Born Michelangelo Merisi in 1571, historians argue that he ended the Renaissance period with as great a voice as Michelangelo had at the beginning. Visit our recommended venues and judge for yourself.
Italy’s greatest artists are household names throughout the world. But there are many like Caravaggio who are not quite as familiar but whose masterpieces, nevertheless, are key to the evolution of Italian art.
In this itinerary we offer a very different way to experience Italian art. Instead of a broad sweep, we suggest a deep dive into the life and works of the man considered to be the last great Renaissance artist – the man who broke with tradition and painted life as it is.
It is said that Caravaggio’s art reflects the emotion and turmoil in his private life, which ended early, perhaps due to lead poising from the paints he used. Historians say that for his entire life he was a rogue and a brawler and has been portrayed in film as a brooding homosexual. Shortly before he died he killed a rival in a Roman street fight and subsequently fled Italy. Throughout his career he shook up customers, colleagues, and the public with emotion-raising images of real life. He presented a world marked by faces full of tension, opposite from the divine calm of classical painting. Instead of portraying bodily perfection he, for example, painted the dirty feet of the common man, and worm-eaten fruit.
Art critics and observers find his paintings “tense with violence,” not unlike the life he led. Nevertheless, his talent was noticed at the highest levels in the Catholic Church and numerous engagements with the Church financed his iconoclastic lifestyle.
DAY 1 - Masterpieces at the Borghese Gallery
The itinerary starts at the Borghese Gallery , inserted in the beautiful setting of the green park of Villa Borghese. The museum holds six works by Caravaggio, as well as Bernini's most important statues.
We start with the Boy with a Basket of Fruit and Young Sick Bacchus, early but fundamental works. Then the Madonna dei Palafrenieri (Madonna and Child with Saint Anne), commissioned by the Confraternity of Papal Grooms for their altar in St. Peter's Basilica but rejected and later purchased by Pope Paul V's (Borghese) nephew. After the murder Caravaggio commited in Rome, he painted the David with the Head of Goliath in order to gain the favor of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. His work, Saint Jerome Writing was offered in gratitude to the Cardinal for rescuing him from another trouble with the law. We can also admire the splendid Portrait of Pope Paul V. Keep in mind that booking is mandatory for any visit the Borghese Gallery; you can get the most from your time there with a guided tour.
DAY 2 - Works hosted by other museums
Most of Caravaggio's scenes take place indoors allowing him to play with light and shadows, using the technique known as chiaroscuro to produce a dramatically intense effect. You can see this in the Judith and Holofernes canvas on display at the National Gallery of Ancient Art of Palazzo Barberini (Barberini subway stop). Art researchers say that Judith had been painted with bare breasts that were subsequently covered. The Narcissus, with magnificent lights and shadows effects, was attributed to Caravaggio after a long debate, while Saint Francis in Meditation is a masterpiece of Caravaggio’s techniques. There are other works at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery (a short walk from the elegant Via del Corso and close to the Pantheon): The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a good example of the evolution of his painting, and Penitent Magdalene. Discover the Doria Pamphilj Gallery through Sounds and Visions of Caravaggio, a fascinating way to discover the magnificent gallery enhanced with live music. The Pinacoteca Capitolina displays The Fortune Teller and John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness), the latter forgotten until 1953. The Vatican Museums host one of Caravaggio's major works, The Entombment of Christ, which caused a divisive debate at the time due to its stark reality far from classical idealization of the scene.
DAY 3 - Nature and drama in churches
Some of the most important works by Caravaggio are located in various churches in Rome. Most of them can be visited as part of our guided tours, such as Baroque Rome, Classical Rome or Wonders of Rome. For example, in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi (in the Baroque heart of the city near Piazza Navona), the Contarelli chapel displays The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew in which the artist offers an original vision of the celebration of the martyrs, very fashionable at the time, as well as the altarpiece The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. Continuing towards Via della Scrofa, enter the Church of St. Augustine in Campo Marzio, where the altar of the first chapel on the left displays the Madonna di Loreto (Madonna of the Pilgrims), controversial at a time as the Madonna was dressed as a commoner. Don't miss the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where you will find the The Conversion of Saint Paul featuring the figure of the horse as sign of irrationality of sin, and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, major works for their use of light and attention to detail. If you want to discover the most beautiful churches of Rome, try the our Christian Rome tour . If you'd rather do it on your own, choose the practical Citysighseeing Bus service.
Caravaggio beyond Rome. Other Italian museums are home to some of the most important paintings of Caravaggio. In Milan, the Brera Gallery includes the Supper at Emmaus, while the Basket of Fruit is located at the Ambrosiana Art Gallery. This is a basic canvas, where even fruit in still life is unable to escape Caravaggio's realism. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence houses the Medusa, commissioned by Ferdinando de' Medici, along with Bacchus and the Sacrifice of Isaac, three masterpieces not to be missed.
Still in Florence, the Palatine Gallery at Palazzo Pitti the Palatine Gallery at Palazzo Pitti is home to the Sleeping Cupid and Portrait of Fra Antonio Martelli.
In Naples, at the Capodimonte Museum we find The Flagellation of Christ, offered with extraordinary drama, as well as The Seven Works of Mercy at the Pio Monte della Misericordia, and The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula in the Gallery of Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano. In Sicily, the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia in Syracuse hosts the Burial of St. Lucy.