How the renegade Italian artist revolutionised image making forever
Caravaggio was an artist who divided opinions during his own lifetime. His method of presenting human figures with realistic and often rugged features met with fierce criticism.
Moreover, the stories we know of his life — including tales of brawling, debt and murder — have come to shape readings of his art as dramatic, untamed and impassioned. As such, his paintings seem to echo his reputation as an unflinching and controversial character.
Yet despite the defiant air with which he lived his life, Caravaggio became a hugely influential force on the succeeding generations of artists and has become one of the most revered painters in Western art.
Caravaggio developed his artistic reputation in Rome, where moved from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years became notorious for his distinctively unpretentious style.
Painting in Italy at the time had evolved from the High Renaissance style exemplified by the “perfect” forms of Michelangelo into a style of painting that took stylisation and exaggeration as a norm, known in art history as Mannerism.
The significance of Caravaggio in the story of art lies in his rejection of Mannerist artificiality and self-conscious “facility” — most especially the search for a kind of effortless grace in depicting the human form.
Against this grain, Caravaggio painted humans without pretence: his figures are weighty, corpulent, earthy and palpable. His methods often involved painting directly on canvas without prior preparation, and he would sometimes cover entire paintings with new compositions if he wasn’t happy the first time.
Take The Supper at Emmaus, painted by Caravaggio in 1601. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. The two companions were not aware before, but nowthey see.
On their faces and in their body language we see the sudden awareness of Christ’s identity. This transformation is the central conceit of the painting and its dramatic intention.
Caravaggio dared to present the Biblical story at a dinner table that was clearly contemporary and familiar, using ordinary men as models with worn clothes and wrinkled features, and eschewing any attempt at idealisation.
His tendency to show apostles as dirty and unkempt was a point of criticism often levelled by those who felt such religious subjects required a more hallowed approach. Yet his technique was quickly seized upon by other artists who were impressed by the gravity and directness of his painting style.
Caravaggio became known for a technique of extreme chiaroscuro: that is, a heavy use of shadows and light to add dramatic depth to his scenes. This leaning towards shadowy, and sometimes brooding depictions was another break with the Mannerist tradition, which as the 16th century progressed had moved towards a lighter, more pastel-toned colour palette.
One of the clearest ways we can see this influence is through Caravaggio’s frequent creation of abstract settings for his paintings. That is to say, the way he often placed his scenes against a dark background that contained little or no hint of a location.
A painting like The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows the moment when Thomas the Apostle declared he would not believe in Christ’s resurrection unless he could “put my hand into his side”, is set against an entirely black background. All of the drama is at the front of the painting, where the key elements such as faces and hands are highlighted against the backdrop.
The term for this style is tenebrism, a style of painting characterised by the use of light foregrounds contrasted against the background. The term is derived from the Italian “tenebroso” meaning “darkened” or “obscured.”
Now look at this painting, Christ Displaying His Wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli. Galli was a member of the Caravaggisti — followers of Caravaggio who used his dramatic techniques as a basis for their own work.
In a similar mode to The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, this painting shows a pale-skinned Jesus in a three-quarter view. The lower half of his body is cloaked in a white linen cloth, which is draped over his left arm and wrapped around his waist in rich folds.
There is much of Caravaggio in this work. The almost pitch-black background, the invisible light source that illuminates little but the main subject of the work, gives a distinct sense of the figure of Christ emerging from the shadows with the exact place or time of day impossible to determine.
Influence beyond Italy
Numerous artists beyond the borders of Italy were also captivated by the new stylistic developments occurring in Italy which Caravaggio had spearheaded.
The Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera, after travelling to Rome and Naples in the first quarter of the 17th century, adopted many of the techniques that Caravaggio mastered.
Indeed, artists from across Europe gravitated to Rome to explore and share in the various aspects of chiaroscuro and tenebrism that Caravaggio had pioneered.
Adam Elsheimer from Germany was one such artist. Another was the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who made his way to Italy in the early 1600s. Painters like Titian and Tintoretto were instrumental in Rubens’ development, as was Caravaggio, whose Entombment of ChristRubens went on to produce a copy of.
Caravaggio was admired — and sometimes also condemned — for the intense and unsettling realism of his work. He deliberately sought to create heightened drama in his scenes, utilising the vivid language of highlights and shadow to sharpen the details of gestures or facial expressions.
Take a work like Judith Beheading Holofernes(c.1599). Prior to Caravaggio, artists tended to show Judith holding or carrying the head of Holofernes after the slaying. These works tended to emphasise Judith’s wealth, making her fine clothes and jewellery a central emblem of the image and thereby underlining her noble status – and by implication, the nobleness of the deed.
Yet for Caravaggio, the bloody reality was of more obvious interest. In his work he chose to show the actual moment of the assassination.
Some two decades later, deeply influenced by Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi created her own version of the scene, perhaps the most macabre depiction of the story ever painted.
In this work, Gentileschi gives us the most direct view possible, allowing us to witness the bloody force of the sword along with fierce attention paid to the harsh truthfulness of the slaying.
Caravaggio’s critics would later claim that his treatments of important Biblical subjects were disrespectful and indecent. But this did not stop his influence from extending to the generation of Baroque painters who followed him.
Few other artists of the era had such a mastery of narrative drama and physical gesture, and fewer still had the power to inspire and influence later artistic generations as far as the Romantics and Modernists.