If Caravaggio’s early critics mythologized his naturalism, modern art historians have gone on to create myths of their own. Now we find him described as an agnostic, a deeply religious painter, a queer, an esoteric, a criminal, a clever imitator, a psychoanalytical case study, the voice of the new epistemology, and so on. Clearly Caravaggio was a complex and mercurial character who painted passionate and compelling pictures, but it is less obvious how his life and his art were intertwined, or how one should go about appraising the linkage between the two. Indeed, the biography itself is problematic, for Caravaggio seems to have fashioned his public persona as cleverly as the critics did in recasting rhetorical topoi to make points of their own.
There is no evidence to suggest that Caravaggio was ever given to theoretical posturing. No letters, no manuscript jottings, and few, if any, reliable firsthand accounts explain what working “from life” might have meant to him. Unlike his followers Simon Vouet and Jusepe de Ribera, who inscribed canvases “ad vivum depicta” or “ad vivum mire depicta” (painted from life or painted marvelously from life), Caravaggio left no such traces behind. Only the transcript from the libel trial brought against him by the artist/biographer Baglione in 1603 gives any indication of the skills he admired in other painters. According to this muddled account, the necessary skills were “knowing how to paint well and imitating natural things well.”
"What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting." Putting the oscuro into chiaroscuro, Caravaggio (1573-1610) profoundly influenced the new Baroque, but his life story was just as much a bold contrast between light and dark as any of his paintings. Orphaned after his family escaped a plague in Milan, he did quite well in Rome until a botched attempt to castrate Ranuccio Tomassoni after winning a duel resulted in Ranuccio's death. Ranuccio was continually turning up in police records in the company of prostitutes, but never as a customer, and Caravaggio's, including once with Fillide Melandroni, supposedly the greatest prostitute in Rome at the time, and subject of several Caravaggio paintings, including Portait of a Courtesan of which only photographs remain. Fillide's prostitute friend Anna Bianchini also modelled for Caravaggio.
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