He was constantly getting into fights. He was repeatedly arrested, and jailed for assault. He killed a man and was forced to flee from Rome. While awaiting a papal pardon, he died suddenly — in mysterious circumstances — in Tuscany, at the age of 38. Caravaggio’s life was short and full of violence. But this troubled man — who is likely to have suffered from some kind of mental illness — was also one of the greatest artists of the Baroque era. Although many disapproved of his behavior (and his unorthodox treatment of religious themes in his art), no one could deny his sublime talent. His powerful use of chiaroscuro (contrasting light and shadows) and his unconventional, theatrical depictions of Biblical scenes such as the Martyrdom of St Matthew or Judith Beheading Holofernes continue to impress and inspire today.
Caravaggio was born in Milan but spent much of his turbulent adult life in Rome, the city where many of his most important works are now on display. An art lover could easily make a pilgrimage to Rome for Caravaggio alone — his masterpieces can be found adorning walls in the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery, Palazzo Barberini, The Musei Capitolini by the Campidoglio, and various churches in the centro storico.
The Borghese Gallery is perhaps best-known for its Bernini statues, but it also has an outstanding collection of Caravaggio paintings. The iconic Boy with a Basket of Fruit — a portrait of the artist’s 16 year old friend — is on display here, his youthful beauty contrasting with the sallow skin of the Sick Bacchus. The highlight, however, is Caravaggio’s disturbing double portrait in David with the Head of Goliath. This painting provides a fascinating glimpse into the artist’s psyche, as it seems to portray the artist as a young man, holding the decapitated head of his older self. There’s no sense of triumph or victory here, only an uneasy, almost pitying expression on the face of the young David.
Caravaggio’s paintings can be found in numerous churches in the center of Rome. Go to Sant’Agostino near Piazza Navona for the Madonna dei Pellegrini – a controversial work that became beloved by the people of Rome – or Santa Maria del Popolo for the dramatic Crucifixion of St Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus. While you’re in the vicinity of Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, make sure you visit San Luigi dei Francesi (St Louis of the French). It was Caravaggio’s work in the chapel that made him famous in Rome, although not everyone appreciated his controversial take on religious themes. One of his original paintings depicted a rather grubby looking St Matthew reading with the assistance of an angel. The portrayal of the saint as an illiterate peasant didn’t go down well, and Caravaggio was ordered to create a new painting. Today you can see the revised Inspiration of St Matthew along with two other theatrical paintings depicting events in the life of the saint. There aren’t many places in Rome – or the world – where you can see three masterpieces side by side for free (and without a queue), so don’t miss out on San Luigi.
Our Borghese Gallery tour includes numerous works by Caravaggio. If you want to learn more about the life and works of this extraordinary artist, you can also join our special Caravaggio tour, where you’ll explore the streets of central Rome and see paintings by Caravaggio in churches such as Sant’Agostino and San Luigi dei Francesi.