The Real Caravaggio

M in the UK by Bloomsbury in November, and in the US by Henry Holt in February 2000.)

by Peter Robb
Potts Point, N.S.W., Australia: Duffy and Snellgrove (To be published, 568 pp., $35.00 (paper)

Caravaggio's 'Saint John' and Masterpieces from the Capitoline Museum in Rome 1999, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, July 15-September 12, 1999.

an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, April 20-June 20,, Catalog of the exhibition by Maria Elisa Tittoni and Patrizia Masini and Sergio Guarino
Wadsworth Atheneum, 59 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image February 1-May 24, 1999.

an exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Mormando Franco
McMullen Museum of Art (distributed by the University of Chicago Press), 235 pp., $40.00 (paper)


More than four hundred years from the day he packed up his things and headed for Rome from the small Lombardy town in which he grew up, Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio (1571-1610) is still, to borrow the wording of one of his contracts, “top painter in the City” (egregius in Urbe pictor). Recent books about the man his contemporaries called Caravaggio (to distinguish him from the other Michelangelos they knew) far outnumber those on Raphael, Titian, or Leonardo; among the old masters, only Michelangelo Buonarroti seems to share a similar degree of popularity. Caravaggio’s paintings, meanwhile, are caught in a game of museological musical chairs as they pass from Rome to Hartford, Rome to Padua, Hartford to Kansas City, Dublin and Detroit to Boston, Kansas City to Milwaukee, Florence to Malta. His fortunes, however, like his notoriously prickly personality, have never stood fast. By 1660, Nicolas Poussin could claim that Caravaggio, by then dead for half a century, “had come into the world to destroy painting.” For Stendhal he was “a great painter, but a wicked man,” and most of the people who have loved his paintings would tend to agree. Just what made him a great painter, however, and what made him a wicked man, have been subjects for unceasing debate. Nor is it clear how much the wickedness and the painting actually bear on one another.

Remarkably, a significant number of Caravaggio’s oils (the only medium in which he ever worked) survive in their original settings, mainly churches, his contracts still preserved in their archives. A survey of his work shows that despite a distinctiveness that was present from the beginning, his style changed radically over the course of his brief career (he died at thirty-nine). He began with bright tones of red, green, gold, and pale flesh against backgrounds of gray or ochre and ended with thin layers of red, rust, brown, and shimmering white emerging from deep darkness. Between the open-mouthed expectancy of the pretty, wiry Boy with a Basket of Fruit he painted early (1593-1594) and the grave expression of his sad-eyed, late (1610) Saint John the Baptist, now hung side by side in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, we can trace the somewhat superficial promise of a young man’s skill through to its fulfillment in a way of painting that strikes for the soul. Caravaggio’s brush could cut as truly as the sword he always carried with him, and together they brought him both his pride and his unspeakable pain.

Caravaggio’s life figured already in contemporary biographies, together with lists of his paintings; he was that important an artist. His story can also be traced through documents such as transfers of real estate, police blotters, the correspondence that attended his induction into the Knights of Malta, the bureaucratic rites that marked his expulsion from the same order, and reports of his sudden unglamorous death on a stretch of malarial coastline north of Rome.

Still, any number of questions about the painter and his…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.