What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.



A Life of Crime

During his short life, Caravaggio was arrested at least 7 times for violent behavior. As a young man in Milan, he’d often do a couple of weeks of hard painting, then ‘swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument.’

At the age of 19, he attacked a police officer and was forced to flee Milan. He moved to Rome, where he was still never far from trouble and was once arrested for throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter.

Caravaggio's real troubles began at the age of 35, when he killed man called Ranuccio Tomassoni after a game of tennis. He had powerful patrons in Rome who normally protected him from the local law, but this time he had to escape to Naples, then Malta, where he found a new patron and became a Knight of Malta; but two years later he was arrested for battering down another knight’s door and seriously wounding him.

He managed to escape to Sicily, where in a matter of months he became even more erratic, destroying paintings that anyone dared to criticize, goading the local painters and sleeping fully dressed, armed with a sword.

As his enemies edged closer, Caravaggio was forced to escape again, this time back to Naples, where an assassination attempt left him with an ugly facial scar.

At the age of 38, as he was sailing back to Rome in hope of receiving a pardon from his powerful Roman patrons, he died - possibly of a fever, though he might have been poisoned by either his enemies or the lead salts in the paints he had been using. Three days later, his pardon arrived.

Bones with high levels of lead were recently found in a grave thought to be Caravaggio's. A lifetime of lead poisoning may also have been the reason for his violent behaviour - though if it was just that, you would have to ask why other painters of his time remained relatively unaffected.

Caravaggio's style may have been how he actually saw the world because of an illness caused by excess adrenaline.


I think if Michelangelo were straight, the Sistine Chapel would have been painted basic white with a roller.

Caravaggio had a thing for decapitation. At least 8 of his paintings depict severed heads, some with his own face.

Caravaggio's search for a patron ended when a rich Cardinal called Del Monte saw his paintings and said 'Yes!'

Caravaggio’s Wild Paintings

Although from a minorly aristocratic background, Caravaggio was orphaned at the age of 11 and struggled on the breadline, but by the age of 24, he had produced more than 40 paintings, mostly of scantily-clad adolescent boys.

Once Cardinal Del Monte became his patron, Caravaggio switched to painting religious subjects more or less exclusively. These frequently outraged the authorities for their gritty portrayal of saints as ordinary working men and women: giving St. Matthew big dirty feet and endowing the Virgin Mary with a beer-belly.

Caravaggio was once arrested for throwing an artichoke at an insolent waiter.

Ranuccio Tomassoni

For almost 400 years historians believed that Caravaggio was a homosexual who murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni in a squabble over a tennis match. It is now thought that Tomassoni's death was an accident: Caravaggio was only trying to cut off his testicles. The two men were rivals for the favours of Fillide Melandroni, a beautiful female prostitute, for whom Tomassoni acted as pimp. Caravaggio had been commissioned to paint Fillide for an Italian nobleman.

When he was 19, Caravaggio fled to Rome after attacking a police officer.