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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is one of the most admired painters of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Known for his powerful, dramatically lit compositions, Caravaggio depicted violence and the human form with a degree of realism unprecedented at the time. He was among the most famous painters in Rome—but not only because of his skill as an artist. Caravaggio was also notorious for his wild life and shocking temper. After being sentenced to death for murder, he fled Rome and died in exile at age 38 . Three biographies written in the decades after his death constitute nearly all that is known about the enigmatic artist.

In this episode, Getty curator and expert on Italian painting Davide Gasparatto discusses Caravaggio and the role these early biographies, by Giulio Mancini, Giovanni Baglione, and Giovanni Pietro Bellori, played in defining Caravaggio’s legacy.
Cover of Lives of Caravaggio book, featuring a detail of Caravaggio's painting of David with the Head of Goliath

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The Lives of Caravaggio


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
DAVIDE GASPAROTTO: The killing of Tomassoni was only the culmination of a life lived dangerously, and in some way, the extreme manifestation of a personality that today, we would define as borderline between sanity and insanity.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty curator Davide Gasparotto about the art and life of the Italian Baroque master painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted some of the most compelling images of the Italian Baroque era at the turn of the 17th century. Collected and commissioned by some of the period’s greatest patrons of the arts, Caravaggio was an unlikely master. He was apprenticed in Milan to the little known Bergamese painter Simon Peterzano and traveled to Rome with no reputation and no money. In later years, he painted an image of himself as the decapitated head of Goliath. In a painting of the Death of the Virgin, he depicted her as so convincingly dead—swollen body, dirty feet—that it’s thought that the model for the painting was an actual, dead prostitute. And, of course, there was Caravaggio’s killing of a man in a street fight, which drove him out of Rome and into hiding and imprisonment. I discuss the life and career of Caravaggio with Getty curator Davide Gasparotto on the occasion of the publication of three 17th century biographies of the artist, which appear in the Getty’s Lives of the Artists series.
CUNO: Thank you Davide for joining me on this podcast.
GASPAROTTO: Thank you very much, Jim, for having me.
CUNO: So this morning, we’re gonna be talking about the painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who was born in Caravaggio—hence the name he’s been given—a small town near Milan, in 1571, and moved to Rome in 1592. Now, during his lifetime, he was known to be belligerent. He was often in trouble with the police. He was sentenced to death for murder, said to be emotionally unstable and personally vain, and feared as much as he was admired. Tell us about the early years of Caravaggio and about his reputation.
GASPAROTTO: Actually, we today know that Caravaggio was born in Milan and not really in Caravaggio, in 1571. He was the first child of Fermo Merisi and his second wife, Lucia Aratori. Fermo had this title of Majordomo and architect to Francesco Sforza, the Marquess of Caravaggio, who had residencies both in Milan and in nearby Caravaggio, which is a little town near the border with Venetian territory. And his father died when Caravaggio was, like, very young, only six years old, in 1577. And in 1584, the young Michelangelo was apprenticed to the painter Simone Peterzano.
CUNO: Was he an important painter?
GASPAROTTO: He was not really an important painter. He was a painter from Bergamo. He signed some of his works as Titiani Alumnus, so a pupil of Titian. And Caravaggio stayed in his studio for a period of four years. There are no surviving paintings from Caravaggio’s youth in Milan. But it seems likely that he specialized in portraits and still life. But I would say that his North Italian, and specifically Lombard background and training had very important consequences for his art. And these aspects are, I would say, an interest in evocative light and color and the depiction of night scenes, or scenes with a source of artificial light; a precise handling of paint, which is more finished than the one of the Venetians, like the one of Titian, for example, but retaining traces of their texture and rich brushwork; and a particular fondness for the sometimes ugly detail of nature; an interest in still life detail; and a kind of portraiture of more intimate nature than the official portraiture which was fashionable in Venice.
