In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Conference Papers and Essay Collections
  • Contemporary Documents
  • Bibliographical Studies
  • Early Biographies
  • Chronology and Attribution
  • Visual Sources
  • Patrons
  • Religion and Science
  • Sexuality
  • Narrative
  • Technique
  • Early Works in Rome
  • The Contarelli Chapel
  • The Cerasi Chapel
  • The Taking of Christ
  • The Madonna of the Pilgrims
  • The Entombment of Christ
  • The Death of the Virgin
  • The Madonna dei Palafrenieri
  • Film and Fiction

Art History Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Clare Robertson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0017


Michelangelo Merisi (b. 1571–d. 1610), generally known from his birthplace in Lombardy as Caravaggio, was one of the founders of the baroque style. He continues to fascinate both for the revolutionary nature of his art and the lurid details of his life. After an apparently unfinished apprenticeship in Milan, Caravaggio moved to Rome. Initially, he struggled to establish a career, falling out with one of the city’s most successful painters, the Cavaliere d’Arpino, but he was then adopted by Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. Under his patronage, Caravaggio developed a radical new style rooted in naturalistic observation and the use of tenebrism (strong contrasts of light and shade), which rejected the prevailing values of mannerist artists, such as the Cavaliere. At first he painted genre works, particularly ambiguous works about young boys accompanied by still-life elements. Primarily a painter of religious works, his first public works were highly acclaimed, such as the decoration of the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi (1599–1602) and of the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo (1600–1602). However, some paintings were immediately controversial, with several altarpieces being rejected on grounds of decorum, such as the Death of the Virgin (1601–1606) and the Madonna dei Palafrenieri (1605–1606). These works were, however, widely sought after by Italian collectors and imitated by Italian, Spanish, and northern European Caravaggisti (stylistic followers of Caravaggio). His personal life was equally controversial: he had a propensity to violence, which culminated with his exile from Rome for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni over a disputed tennis match on 28 May 1606, and there has been much debate about his sexuality. Indeed, we learn more about his life from the Roman police records than from any other source. Subsequently, he traveled to Naples, Sicily, and Malta, where his work was highly influential for local artists, before dying at Porto Ercole on his attempted return to Rome in the hope of a papal pardon. The early sources were keen to equate his dramatic work with his character, often to his detraction. Until the early 20th century, his work was largely condemned as vulgar and lacking in idealism. Since then, his popularity has grown exponentially, thanks, initially, to pioneering studies in the 1920s and 1950s. Roberto Longhi also organized the first major exhibition of Caravaggio’s art in 1951. Subsequent fascination with his life and work has led to an immense bibliography, especially around the quatercentenary of his death in 2010 (including some highly speculative publications), as well as numerous exhibitions, many of which have sought to introduce new works into the Caravaggio corpus. Modern Caravaggio studies have offered an often bewildering and contradictory range of approaches to the artist and his work, including iconographic analysis, explorations of ambiguity, studies of social contexts, and psychoanalysis. Questions of attribution are still debated, with new “Caravaggios” regularly coming on the art market or appearing in exhibitions. His place in the complex movement known as the Counter-Reformation has also been much debated. Despite the huge amount of scholarship devoted to Caravaggio, many aspects of his life and the interpretation of his art remain problematic and controversial. The dramatic nature of his life has also inspired novels and films.

General Overviews

There are innumerable general studies of Caravaggio’s life and work that are more or less reliable. The most useful overviews are contained in a number of monographs from the mid-1950s on, starting with the series of essays in Friedlaender 1974. Since then, particularly useful surveys and biographies include Ebert-Schifferer 2012, Hibbard 1983, Langdon 1998, Puglisi 1998, Schütze 2009, Cappelletti 2010, and Spike and Spike 2010, while authoritative catalogues raisonnés include Cinotti and Dall’Acqua 1983, Marini 2005, and Spike and Spike 2010.

  • Cappelletti, Francesca. Caravaggio: Un ritratto somigliante. Milan: Electa, 2010.

    Biography based on a close reading of contemporary documents. Superb color details.

  • Cinotti, Mia, and Gian Alberto Dall’Acqua. Michelangelo Merisi detto il Caravaggio, tutte le opere. Bergamo, Italy: Poligrafiche Bolis, 1983.

    Complete and lengthy catalogue. Fully illustrated in color.

  • Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Caravaggio: The Artist and His Work. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012.

    General study based on a close reading of contemporary documents, putting Caravaggio in context, and excluding some of the less plausible attributions of works to him. Originally published as Caravaggio, sehen, staunen, glauben: Der Maler und sein Werk (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2009).

  • Friedlaender, Walter. Caravaggio Studies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.

    A collection of early essays attempting to define Caravaggio’s work and place in a Counter-Reformation context. Also includes a catalogue raisonné and translations of the major Seicento biographies and documents then known. Though dated, and illustrated entirely in black and white, it is still useful for students. Originally published in 1955.

  • Hibbard, Howard. Caravaggio. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

    Accessible monograph that seeks to set Caravaggio in his historical context and offers a psychological analysis of the artist’s character. Limited color illustrations. Also published in London by Thames and Hudson, 1983.

  • Langdon, Helen. Caravaggio: A Life. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998.

    Detailed and accessible critical biography of Caravaggio that eloquently evokes Caravaggio’s world.

  • Marini, Maurizio. Caravaggio “pictor praestantissimus”: L’iter artistico completo di uno dei massimi rivoluzionari dell’arte di tutti i tempi. 4th ed. Rome: Newton Compton Editori, 2005.

    Major account of Caravaggio’s career, with full catalogue raisonné. Extensively illustrated. Especially useful for Caravaggio’s technique, with many reproductions of X-rays. Revised edition, first published in 1987.

  • Puglisi, Catherine R. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon, 1998.

    Full analysis of Caravaggio’s work in relation to recent discoveries and brief catalogue raisonné. Comprehensively illustrated in color.

  • Schütze, Sebastian. Caravaggio: The Complete Works. Cologne: Taschen, 2009.

    The most reliable and complete monograph on Caravaggio to date, with full catalogue raisonné. Very fully illustrated in color with numerous details and comparative illustrations. Extensive bibliography. Translation from German edition: Caravaggio: Das vollständige Werk (Cologne: Taschen, 2009).

  • Spike, John T., with Michèle K. Spike. Caravaggio. New York: Abbeville, 2010.

    Important monograph, with full catalogue on CD-ROM in the revised edition, including information on provenance and full bibliography. First published in 2001.

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