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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, or simply Caravaggio, is arguably one of the most compelling and influential painters of the Baroque art movement. Matching the themes of his artworks, Caravaggio’s life was packed with drama and controversy.

 

In October 2024, Tour Director and art historian Marie-Anne Mancio will lead ACE travellers across the length of Italy and to Malta to trace the story of Caravaggio’s life – from his origins in Lombard naturalism through to the mature style of his Neapolitan works. This tour, On the Trail of Caravaggio: His Life, Works & Muses, will take in a range of his artworks and travellers will gain an in-depth insight into this innovative and influential artist.

 

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Our tour will make visits along the entire Italian peninsula and in Malta to significant destinations within Caravaggio’s life

 

Marie-Anne Mancio has led previous tours to Italy to trace the legacy of Caravaggio. Originally trained as an artist, before gaining a DPhil at the University of Sussex in art and critical theory, she is currently writing a book on Caravaggio. Marie-Anne writes:

 

"The Caravaggio story lurches between transgression and redemption in a way that is totally contemporary and relatable and his paintings can't fail to move you"

 

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In this blog article we examine two of the works featured on Marie-Anne’s tour and gain a brief insight into the conversation surrounding Caravaggio’s intentions and the context in which these works might have existed.

 

Who was Caravaggio?

 

“Arrogant, rebellious and a murderer, Caravaggio's short and tempestuous life matched the drama of his works. Characterised by their dramatic, almost theatrical lighting, Caravaggio's paintings were controversial, popular and hugely influential on succeeding generations of painters all over Europe” - The National Gallery, London

 
Michelandgelo Merisi was born in Milan in northern Italy in 1571. He took the name Caravaggio from the name of the town he had grown up in after his family fled Milan during a plague which claimed the life of his father shortly after. Following completion of artistic training in Milan with Simone Peterzano, Caravaggio kicked off a lifetime of drama by fleeing to Rome after trouble with the local police.

 

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Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, circa 1621

 

Rome is where Caravaggio began to build his legacy. During a time in which large church paintings were in high demand and the threat of Protestantism meant the Catholic Church was looking for an alternative to the artistic status quo, Caravaggio created enormous dramatic, naturalistic and often violent religious paintings that sparked controversy and intrigue.

 

Alongside his success as a painter of biblical stories, Caravaggio carried a reputation as a violent and provocative man. In uncertain circumstances he killed a man named Ranuccio Tommasoni and received a capital sentence for murder. For this reason Caravaggio fled to Naples where he found renewed success and established himself as a prominent artist of the early Baroque period.

 

The Contarelli Chapel Commission

 

The Calling of Saint Matthew is a painting by Caravaggio completed between 1599 and 1600, whilst the artist lived and worked in Rome. Commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of Saint Louis of the French, the painting was made to fulfil specific instructions left by Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel who had left funds in his will for decoration of a chapel based around themes related to Saint Matthew. The painting lies opposite The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew which Caravaggio also completed around the same time.

 

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The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio

 

The painting depicts the Calling of Matthew, the biblical story in which Jesus calls upon the tax collector Matthew to join him as a follower and disciple. The painting shows a group of people sitting around a table in a dimly lit tavern, and a bright light is cast onto the group from the right where a haloed Jesus Christ enters the scene. Chiaroscuro, or light-dark, is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark in a composition, which Caravaggio employs in this painting. The shadows of the painting are deep and dark and offer a strong contrast to the bright light brought about by the arrival of Jesus. The light falls upon the faces of the group sitting at the table, which are all painted in Caravaggio’s deeply realistic style.

 

There is some debate over which figure in the painting is supposed to depict Saint Matthew. The common belief is that the bearded figure at the table represents him, as he appears to point at himself in answer to Christ’s call to action. However, some recent arguments have been made to suggest that it is the figure at the end of the table, furthest from Christ, that could be Matthew. This explanation suggests that the bearded figure is not pointing at himself but instead at the figure at the end of the table.

 

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The bearded figure in The Calling of Saint Matthew matches similar figures depicted in other Caravaggio paintings featuring Saint Matthew

 

It is argued that Caravggio is trying to present Christ as a second Adam figure. This point comes from the fact that there is some similarity between the position and appearance of Christ's hand and that of Adam’s hand in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. This aligns with certain interpretations of passages within the Bible in which Jesus Christ is compared to Adam.

 

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Adam’s hand in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam

 

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Christ’s hand in Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew

 

Contarelli Chapel is home to a total of three works by Caravaggio, all of which depict episodes in the life of Saint Matthew: The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. The Chapel will feature as one of the visits on our tour in October, whilst the group is based in Rome.

 

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The Calling of Saint Matthew alongside The Inspiration of Saint Matthew at the Contarelli Chapel

 

A Plea for Pardon

 

In 1606 Caravaggio killed a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni. The circumstances, like many elements of Caravaggio’s life, were unclear, with some experts suggesting a brawl and others a duel. Caravaggio fled Rome and received a conviction for murder in his absence, and was subject to a bando capitale, a capital sentence, meaning anyone in the Papal States had the right to kill him in exchange for a reward. Those who were unable to produce his body could instead just submit his head.

 

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David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio

 

David with the Head of Goliath, likely painted between 1609-1610, was created as a gift to Cardinal Scipione Borghese that Caravaggio hoped would earn him a pardon. Thought to have been painted following an arrest for another violent offence committed during his time in Malta, the painting depicts a victorious David holding the head of Goliath. In the painting David wields a sword on which is inscribed “H.AS O S” which has been interpreted as the motto humilitas occidit superbiam, meaning humility kills pride.

 

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David’s sword in Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath

 

There are many elements of Caravaggio’s characteristic stylistic choices apparent in this painting. Tenebrism, a development of pronounced chiaroscuro, is utilised in this work.

 

The young David is lit with dramatic illumination, providing a strong contrast with the dark, almost void-like background. Like many of Caravaggio’s paintings, David with the Head of Goliath utilises extremely violent images possibly for shock factor or to emphasise meaning; in this case, Goliath’s head is seen severed and bleeding.

 

During this period Caravaggio painted two depictions of David and Goliath. The first is on display in Vienna and the second in Rome, in the Galleria Borghese. The second painting, which travellers will visit on tour with Marie-Anne, is the more provocative of the two. It is argued that Caravaggio chose to depict himself as Goliath in this piece, a theory which is supported by comparison with Ottavio Leoni’s portrait of the artist.

 

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Goliath’s appearance bears resemblance to Ottavio Leoni’s portrait of the artist

 

 

 

After his time in Rome and Naples, Caravaggio travelled to Malta and Sicily before pursuing a pardon for his sentence. In 1610 he died in uncertain circumstances, leaving behind one final mystery to add to a lifetime of drama, illicit activity and intrigue.

 

Travellers on our tour, On the Trail of Caravaggio: His Life, Works & Muses, will have the opportunity to view a large selection of paintings by Caravaggio, many still in the locations for which they were painted, and will witness first-hand the drama ingrained in every work by the artist. For more information and the full tour details click the button below:

 

View 2024 tour details

 


 

Image credits:

Map of Italy | ©Mapbox

Caravaggio Portrait | Biblioteca Marucelliana public domain

The Calling of St Matthew | Contarelli Chapel public domain

Contarelli Chapel | Kent Wang CC BY-SA 2.0

David with the Head of Goliath | Galleria Borghese public domain

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