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Living in Rome

The Caravaggio enigma

The early 17th century painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, was somewhat rediscovered in the 20th century, when he became highly fashionable again. His dark and powerful style of painting corresponded more to contemporary taste than the idealised Madonnas painted before him, in particular his use of scenes and people from ordinary life. Not only his art, but also his short and turbulent life became a source of fascination for the public.

New documents found recently in the National Archives in Rome and shown to the public in a temporary exhibition, have brought a new light on his short stay in the Papal city. The books are mainly Court case records involving the temperamental Caravaggio. More than once, he was accused of violent assaults in street fights and night taverns. According to the records, he may have moved from his native city of Milan to Rome later than previously believed, towards the mid-1590s rather than the beginning of that decade. In Rome, he never ventured much outside his area of Campo Marzio, where he worked and got most of his commissions.  A number of his masterpieces can still be seen today in this area. They include the conversion of St Paul in Santa Maria del Popolo, the calling of St Matthew in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi and the Madonna dei Pellegrini (my personal favourite) around the corner in Sant’ Agostino.

Caravaggio's Madonna dei Pellegrini

He also did a lot of work for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, his main patron and the great art lover who built the Villa Borghese. Today, a whole room is dedicated to Caravaggio in the Villa turned museum. Because his art was extremely appreciated in high circles, he benefited from the protection of the Vatican, and managed to avoid serious trouble for a while. Cardinal Scipione Borghese, was the nephew of Paul V who became Pope in 1605, at the height of Caravaggio’s fame. However, a year later, Caravaggio was accused of murdering a man in a fight and had to flee Rome to escape capital punishment. He wandered from Naples to Sicily and Malta, where he continued painting as payment for the protection he received there. He made his way back to Rome in 1610 at the age of 39, after hearing that the Pope was ready to pardon him, but never reached the city. In July of that year, he was mysteriously found dead around Porto Ercole in Southern Tuscany. We still don’t know exactly how he died, whether during a storm or from a serious illness, like malaria.

Among the many court proceedings and portraits from close collaborators displayed at the exhibition, Caravaggio’s portrait of Paul V stands out for its power of introspection and vibrancy of tones. It is a rare opportunity to see it, as the portrait is part of the Palazzo Borghese collection, which is today the seat of a government administration.

Caravaggio and his contemporary Annibale Carracci were the two painters who had a profound influence on the new Baroque style which thrived in the 17th century.

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This entry was posted on March 25, 2011 by in Arts and culture, Baroque Rome, English, Roman artists and tagged , , , , , .
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