Analysis of Caravaggio’s Life and His Masterpiece "The Musicians"

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Analysis of Caravaggio’s Life and His Masterpiece "The Musicians" essay
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Beginnings in Life

Not many artists can claim the amount of influence Caravaggio accomplished, nor can many claim being one of the founding fathers of an art revolution. By rebelling against Mannerism and Classicism, Caravaggio was one of the first to begin painting the world and its subjects as they are; he painted them with all their imperfections, with all their scars, with all their virtues and vices. By painting realism, accompanied with a distinct dramatic use of chiaroscuro, called tenebrism, Caravaggio had marked the beginning of the Baroque era (Getty.edu n.d.).

He was born Michelangelo Merisi on September 28th, 1573 in either Milan or Caravaggio, Italy. Once he became an adult, the nickname ‘Caravaggio’ was assigned to him, in reference of his town – perhaps because the name Michelangelo already referred to another great artist before him (Rai.it 2019). Once believed to be a fact, Caravaggio was neither uneducated nor poor – in fact, his family was well off, enough to be considered middle class. His father, Fermo Merisi, was a man of many talents as reported by Francine Prose, Director’s Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, “[Caravaggio’s father] worked as a chief mason, builder, architect, and majordomo for Franceso Sforza, the Marchese di Caravaggi, whose wife, Costanza, was a member of the illustrious Colonna family” (Prose 2005). By trying to outrun the plague to protect his family, Fermo Merisi contracted the plague and soon perished as a result. Sadly, his mother followed soon after in 1590 when he was 17 years old. He had nobody by that point, not even his brother. In fact, when Caravaggio was at the peak of his career and wanted to see his younger brother, Giovan Battista, who in response claimed that he had never seen him in his life and that he did not have a brother (Prose 2005). Caravaggio disappeared from records for a while until in 1584, when Lombard painter Simone Peterzano became his teacher and stayed with him for 4 years (Hunt 2004). Caravaggio appears to have stayed in the Milan-Caravaggio area after his apprenticeship with Peterzano ended, but he visited Venice and saw the works of Giorgione, whom he became to admire and be inspired by, as evidenced by his use of dramatic lighting used, seen in many of Giorgione’s paintings (Hunt 2004).

Beginnings in Rome (1592/95–1600)

Following his initial training under Simone Peterzano, in 1592, Caravaggio left Milan for Rome for reasons that many art historians do not have a consensus for. Two of his main biographers, Giulo Mancini and Giovanni Pietro Bellori, suggested that, given Caravaggio’s brazen nature, he was possibly involved in a fight that resulted in either the death or severe harm of a police officer – and had to spend the rest of his money in scaping Milan (Hunt 2004). During this period, he lived in extreme poverty, and had to jump from bed to bed to find a place to stay for the night; eventually, he stayed with Pandolfo Pucci, steward of a former pope’s sister, who had him do work Caravaggio deemed below himself and top it off, Pucci only fed him salad – thus, Caravaggio began to bitterly call him ‘Monsignor Insalata’, meaning ‘Sir Salad’ (Prose 2005). But his talent was noticed and artist Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII's favorite artist, took him under his wing. While Caravaggio was grateful for “painting flowers and fruit” as training, he still resented Cesari for not instructing him in figure painting (Bellori 1672).

With the help of Cesari, Caravaggio found work in churches. Since the Church wanted a different style to Mannerism in religious art, Caravaggio’s radical realism along with his use of tenebrism provided the perfect opportunity to combat Protestantism (Harris 2008). The Fortune Teller shows a boy, likely Mario Minniti, Sicilian painter and Caravaggio’s model, having his palm read by a fortune-teller, who is stealthily removing his ring as she “reads” the lines his hand. This type of composition, which shows the height of the action captured in time, was new in Rome and highly popular on the next century. However, at the time, Caravaggio did not consider it worthy and sold it for mere pennies. But once he realized how much attention it got, he painted The Cardsharps — showing yet another young noble boy being cheated—with a complex arrangement that earned him the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, one of the leading connoisseurs in Rome (Prose 2005).

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Painting The Musicians

The first work Caravaggio did for Del Monte was called The Musicians, a painting that depicts four young men sitting together and preparing themselves for a concert. In the center of the piece, a delicate-looking young man wearing semi-transparent white robes with a suade-looking red fabric draped over his shoulder, is tuning his lute. To the right of him is another young man looking at us with half-lidded eyes, head tilted back, and lips slightly parted – paired with his wavy black hair, he resembles the subject of another painting, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, and both figures are thought to be Caravaggio’s model, Mario Minniti. Both youths are looking right at the audience, unlike the other two. On the far right, a boy wearing a white toga has his back towards us, half of his back exposed as he reads a musical score with a violin and bow resting on a bench to his side – either implying that is his violin, or ours, the viewer. On the far left is Cupid, sporting black wings instead of white ones, who is solely focused on picking a bunch of green grapes.

With what’s left of the manuscript after several restorations, historians were able to decipher some parts – tenor and alto – and come to the conclusion that they are playing madrigals about love, particularly the pain love tends to bring (Prose 2005). This was certainly Caravaggio's most ambitious and complex composition at the time, and evidently Caravaggio had some trouble with painting the figures separately, since it seems he could not find models to be positioned how he wanted on the same place at the same time—as a result, the young men do not quite relate to each other or to their surroundings, which makes composition look too busy and somewhat awkward. However, in comparison with Boy with a Basket of Fruit, light hits the eyes of his subjects which makes them look alive—in fact, for the central boy with the lute, it looks as though tears are filling his eyes.

