Legends about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 to 1610) and must not be confused with Michelangelo, the painter of the Sistine Chapel and creator of other well-known great artworks. Caravaggio was born a few years after the death of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a leading Italian painter of the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to many art scholars, he was the most influential of all 17th-century painters. He was one of the main role-players of realism and one of the innovators of Baroque painting.

Apart from Caravaggio’s famous paintings, art lovers and historians are usually intrigued by Caravaggio’s lifestyle and all the “stories” and legends about him. Many stories, rumors, and legends about his life, but very few documents are available about his personal life. Art lovers will probably never really know what is true and what a tale. 

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’ Life in a Nutshell

The artist’s father and mother were Fermo Merisi and his second wife, Lucia Aratori. He was probably born in the small town of Caravaggio, after which he would later be named. His family on his mother’s side had connections with the local nobility. 

The two families he was connected to, the Sforza and the Colonna families, were among Italy’s most powerful and influential families. They gave him constant support during his troubled years by providing him refuge and shielding him from justice when he was wanted for crimes.

Caravaggio trained as a painter and developed a big name as an artist. But it was always known that he was a violent, touchy, and provocative man. He had to flee from Rome to Naples because of a brawl that led to a death sentence for murder. In Naples, he again established himself as a prominent painter. In 1607 he traveled to Malta and Sicily to pursue a papal pardon for his sentence. 

After returning to Naples in 1609, he got involved in a violent clash in which his face was disfigured. Later, rumors of his death also circulated. He died in 1610 while on his way from Naples to Rome. Reports of that time stated that he died of a fever, but there were also suggestions that he was either murdered or died of lead poisoning.

More Stories and Legends

Documentary evidence about Caravaggio’s childhood is scant. At age 12, he signed an apprenticeship contract with a minor Milanese master. But according to some records from that time, he mastered the art of swordsmanship and became an expert duelist. Unfortunately, his knowledge of swordsmanship got him into trouble with the law during his later life. 

An example of his violent lifestyle can be found in his departure from Lombardy in 1592, never to return to his birthplace again. The circumstances surrounding his release remain unclear, but available documents suggest that he has been involved in some form of a violent incident, including the murder of a policeman. 

At a stage, he moved to the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari, who was one of the most prominent artists in Rome during the 1590s. But his time with Cesari ended severely with a mysterious accident involving a kick from a horse that got Caravaggio to the hospital. 

In July 1597, he was mentioned in the testimony of a barber named Luca regarding a murky and ultimately unsolved case of a missing cloak and a dagger. According to the criminal archives, the barber described Caravaggio as a stocky young man with a thin black beard, thick eyebrows, thick hair over his forehead, and dressed in black.

Caravaggio’s Models, Prostitutes, and Homoeroticism

During the 1500s and 1600s in Rome, women were illegal to model for painters. Employing a prostitute was an easy way to get around the legislation. Caravaggio was associated with some prostitutes during his time in Rome. 

There is also circumstantial evidence suggesting that he operated as a pimp when he was not painting for Cardinal Del Monte or any other patrons.

Modern historians and art scholars debate the inferences of homoeroticism in Caravaggio’s works to better understand the man Caravaggio. Caravaggio was never married and had no known children. In Caravaggio’s complete works, erotic female figures are absent. He did not paint any female nude in his entire art career. 

The model of “Amor Vincit Omnia,” Cecco di Caravaggio, lived with him for a time, and the two might have been lovers. 

Some of Caravaggio’s Famous Paintings – “The Seven Acts of Mercy”

Despite all the controversies in his personal life Caravaggio was a great artist. All art scholars learn about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio because of his essential role in the arts. He influenced many artists years after his death. When you check out Caravaggio’s complete works, you become aware of how later painters were influenced by some of his works.

One of his famous works is “The Seven Acts of Mercy” (also known as “The Seven Works of Mercy”) was Caravaggio’s first painting after he had killed a man and fled to Rome. The work was commissioned by the Church of Pio Monte Della Misericordia in Naples. This masterpiece still hangs there in Naples.

The seven acts of mercy represented in this work are:

  • Visit the imprisoned – Symbolized by the woman on the right who visits an imprisoned man.
  • Feed the hungry – Symbolized by the same woman on the right, giving the man milk from her breast.
  • Bury the dead – Symbolized by two men carrying a dead man in the background.
  • Shelter the homeless – The figure third from left is a pilgrim asking an innkeeper for shelter.
  • Clothe the naked – St. Martin of Tours is fourth from the left and has torn his robe in half to give it to the naked beggar in the foreground.
  • Visit the sick – St. Martin greets and comforts the cripple, sick beggar.
  • Refresh the thirsty – Symbolized by Samson (second from the left) drinking water from the jawbone of an ass.

The Bottom Line

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a very successful and famous artist and left many masterpieces still appreciated and loved today by art lovers. But he was also an attractive man with a somewhat “strange” life story for an artist. Historians and art scholars are still debating about some aspects of his life. It will probably never be established which stories and legends are true and which are only legends.      

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