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Awesome Men Throughout History: Caravaggio

This installment of Awesome Men Throughout History dips into the world of classical art, most notably that of sixteenth/seventeenth-century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Luckily for us, he’s known primarily as Caravaggio. Still hard to pronounce and spell, but at least it’s one name instead of three.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s work and its impact are easier to explain. He combined highly realistic presentations of the human form with a dramatic, almost theatrical use of lighting called chiaroscuro. In fact, his unique interplay of light and shading created a psychological realism in his work that scandalized his patrons, who weren’t used to seeing that in religious-themed paintings.

You have to understand that, in sixteenth-century Europe, literally every human creative endeavor was Church-related in some way. The Church was a big patron of the arts, to the extent they could propagandize it, so artists who wanted to be paid and not excommunicated had to paint what they were told. Caravaggio’s earliest commissions were pieces for the many new churches and palazzi under construction in Rome at the time.

As his reputation as a painter grew, so did his reputation as an iconoclast – his naturalistic take on his subjects was to paint them as they were, warts and all, instead of idealizing them as religious iconography. If he was painting Mary Magadelene, for example, she would look like an actual woman, probably one he knew and asked to model for him, with no human flaw left out. This was very controversial stuff for the time. He also hired a prostitute to pose as the Virgin Mary for a painting, which went over about as well as you’d expect.

And we can’t leave out Caravaggio’s reputation as a violent criminal, either. A lot of artists are temperamental, but Caravaggio was almost better with his fists than he was with paint. “After a fortnight’s work,” says one account from 1604, “he 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.” He was keen on bar fights, as recovered pages of his police records and trial proceedings show, and he was exiled from Rome to Naples after killing someone in a drunken scuffle. Attempts on his own life would follow, including some ordered by the Pope, who’d put out a death sentence on Caravaggio for some reason or another.

Do you think, as we pause to let that sink in, that Andy Warhol ever had someone order a hit on him, much less a pope? How about Jackson Pollock? Come to think of it, did either of them ever do anything even half this interesting? That’s probably not a fair question, since Warhol’s America was almost incalculably different from Caravaggio’s Italy, but a guy who did drugs and painted soup cans does look sort of witless and dull when compared to the glorious train wreck that was Caravaggio’s short life.

But art has a funny way of redeeming the lesser qualities of its creators – after all, if we only value the work of artists who were pleasant and well-adjusted, the Baltimore Museum of Art would be smaller than a train station bathroom. Caravaggio’s influence can be seen in the works of Rembrandt and Rubens, and I always saw a bit of him in the moody, noir color palette of Batman: the Animated Series. If we’re judging Caravaggio by his body of work, and the amount of great stories his reputation provides, he was very awesome indeed.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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