LGBTQ Heroes: Caravaggio
As we celebrate LGBT History Month, let’s take a look at the life and career of Caravaggio.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
28 September 1571
18 July 1610, aged 38
Born in Milan, when Caravaggio was aged 10 he began an apprenticeship with the painter Simone Peterzano.
In 1592, Caravaggio moved to Rome where there was demand for paintings to fill the many huge new churches and palazzos being built at the time.
As he continued to paint, Caravaggio’s reputation grew – he was renowned for the intense realism or naturalism of his work. He painted his subjects with their natural flaws and defects – avoiding the stylised beauty that epitomised paintings of that period.
In 1599, Caravaggio was contracted to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The two works making up the commission, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew, delivered in 1600, were an immediate sensation and his career was assured – he had an unending supply of patrons eager to commission him.
However, Caravaggio had to leave Rome in 1606 – he had killed a man in a brawl and was sentenced to death, so he fled the city.
From Rome, Caravaggio went to Naples, where he came under the protection and patronage of the powerful Colonna family.
Caravaggio continued to paint, and he continued to secure commissions – primarily he was painting for churches and their wealthy benefactors.
From Naples, Caravaggio travelled to Malta, where he painted for the Knights of Malta. Despite creating some notable works during his time on Malta, he was soon in trouble again. Caravaggio left Malta and travelled to Sicily, before returning to Naples.
Having painted a number of works for the influential Cardinal Scipione, Caravaggio embarked on his return to Rome with the prospect of being pardoned. However, he died of a fever before reaching Rome.
There’s a general assumption by art historians that Caravaggio was a gay man, however at that time, sodomy was a capital crime – punishable by death. Any allegations of homosexuality would have been extraordinarily damaging, and could ruin the career of any man.
Much is made of the subjects of Caravaggio’s paintings – never focused on a female nude but always featuring full-lipped, languorous boys who solicit the onlooker with their offers of fruit, wine, flowers, and themselves.
Caravaggio’s work greatly influenced the emergency of the Baroque style of painting. The realism and depth of emotion within his paintings gives his work a timelessness that has cemented his reputation as one of the masters of the art.
To explore a different perspective on Caravaggio, check out Derek Jarman’s film from 1986.