CUNO: Now, these are qualities that we associate with the mature Caravaggio. What about the early Caravaggio when he first comes to Rome?
GASPAROTTO: So we don’t know. But suddenly, he left Milan and he came to Rome. This was about 1592. At the time, he had no reputation, he had no money. And so we know that his first Roman years were really very harsh. And this we know from early biographers, and also from a few extant documents. They suggest an artist who was moving from studio to studio in search of employment, sometimes carrying out humble tasks.
CUNO: Was he able to paint on his own? I mean, did he have a studio in which he could work?
GASPAROTTO: No, he didn’t have a studio. We know that at the beginning of his Roman residence, he stayed with a certain Monsignor Pandolfo Pucci, who fed him and stayed in his house. But he was famous—and this is reported by early biographers—that Caravaggio was fed on a diet of salad, and he left the house of Pucci in a few months, dubbing his benefactor as Monsignor Insalata, so Monsignor Salad. We also know from early biographers that at some point, he ended up in the workshop of one of the most successful painters of the time in Rome, Giuseppe Cesari, known as the Cavaliere d’Arpino. And in particular, Bellori, in his biography, states that Caravaggio was employed by the Cavaliere d’Arpino to paint flowers and fruits. In fact, this is confirmed by the first paintings by Caravaggio which have come down to us. The sick little Bacchus, which is almost certainly a self-portrait, or the boy holding a basket of fruit, which is a painting that came later into the possession of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, when his uncle, Pope Paul V, seized the contents of Cavaliere d’Arpino’s studio in 1607. I would say that to me, one of the most interesting aspects is that Caravaggio’s beginnings are not the typical beginning of a history painter, as he was later becoming. So a painter of religious and mythological scenes. But he was a painter of genre subjects like fortune tellers, cardsharps, music players, still life paintings, in a moment when the appetite for this kind of pictures was growing among Roman collectors. And this is a very interesting phenomenon, which in some ways, signals the beginning of the art market in our modern sense.
CUNO: He wasn’t painting for commissions; he was painting for speculation.
CUNO: How is that? How do we know about the art market?
GASPAROTTO: We know that, you know, even working in a workshop of another painter like the Cavaliere d’Arpino, some painters were executing paintings that were not commissioned, but they were destined to collectors and amateurs, which were growing in Rome at the time.
CUNO: It’s about this time that he caught the attention of a distinguished collector, the Cardinal del Monte. Tell us about the Cardinal and how it was that Caravaggio caught his eye.
GASPAROTTO: So this happened sometime after his arrival in Rome, that when Caravaggio was still struggling to make a living. But at some point, he struck up a working relationship with a dealer, Costantino Spata, who had a shop in the Piazza bordering the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. And we know that it was through Spata that Caravaggio came to the attention of his most important early patron, Cardinal Francesco del Monte, Francesco Maria del Monte, who lived in the nearby Palazzo Madama. And he was born in an aristocratic family, became cardinal in 1588, and lived in Rome as representative of the interest of the grand duke of Tuscany, who was a former cardinal, Ferdinando de Medici. He left the cardinalate to become the grand duke of Tuscany. And for example, a famous painting by Caravaggio, the Medusa, today in the Uffizi in Florence, was a gift from Cardinal del Monte to the grand duke, Ferdinando de Medici. And we know that del Monte was a passionate music lover, but also a perceptive supporter of the arts and also science, very interested in science. He was in friendly terms with Galileo Galilei. And his household was really one of the most important intellectual circles in Rome.
CUNO: You mentioned the chapel of the Roman church San Luigi dei Francesi. Was it through the cardinal that Caravaggio got the commission for The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew for the chapel? ’Cause those are, all of a sudden, large, ambitious paintings that marked a real departure in his career.
