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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > February 2016 > The History Makers: Caravaggio

The History Makers: Caravaggio

His paintings were dramatic both in style and subject, but Caravaggio would never have created his masterpieces if his own life was not equally as wild, writes Jonny Wilkes
TORTURED SOUL Italian painter Ottavio Leoni’s 1621 chalk likeness is the closest we have to an accurate portrait of Caravaggio
AKG X1, GETTY X1

SEX AND VIOLENCE BEHIND THE CANVAS

The year was 1606, and Rome’s most celebrated, most revolutionary and, by far, most scandalous Renaissance artist was fleeing the city in fear of his life. Was he escaping the enemies he made due to his paintings? Or had his violent tendencies caught up with him?

In the previous six years, the arrogant Italian had courted controversy among both religious and artistic groups. His first sensation came in 1600, with the unveiling of two paintings for Rome’s Contarelli Chapel, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Calling of Saint Matthew (below right), which were described by the thousands who flocked to see them as either sacrilegious or miraculous. Such conflicting reactions to Caravaggio’s work quickly became the norm, and each new piece was received with a dollop of delicious gossip. While some were in awe of his innovative, dramatic lighting, others were appalled by his depictions of biblical figures. Rather than being seen as pure and saintly, they were real and flawed – a highly provocative move, which incensed the Church. He took his naturalistic approach so far as to model his subjects on actual people from the streets of Rome, including prostitutes.

It wasn’t his critics, however, that drove Caravaggio out of town. While he was gaining his prestigious commissions, he was also becoming familiar with the courts of law and was arrested numerous times for violent behaviour. In 1604 alone, he was charged with throwing stones at Roman guards and accused of hurling a plate of artichokes into the face of a waiter. Then, on 29 May 1606, he fought an illegal duel and killed his opponent. Facing death if he stayed, Caravaggio had no choice but to abscond from the city where he found fame, not knowing if he would ever see Rome again.

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