The meteoric life of a Renaissance painter

Created date

October 22nd, 2018
Unlike many painters who idealized their subjects, Caravaggio included real-world imperfections in his works. Note, for instance, the white insect egg sack on the grape leaf in Boy With a Basket of Fruit (circ. 1593).

Unlike many painters who idealized their subjects, Caravaggio included real-world imperfections in his works. Note, for instance, the white insect egg sack on the grape leaf in Boy With a Basket of Fruit (circ. 1593).

If ever there were an artist who personified the fine line between madness and genius, it was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. In his short life of 38 years, he became as infamous as he was renowned.

He was a brilliant painter, a passionate thinker, a street brawler, a lunatic, and a murderer. At first, such traits appear wholly incongruent with a man whose work helped define the Renaissance.

Or do they?

Caravaggio was born in Milan in 1571 to Fermo Merixio, who was in charge of running the estate of the Marchese of Caravaggio (a town 25 miles from Milan, and the source of the artist’s name).

While not nobility, Fermo was hardly a pauper. At birth, his son seemed destined for a stable, perhaps even a privileged middle-class upbringing.

But the deaths of his father in 1577 and mother in 1584 left the teenaged Caravaggio orphaned. With no family and few prospects, the boy turned to art, entering into a four-year apprenticeship under the tutelage of a Milanese painter named Simone Peterzano.

The experience was fruitless. His so-called master, whose abilities were decidedly ordinary at best, taught the budding artist little beyond how to mix paints.

Caravaggio, however, possessed something that no instructor could teach—an instinctive eye for seeing the world and reproducing it on a canvas.


He swiftly sharpened his natural skills through practice and, in 1592, ventured to Rome, where the Catholic Church’s many cathedrals and powerful clergymen had fostered a booming art market. Here he found a job doing low-level scut work, painting flowers and fruit in the studio of Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII’s favorite artist.   

On the side, though, Caravaggio labored feverishly on original creations, and they were, in a word, remarkable. In 1593 alone, he did several works that showcased his artistic endowments.

Barely 22, he had minimal training, and still he had managed to pioneer a unique style of portraiture that blended intense realism with elements of drama. His use of color, contrast, and conspicuously dramatic lighting made for stunning compositions.

The result was an almost photo-realistic simulation of dimension, shape, and texture that made his subjects look as though they might leap from the canvas.

Caravaggio’s attention to minute details, along with his insistence on representing his models, warts and all, added to the stirring nature of his paintings. From a person’s grubby fingernails to an insect egg sack attached to a leaf hanging from a fruit basket, he showed subjects as they physically were.

His Young Sick Bacchus is a perfect example. The painting depicts a sickly, hungover Roman god of wine, his face veiled with a cadaverous pallor, the green grapes in his hand beginning to brown.

Caravaggio soon tired of his menial job in Cesari’s sweatshop and decided to cut out on his own. With the help of his friend—an established painter named Prospero Orsi—he met many of Rome’s prominent art collectors.

His name quickly spread, and by the turn of the century, he was arguably the most sought-after artist in Rome, receiving a regular stream of commissions from wealthy families and church leaders.

But he also had serious run-ins with the law. His penchant for arguing, fighting, and dueling constantly landed him in trouble.

He was moody, erratic, unstable, and downright violent.

An acquaintance once noted in 1604 that “after a fortnight’s work [Caravaggio] will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.”

For centuries, history had written him off as a villain; however, some scholars now believe he may have been a victim of his profession.

Poisoned by paint?

The white paint in Caravaggio’s day contained lead, and he used it in abundance to produce his trademark lighting effects. His red paint was similarly toxic, infused with arsenic sulfide, his vermilion with mercury sulfide.

Any or all of these poisons could have caused fierce mood swings, depression, and overall mental instability. Caravaggio doubtless absorbed copious amounts of them and displayed such symptoms.

Renaissance physicians were unaware of these properties, and the law wouldn’t have cared. In 1606, Caravaggio committed one too many crimes, killing a man in a fight.

Fearing execution, he fled Rome and spent his remaining years bouncing from city to city. Amazingly, he never stopped painting and churned out a series of superb yet gruesome portraits like David With the Head of Goliath.

The lifeless head dangling from David’s hand is Caravaggio’s. It was among his last works.

In July 1610, he died in Tuscany under mysterious circumstances, the cause of death obscurely listed in the historical record as “fever.” Four hundred years after his burial in an unmarked grave, researchers recovered and verified the identity of his remains.

They have since been reburied at a monument site in Tuscany—a tribute befitting an artist who, like a meteor, burned bright but not long.