GASPAROTTO: Absolutely, yes. We know that Cardinal del Monte had an incredible collection. He had more than 600 paintings, and several works by Caravaggio. For example, The Concert, today at the Metropolitan Museum, was in the collection of Cardinal del Monte. But it was truly through Cardinal del Monte that Caravaggio got his first very important commission, for these canvases for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, which are the real game changer of Caravaggio’s career. And I would say also, a turning point in the history of European painting. Almost as much [as], in the previous century, the Stanza, by Raphael, or the vault of the Sistine Chapel were for Michelangelo.
CUNO: So this is about 1600, is that right?
GASPAROTTO: Yeah, we are between 1599 and 1600. Caravaggio executed these two paintings, The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Obviously, the chapel is known as the Contarelli Chapel because it was in fulfillment of the will of this cardinal, French Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel, which at the time, was already dead, to celebrate his memory, through the representation of the deeds of his name saint. Matthieu is Matthew.
CUNO: Describe for us the painting The Calling of Saint Matthew, for example.
GASPAROTTO: Caravaggio sort of combines, in these pictures, the kind of realistic figure types which he was already painting before with a very bold chiaroscuro, which is the Italian term we use to mark the strong contrast of light and shadow. In The Calling of Saint Matthew, for example, he uses a sort of a studio light in imitating sunlight coming from a high side window. While in the other painting, The Martyrdom, he uses an illumination from a lamp placed high above the models. And so in this way, he is able to announce, in incredible way, the three-dimensionality of the figures.
CUNO: What about the drama of the painting?
GASPAROTTO: Yes, this is important. Light is not the only component of these paintings. The other important aspect of this painting is Caravaggio’s understanding of dramatic form.
CUNO: Why don’t we back up just for a second? Let me describe this painting a little bit for our listeners. Because it is a commonplace inn, it seems, in which there are four figures gathered around a table. Christ has just walked into the space. And with his hand, he’s pointing at the man who is to become Saint Matthew. And that man is pointing at himself, saying, “Is it me? You want me?” There’s a sense of a moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
GASPAROTTO: Yes. This is the great novelty, in some way, of this representation. And this will become an essential feature of Caravaggio’s art. He’s able to make [it] appear [as] if sacred events are taking place in the space of the chapel and right in front of our eyes. And this is obtained through this idea of the illumination, of the idea of the light, with the spatial positioning of the figures, with the creation of this sort of interior which seems to be like an everyday interior, with this group of people. And also with the particular use of the costumes, because Caravaggio uses, at the same time, modern and Biblical costumes, so modern and ideal costume, blended in some way in the same composition. And so he’s able to recreate the event as [if] it is sort of a contemporary event, as if [it is] something that is happening before our eyes. And the light he’s using is sort of artificial, but it’s also natural because the direction of the light is the direction of the real light, which is coming into the chapel from the window above the altar.
CUNO: Which puts, then, the viewer in that space itself and in the drama of the space.
GASPAROTTO: Exactly, exactly. The viewer becomes, in some way, part of the scene. And this is the aspect of Caravaggio’s theatricality which is heralding, in some way, the theatricality of Baroque painting in the seventeenth century.
CUNO: So with these two paintings then, Caravaggio’s career takes off.
GASPAROTTO: Absolutely.
CUNO: Because he paints in the same year, The Conversion of Saint Paul, for example, for another chapel.
CUNO: Equally ambitious in emotion and in composition.
GASPAROTTO: Just a little bit afterward, because in some way, the two canvases of the Contarelli Chapel launch, really, his career. And through connections provided by Cardinal del Monte, he’s able to obtain other very important commissions from very important patrons in Rome at the time, who were at the same time, helping him to get commissions for altarpieces. But also, he was executing gallery pictures for them. Like for Marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani, for the banker Ottavio Costa, for the brothers [?inaudible]. So his career is really launched after 1600.