These types of scenes showing musicians were a popular theme at the time this was painted—the Church took advantage of the public’s interest in reviving music and, as previously mentioned, new styles in art were being tried. Despite this, however, Caravaggio added no religious imagery in the painting. The realism Caravaggio is known for began to take form with this painting. He painted exactly what he saw, with all its imperfections. This change of idealizing classical Michelangelo-esque figures to painting ‘ugly’ or ‘imperfect’ subjects was very controversial at that time. Caravaggio also did not prepare his paintings with sketches. Instead, he used oils directly on his canvas and painted his subject as he saw them. The tenebrism Caravaggio used added another layer of drama to not just this painting, but the ones after it as well, and his realism made his art far more memorable with the emotions he was able to portray truthfully – which helped his work to resonate with his audience. However, his peers tended to have a black and white perception of him, especially given his abandonment of drawings in favor of directly painting on the canvas. Still, he was remembered as an artistic visionary, particularly by the younger artists (Bellori 1672).

Downfall

In the year 1606, after a fight with a young man, Ranuccio Tomassoni, Caravaggio realized he had gone too far. With blood dripping from his hands, with the clink of his tainted sword falling on the floor, and with the weight of what he had just done washing over him, Caravaggio ran away from Rome to escape punishment for killing Tomassoni. The reason for the fight is still discussed and argued about in academic circles. Some sources claim that the fight broke out over a game debt and a tennis game, which is the first reason one will see when looking it up online. But according to Helen Langdon, who has spent a lifetime studying Caravaggio, the fight was over family honor, the honor of a married woman and a prostitute (Langdon 1998). Caravaggio did not even intend to kill him, but instead strike Tomassoni in his thigh or groin, but as Caravaggio was swung his sword, Tomassoni fell, which caused Caravaggio to instead strike him in the chest. Given his connections to rich, noble individuals, these older clients would protect him from the consequences of his escapades, but this time they could do nothing to help him.

After the death of Tomassoni, Caravaggio fled first to the south of Rome, then on to Naples. As Caravaggio fled from one place to another, however, his powerful Roman friends did everything in their power to bring him back home. It had been almost five years since the murder when Caravaggio received the news of his pardon. Inspired by this, in the summer of 1610, he took a boat to Rome to receive the pardon. He took with him three last paintings as gifts for Cardinal Scipione (Langdon 1998), who was to allow him to step on Roman soil.

But Caravaggio’s luck seemed to run out by then. At a first glance, the facts seem to be that, on July 28th, an anonymous avviso (private newsletter) from Rome to the ducal court of Urbino reported that Caravaggio was dead. Three days later another avviso said that he had died of fever on his way from Naples to Rome. A friend of his gave July 18th as the date of Caravaggio’s death, and a recent research claims to have discovered a death notice showing that the artist died on that day of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany (Barbieri, et al. 2018).

Even though Caravaggio had a fever at the time of his death, what killed him is still a matter of historical debate and study (Barbieri, et al. 2018). At first, it was though that Caravaggio died of syphilis (Barbieri, et al. 2018). Some historians have said he had malaria, or possibly brucellosis from unpasteurized dairy (Barbieri, et al. 2018). Later tests suggested he died as the result of a wound sustained in a brawl in Naples, specifically from sepsis (Barbieri, et al. 2018). Whatever the cause of his death, Italy had forever lost any future work from Caravaggio, which in turn deprived the world from the art of a genius. But at least The Musicians is still able to be admired and enjoyed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bibliography

  1. Barbieri, Rémi, Alda Bazaj, Elisabetta Cilli, Giuseppe Cornaglia, Michel Drancourt, and Giorgio Gruppioni. 2018. 'Did Caravaggio die of Staphylococcus aureus sepsis?' The Lancet. September 17. Accessed December 2, 2019. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(18)30571-1/fulltext.
  2. Bellori, Giovanni Pietro. 1672. Le vite de' pittori, scvltori et architetti moderni. Roma: Per il success. al Mascardi.
  3. n.d. 'Getty.edu.' Union List of Artist Names Online Full Record Display. Accessed November 15, 2019. http://www.getty.edu/vow/ULANFullDisplay?find=Caravaggio&role=&nation=&prev_page=1&subjectid=500115312.
  4. Harris, Ann Sutherland. 2008. Seventeenth-century Art & Architecture. Upper Saddle River: Prentince Hall.
  5. Hunt, Patrick. 2004. Caravaggio. London: Haus Publishing Limited.
  6. Langdon, Helen. 1998. Caravaggio: A Life. London: Chatto & Windus.
  7. Prose, Francine. 2005. Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
  8. 2019. 'Rai.it.' Rai International Online. April 16. Accessed October 10, 2019. http://www.italica.rai.it/index.php?categoria=bio&scheda=caravaggio_prima_parte.
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Expert Review
The essay provides a decent overview of Caravaggio's life and his contributions to art. The information is generally accurate and the essay covers important aspects such as Caravaggio's beginnings, his move to Rome, and his artistic style. The essay also includes some interesting details about Caravaggio's personal life and the controversies surrounding his work. However, there are areas where the essay could be improved. The writing style is somewhat inconsistent, with some sentences being overly complex and others lacking clarity. Overall, the essay provides a satisfactory overview of Caravaggio's life and art, but there is room for improvement in terms of writing style, organization, and grammar.
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What can be improved
The essay could benefit from better organization and structure, as some paragraphs feel disjointed and could be better connected to each other. Additionally, there are a few grammatical errors and awkward phrasings throughout the essay that could be addressed.
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