Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), better known as Caravaggio, stands a good chance of becoming the preferred old master of the 21st century.
Research by art historian Philip Sohm shows that in recent decades more has been written about him than that other Michelangelo (Buonarroti), previously top of art pop charts.
A steady stream of Caravaggio news stories appears, intensifying this year to mark the 400th anniversary of his death. In June, Italian anthropologists claimed to have identified his bones by DNA analysis in Porto Ercole, the town on the Tuscan coast where he died.
Caravaggio was an art star. He instigated one of the most startling revolutions in all of painting. When he arrived in Rome at the end of the 16th century, it was the end of the Renaissance. The standard style was vapid, idealized: in a word, academic. Suddenly, around 1600, Caravaggio started to produce pictures that looked totally different.
His dark, violent, sinister, sexy world -- in which the angels look as if they might pick your pocket and the saints resemble street people -- is profoundly in touch with our contemporary sensibilities. The question is why.
Much of our information about Caravaggio comes from police reports and court records. During his 38 years, he committed a murder and was involved in numerous brawls, including an attack on a waiter who refused to tell him whether his artichokes were cooked in butter or oil. He had, it seems, a short fuse. But we know less about his artistic technique than his temper.
It sounds, however, as though he behaved like a man who had made a great discovery. One early biographer -- a rival painter and enemy named Baglione who sued Caravaggio for libel -- complained that, “Michelangelo Merisi was a satirical and proud man, at times he would speak badly of the painters of the past, and also of the present, because he thought he had surpassed all the others in his profession.”
According to his early biographers Caravaggio painted with unprecedented naturalism, producing “astonishing deceptions, which attracted and ravished human sight” in the words of Francesco Scannelli. He is quoted by another, Giovanni Bellori, as boasting that “he imitated his models so closely that he never made a single brushstroke that he called his own, but said rather that it was nature’s.”
This was a weakness in the eyes of his opponents, who complained that without a model “his hand and his mind became empty” -- and also that Caravaggio made mistakes in positioning his figures in space. The latter point was fair: Caravaggio’s pictures are full of that sort of error, which most viewers don’t notice because of his stunning realism.
“The Taking of Christ” (c. 1602), a masterpiece on permanent loan to the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, is a case in point. If you look beyond the wonderful evocation of flesh, cloth and armor you notice that the figures are scrunched together with insufficient room for the fleeing apostle on the left or for Judas’s arms, which have been weirdly shortened.
What could explain the amazing veracity and puzzling visual overlapping? One controversial yet intriguing suggestion is that Caravaggio was using a camera -- a filmless, room-sized version, or “camera obscura.” With this, he could project the images of his models onto a canvas, and thus effectively Photoshop his compositions together.
Many art historians don’t like this idea, for much the same reason as Caravaggio’s early critics. They don’t think that’s how a great painter should work. Still, the theory is plausible. The camera obscura had been described and recommended for use in a book by Giambattista della Porta, who was in touch with Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal del Monte.
If he did use a camera it would explain a lot -- the astonishing naturalism, the surprising slips, even his modern fame. Caravaggio’s reputation began to rise in the 1940s, perhaps not coincidentally the age of the Hollywood film noir.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.