CUNO: And he has this great sequence of paintings in that first decade of the seventeenth century, Saint John the Baptist, with that nearly lascivious pose of that young boy; The Death of the Virgin, with the torrent of grief among those who are gathered around the convincingly dead figure of the Virgin bathed in sunlight; The Taking of Christ in the Garden, with the clamor of the armored Roman soldiers pushing in to arrest Jesus. It’s an extraordinary decade of work.
GASPAROTTO: Absolutely. It’s an extraordinary decade. But we also, I think, have to emphasize that yes, he was awarded a series of prestigious commissions for altarpieces; but sometimes there were also critics and problems. One of his most successful paintings, altarpiece, probably his most successful, was The Entombment, today in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, but originally in the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, which was really universally admired, even by the most harsh critics by Caravaggio. Even Bellori, who criticized Caravaggio a lot, says that this was one of the finest works of Micheli’s brush. And it’s, in some ways, one of the most classical paintings by Caravaggio. There are references to the Antique, in the beautiful body of Christ. There is a sort of noble rhetoric in this painting, which gained to the picture success. But also, his sort of realist agenda caused problems and frictions with the church authorities and with some of his patrons. And so for example, we know that three of the five altarpieces that he delivered between 1602 and 1606, were either rejected outright or soon taken down from their intended destinations. And they were all criticized, mostly, because of the lack of decorum. For example, The Death of the Virgin, which is today in the Louvre, but it was intended originally for a chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, was rejected because of the undecorous portrayal of the Virgin.
CUNO: Explain that to us. What was indecorous about it?
GASPAROTTO: It was undecorous, according to the sources, because Caravaggio apparently used either a live or drowned prostitute as his model. So he used a living or dead body. And if we look at the painting, I think that we can see that there is certainly a corpse-like caste to this plain and bloated Virgin, to this very realistic figure, with her lower legs exposed to reveal the swollen ankles and twisted toes. It’s very crude, the depiction of the Virgin. And so this was the main criticism.
The Saint Matthew, which was the third painting he painted for the Contarelli Chapel, around 1602—the first version of the Saint Matthew, not the one which is today in the altarpiece—was also criticized and rejected at the end, because the figure, as Bellori says, with his legs crossed and its feet radically exposed to the public, had neither the decorum nor the appearance of a saint. So they were believed undecorous because they were not enough noble as representations of sacred figures. But the other interesting aspect of this is that these rejected altarpieces, all three rejected altarpieces, when were they taken down from their altarpieces, they were immediately bought by three important art collectors. The Saint Matthew by Marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani; The Death of the Virgin by the duke of Mantua. And the person who suggested the duke of Mantua to buy the picture was the painter Peter Paul Rubens, who at the time, was in Rome. He was young, he was doing his Italian study trip. So from the chapel of churches, Caravaggio’s pictures found, almost immediately, their way to the walls of palaces and galleries of, sophisticated collectors. The same collectors who commissioned Caravaggio’s religious works of smaller size, which were, since the beginning, destined for a private audience.
CUNO: So this is a decade of work, and it’s an extraordinarily productive decade. But in that same decade, in 1606, Caravaggio kills a young friend of his in a street fight, after what is described as a tennis match. And he was condemned to death and he fled into the Alban Hills, where he was protected by the powerful Colonna family. There, he painted Christ Going to Emmaus. Tell us about the incident that led to his departure. And tell us about that painting.
GASPAROTTO: Yes. On May 29, 1606, Caravaggio killed a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni, during a brawl occasioned by a disputed bat on a game of tennis. But the killing of Tomassoni was only the culmination of a life lived dangerously, and in some way, the extreme manifestation of a personality that today, we would define as borderline between sanity and insanity. In fact, to contemporaries, Caravaggio seemed like a bizarre and unstable and eccentric nature. There is a word, an Italian word which is used to describe this character in contemporary documents, which is stravagantissimo, which in some way, can be rendered as very strange, bizarre, eccentric. But it’s used in Italian in the superlative. It implies an unusual degree of extravagance, even for an artist.
