified by Titian's earlier 1510 work, The Pastoral Concert, in which artists celebrated the performance of music. This image, however, subverts the genre in a number of ways challenging traditional readings of it - it depicts a rehearsal rather than a concert and the inclusion of the classical clothing of the musicians and a winged cupid in the upper left of the image signals a symbolic intent probably linking music, love and wine (represented by the grapes in the cupid's hand).
The figures crowding the image seem to have been drawn separately and added to the composition. The central musician has been identified as Caravaggio's companion Mario Minniti and the other figure facing the viewer is possibly a self-portrait. The musicians are rehearsing madrigals and the lute player in the center is transported by the music, his wet eyes and dreamy expression suggesting sadness and lost love. The inclusion of a violin in the foreground indicates the presence of another musician. Caravaggio's patron, Cardinal del Monte, for whom this work was commissioned, was interested in music and he and his friends tutored musicians and encouraged musical experimentation. The crowded space of The Musicians may invoke the musical environment found in del Monte's household.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Caravaggio
- Caravaggio: The Complete WorksBy Sebastian Schütze
- Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and ProfaneOur PickAndrew Graham-Dixon
- Caravaggio: The Artist and His WorkBy Sybille Ebert-Schifferer
- Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity (Renaissance Lives)By Troy Thomas