Born: 29 September 1571
Died: 18 July 1610
Birthplace: Milan, Italy
Best known as: The brawling Italian painter who did The Calling of Saint Matthew
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known simply as Caravaggio, was an Italian artist at the turn of the 17th century whose influence rivals that of Michelangelo when it comes to Western art. But while Michelangelo was known for a devotion to the idealized form of body and Christian spirit, Caravaggio was known for his ability to realistically capture moments of human emotion, often in violent depictions of Christianity's sacred stories. Caravaggio apprenticed in Milan, and in the early 1590s made his way to Rome. He made a splash in Rome, first with collectors and other artists, then with commissions from the Vatican, including The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. By all accounts Caravaggio was a belligerent cuss, and his brief career as a famous artist is marked by episodes of violent behavior and trouble with the law. After killing a man in Rome in 1606 he was on the lam, finding haven in Naples, Malta and Sicily, where his extraordinary talent and society connections bailed him out of one scrape after another. Along the way, he mastered chiaroscuro, the technique of bringing contrasted light images from shadowy backgrounds, and pioneered the modern tradition of Realism -- "painting what you see" -- using techniques that remain a mystery. Caravaggio also painted his subjects live, directly onto the canvas, without the use of carefully planned drawings, unlike the masters of his era. Caravaggio was popular -- and notorious -- during his lifetime, but his reputation in the history books suffered until the 20th century, when modern critics agreed that he'd changed the face of Western art and influenced greats such as Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Caravaggio's paintings include: Boy with a Basket of Fruit (1593), The Cardsharps (1594), Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608), David with the Head of Goliath (1610, with Caravaggio himself as Goliath) and Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610).
Extra credit: For years Caravaggio's death was a mystery -- he was apparently on his way back to Rome for a pardon of his crimes when he went missing at sea. Some said he died of a fever, some said he was killed by one of his many enemies. By 2010 it was generally decided he'd died from disease (probably typhus), and an elaborate plan to find his cause of death involved taking DNA samples from his recently recovered corpse to compare with those from his known ancestors.
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