And we have [an] interesting contemporary source, which is a Northern European writer who wrote a book on art, Karel van Mander, which really described how Caravaggio was used, you know, to go out all armed with a sword and then going from one tennis court to the next, and always ready to fight or to argument with someone. And these accounts are verifiable, also, from trial records. And we know that Caravaggio was brought to trial no less than eleven times between October 1600 and September 1605.
So the event was sort of the culmination of a life lived in a sort of an extreme way. And this event forced him to flee the city because he was under threat of capital punishment. And we know that he would never return to Rome. In the first place, he took refuge in a little town, Zagarolo, about fifty kilometers from Rome, under the protection of Duke Marzio Colonna.
CUNO: Tell us about him and what it meant that he could take Caravaggio under his protection.
GASPAROTTO: Yes. Why Caravaggio went there at first? Because Marzio Colonna was a relative of Costanza Colonna Sforza, who was the marchioness of Caravaggio. And evidently, Caravaggio kept some ties with his hometown and with the ruling family of his hometown. But also, Marzio Colonna was a good friend of Cardinal del Monte. And so he stayed there for a few months, before going to Naples. And according to his biographers, he painted there A Supper at Emmaus, which is probably the painting today in the Pinacoteca di Brera, in Milan. It’s a very interesting painting because it’s a painting that seems to anticipate a stylistic development which will mark the last phase of Caravaggio’s career. We divided up Caravaggio’s career in three great moments. Before 1600, when he was mainly paint[ing] genre pictures; then the Classical period of Caravaggio, we can say, from 1600 to 1606, when he was in Rome; and then this late phase.
In comparison, for example, to an earlier version of the same subject, The Supper at Emmaus, which is today in the National Gallery in London, everything became starting from this painting, more understated. Gestures became more natural. But at the same time, shadows became deeper and darker. And also the palette changes. The palette becomes more muted, with a prevalence of earth tones. And this is a sort of a trend which will characterize Caravaggio’s late works, where sort of empty spaces, for example, become as important as the space occupied by figures. There is in these late pictures, a sort of a new concentration, a new intimacy, which yes, corresponds also to an economy of execution, which is part of a technical change, which has been detected also by scientific investigation carried out on many paintings by Caravaggio in the last twenty years.
CUNO: We should look back at the painting itself, because it’s a figure of Christ, who’s at a table with two of his followers, who don’t recognize him until he raises his hand in a gesture of grace over the meal. And otherwise, they’re just at an inn; it could be anybody. But just at that moment when Christ raises his hand, is he recognized for who he is. And that drama sets the whole composition into a dynamic throe.
GASPAROTTO: Absolutely. But it’s a very restrained narrative. And it’s a very intimate scene, in comparison to the more vibrant, the stronger sort of rhetoric of gesture and poses of the paintings of the years just before. And so this is why I say that this painting, in some way, is really anticipating the last phase of Caravaggio’s career.
CUNO: In that last phase, he paints this extraordinary picture of David with the Head of Goliath, in which he convincingly portrays himself as the head of Goliath. Tell us why he chose to put himself in that painting, in that place.
GASPAROTTO: Yes. I have to say that there is a little bit of discussion about the chronology of the David with the Head of Goliath. Some scholars place it close to The Supper in Emmaus we just discussed, so like in 1606. Some other scholars have dated it almost at the end of Caravaggio’s career. For sure, it’s a, an incredibly moving painting. We see this youthful shepherd boy, very pensive, almost melancholic. He holds his sword in his right hand and brandishes this terrifying big head of Goliath with his outstretched left arm. And there is blood, streaming from the severed head. And the eyes of the giant stares into the void with the mouth open. So it’s almost as if we are hearing the last cry of Goliath. So it is tempting to think that the painting was completed during Caravaggio’s last dramatic months of life. And the picture has, I would say convincingly, been interpreted as a sort of avowal of guilt following the death of the young man in the brawl, but at the same time, as a plea for forgiveness. Because as you were saying the head of Goliath bears the unmistakable features of Caravaggio himself, so it’s a self-portrait. And the painting was probably conceived as a gift to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, one of the most powerful and important patrons and admirers of Caravaggio. But Cardinal Borghese had also the power to pardon Caravaggio for the murder and allow his return to Rome, because he was nephew of the reigning pope, Paul V. So the David, I would say, acquires a particular significance. It is a autobiographical picture. But I think it transcends the personal and it becomes more a general statement on the frailty of the human condition.
CUNO: So Caravaggio dies about 1610, shortly after, perhaps, the painting was painted. And sometime between 1617 and 1621, so just a few years later, Giulio Mancini, a Sienese physician and art collector who knew Caravaggio well, wrote a brief biography of the artist. Tell us about Mancini and about his relations with Caravaggio.
GASPAROTTO: Yes. It’s interesting. I have to say that despite Caravaggio was celebrated by his contemporary already as a great innovator and he was an artist of great fame, he left astonishingly few direct traces of him. He didn’t leave letters, like painters like Annibale Carracci, Rubens, or Poussin or Bernini. He didn’t left detailed account books. He was not ambitious, like intellectually, in the sense as some artists of the time wrote treatises or books. And so our image of Caravaggio, our picture of Caravaggio, is essentially based upon a bunch of early biographies, which were all written after his death. As you were saying, the first biographer was Giulio Mancini, who was a physician from Siena, but also an important collector. And he knew the artist well, especially in the early period of his Roman career, the period between 1595 and 1600, when he looked after him as a doctor. He was close to Cardinal del Monte, too. And Mancini left a treatise called Considerazioni sulla Pittura, Thoughts on Painting, which remained unpublished until the twentieth century. So this is a source we used, but that was not known at the time, apart from a small circle of people. And in this treatise, he wrote about Caravaggio with admiration and so clearly that the painter had breathed, in some way, new life into what was perceived as the declining art of painting in the last years of the sixteenth century. So it’s an important early biography.
CUNO: How did it survive and how do we know about it?
GASPAROTTO: It survived in an archive, you know, it was known by some people, but it was really rediscovered and published in the twentieth century. Mancini left, also, a relevant correspondence, which is really interesting to shed light on the artistic environment in Rome in the beginning of the seventeenth century.
CUNO: Now, we’re talking about Caravaggio because Getty Publications recently published the Lives of Caravaggio in its series The Lives of the Artists. In this book, introduced by Helen Langdon, are three accounts of Caravaggio’s life and career, the first by Mancini—we just were talking about him—and the second by the painter Giovanni Baglione, a rival of Caravaggio’s, whose lives of painters, sculptors, and architects appeared in 1642; and then the third, the antiquarian and theorist Giovanni Pietro Bellori, whose life of Caravaggio appeared much later, in 1672, a little more than sixty years after the artist’s death. Tell us about the relationships between these three texts and what they tell us about the life of Caravaggio.
GASPAROTTO: So yes. After Giulio Mancini came the account, as you were saying, of Giovanni Baglione. He was a painter who was one of Caravaggio’s rivals, but also in some way, imitators, because he was strongly influenced by Caravaggio. And because he was an imitator, he was also attacked by Caravaggio in a series of offensive and satiric verses, which provoked Baglione to sue Caravaggio. And the paper of the lawsuit are an important source for our knowledge of the Roman, sort of, artistic environment of the early seventeenth century. Baglione published his account of the life of Caravaggio in 1642, one year before his death and, several decades after Caravaggio’s death. He’s accurate, he’s objective; his account is mostly, you know, reliable. But in some way, it’s also mean-spirited. He seizes, every time he can, the opportunity to disparage the artist, describing his misfortunes with some sort of pleasure. And in the end, he sort of marginalized his achievement. I would say that the most important biography of Caravaggio of the seventeenth century is the one by Giovanni Pietro Bellori, published in 1672, in a very important and influential book, which contains lives of other very important seventeenth century artists.
Bellori was an antiquarian, was a passionate admirer of Classical art. And so his theoretical belief was that the artist should select the most beautiful parts of nature to create an idea of perfect beauty, sort of a theory, aesthetic theory, which is derived from Classical antiquity. So it was this belief that dictated his assessment of Caravaggio’s art. Which is, in some way, negative, because to him, the most perfect combination of nature and art had been made by antique sculptures; and later on, by Raphael; and in the modern time, by Annibale Carracci, who is really Bellori’s hero, together with other classicizing painters like Poussin or Domenichino, while he for sure underestimates the contribution of artists like Bernini and Caravaggio, who in some way, did not conform with these aesthetic ideals.
So he criticized Caravaggio’s— for example, his dependence on the living model. He condemned many of his religious pictures, as we have seen, as lacking in decorum, that nobility which was associated with the representation of religious figures. But nonetheless, I would say that Bellori’s pages are still an important and very illuminating lecture. He appreciated, he understood, in some way, the emotional power of the paintings by Caravaggio. He understood Caravaggio as a storyteller. And in his life of Caravaggio, we really found some of the most precise, moving, and also evocative descriptions of many of Caravaggio’s paintings.
CUNO: So we’re now in 1672, so we’re near the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Caravaggio’s been dead now some sixty years. It’s a crowded century, the seventeenth century, with Bernini, Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Poussin, just to name five artists. How does Caravaggio measure up to these artists, and how was his reputation perpetuated in the seventeenth century, even beyond into the eighteenth century and until the twentieth and twenty-first?
GASPAROTTO: Today, we can consider Caravaggio, together with the Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci, in some way, as the founding father of the new visual language of the seventeenth century. On one side, we have Annibale, inspired by Venetian painting, especially by Titian and Veronese and by Raphael, who created sumptuous works where nature and ideal are perfectly blending, in some way, opening the door for the exuberant style of the Baroque. On the other side, we have Caravaggio, with sort of his theatrical use of chiaroscuro, with his use of the living model, with his sort of more radical and realist agenda. And I think the importance of Caravaggio for following artists cannot be underestimated. His preference, for example, for depicting the action at the peak of the drama, fixing a precise moment in time, was inherited by Bernini. Rubens admired the theatricality of his composition, and also his bold chiaroscuro. And he famously made a copy of The Entombment and persuaded the duke of Mantua to buy the rejected altarpiece with The Death of the Virgin. Great artists like Velázquez probably knew early still life by Caravaggio when he was a young painter in Seville, and was inspired by Caravaggio’s still life when he painted his early bodegones, his early still life, and did also study carefully Caravaggio’s works while he was in Rome in 1629. Even Rembrandt, as we know, even if [he] never traveled to Italy, but he knew very well Northern European followers of Caravaggio, and they had an impact on his art. So Caravaggio was, as he was controversial in his lifetime, he was very influential over a next generation of painters. And they sort of spread out his lesson and his new vision of reality all over Europe. I have to say that his fame progressively faded from the second half of the seventeenth century, in conjunction with a more sort of classicizing and normative view of painting. So his rediscovery and the full understanding of the magnitude of his contribution to the history of European painting is mostly a twentieth century phenomenon.
CUNO: Well, Davide, thank you so much for taking us through the life and career of Caravaggio. And we should say that we’re doing this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged so much of Italy. It makes it all the more poignant for us that we have this particular artist and his work to talk about, because of the dramatic nature of it. So we thank you very much for your time and we wish you and your friends and family in Italy the very best during these challenging times. We hope everyone is and remains healthy.
GASPAROTTO: Thank you very much, Jim. It was a pleasure. And I believe that our hearts are today with all the people around the world who are suffering in, I think, manifold ways, the consequences of this global health crisis. Thank you so much.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
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