The Bad Boy of the Baroque: Where to See Caravaggio's Art in Rome
Are you bitten by the Caravaggio bug? If so, here's my complete guide to the Carravaggio trail in Rome, for art lovers and admirers of the famed artist. I tell you about the life of the groundbreaking and artist and where to find 24 of Caravaggio's paintings in Rome
Caravaggio's paintings are among the most stunning works in the history of Western painting. Caravaggio was a revolutionary. He almost single handedly pioneered the Italian Baroque style.
Caravaggio's story is one of talent and turbulence. He acted like a devil, but painted like an angel. Caravaggio rejected the sanitized idealism that characterized much of the Renaissance era. He repeatedly refusing to adhere to traditional views of what constituted art.
Caravaggio took a plebeian view of Christianity. He invented and used a darker, dramatically lit palette. He produced naturalistic and emotionally-charged raw works that were viewed as morbid, bluntly realistic, and shocking at the time.
A complicated and eccentric personality, Caravaggio's life was as dangerous and dramatic as his art. He was a hot cauldron of anger, a notorious and violent criminal. Disorderly conduct and jail time were routine events for him. His biography is overly dependent on archival police records.
Caravaggio lived and worked in Rome for 15 years. His art can be found everywhere in Rome -- in churches, palaces, and art galleries.
There are 25 works altogether. Some can be seen for free without pricey tickets or queues. Some are in Rome's preeminent art galleries. I give you the full scoop below, along with an overview of Caravaggio's cinema-ready life.
A Biography of Caravaggio's Scandalous Life
1. Caravaggio's Early Years
Michelangelo Merisi, nicknamed Caravaggio, was scrappy from the start. With jet black hair and glaring eyes, he led a scandalous life of violence, intrigue, and volatility. He fought, whored, drank, gambled, and dueled his life away. Along the way, he created some of the world's most beautiful and visceral art.
In 1571, Caravaggio was born in a small village outside Milan, named Caravaggio. Adversity began at once. The bubonic plague wiped out his entire town in 1577. Caravaggio lost both his parents. As a young teen, he was orphaned and almost penniless, living on the streets.
In 1584, Caravaggio began a four year apprenticeship in Milan with Simone Peterzano. In 1591, at age 21, he moved to Rome after some "quarrels" in Milan. Against all odds, he survived by selling paintings.
Many Romans were tired of the corseted psyches of Mannerism. Mannerism was a late Renaissance style that artificially distorted the human figure and shunned all things not sufficiently prudish or religious.
Caravaggio's controversial new painting style -- depicting intense and realistic figures without a perfect past -- was a game changer. It enthralled wealthy art patrons. They catapulted his career forward.
2. Caravaggio's Rise to Fame
Thanks to his early patron Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, Caravaggio won a major commission for the Contarelli Chapel. His triad of paintings there made him an overnight sensation in Rome. A slew of stellar commissions followed.
Caravaggio painted the chapel's biblical scenes as if they were everyday images happening on the rough and rowdy streets of Rome. His paintings were starkly realistic and flood lit. He used chiaroscuro (strong contrasts in light and dark to achieve volume) to dramatic effect.
But Caravaggio was an irascible, hot tempered man with a big ego. He combined careers in fighting and painting. At the time, Rome was a violent and bawdy place -- filled with criminals, beggars, unemployed mercenaries, and (male and female) prostitutes. Artists formed gangs and led dissolute lives.
Caravaggio fit right in. He dressed in black and carried daggers, pistols, and swords. Caravaggio was quick to injure people, with either his weapons or his tongue. He got into one street brawl after another. He may have pimped out his prostitute-models.
Caravaggio seemed to suffer from an extreme hypersensitivity, not uncommon in geniuses. His emotional range was intense, almost bipolar. He could go from celebratory drinking with friends to violent mood wings. He couldn't surf on the big waves of life without drowning.
3. Caravaggio's Sexuality
Some art critics have claimed that Caravaggio's enigmatic and androgynous male nudes, painted early in his career, were homoerotic. There was vague gossip about Caravaggio's sexuality at the time.
But it was spread exclusively by his arch rival and would be tormentor Giovanni Baglione, a much less talented artist. And Caravaggio could have been producing work designed to please his patron, Cardinal del Monte, who held rather lascivious parties.
Historians are divided on whether Caravaggio was homosexual or bisexual. For a time, Caravaggio was lauded as a gay artist. But recent scholarship has moved away from that portrayal.
Whatever the suspicions, there's simply no historical evidence of Caravaggio's homosexuality. Logic refutes any exact linkage between Caravaggio's male nudes and a homosexual identity in his personal life. And Caravaggio definitely had mistresses and adored female prostitutes.
In any event, the salacious gossip caused more bad blood between Caravaggio and Baglione. When Caravaggio responded to Baglione's insults, he was sued for libel and landed in jail once again.
4. Caravaggio's Botched St. Peter's Commission
By 1605, Caravaggio was receiving fewer commissions because of his disreputable conduct. But that year, with the help of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, he received a commission to paint an altarpiece for St. Peter's Basilica. It was the dream of every artist in Europe. Caravaggio was effectively given a chance to paint himself out of trouble.
His assigned task was to paint the Virgin Mary shooing away evil in the form of a snake, with baby Jesus and St. Anne by her side. Simple enough, except Caravaggio rendered it a rather blunt way, which he must have known might antagonize the pope.
In Caravaggio's version of the biblical tale, he used a well known prostitute as the model for the virgin, whose face was instantly recognizable. Even though Caravaggio made an attempt at piousness (halos and all), he still refused to compromise.
Caravaggio's virgin is depicted as a voluptuous and tender peasant with a hiked up red dress and ample breasts. Together, she and a frontally nude Jesus crush a snake beneath their feet. St. Anne is seen as a withered old gypsy woman.
Caravaggio's painting was shown for only two days. Then, it was abruptly removed from St. Peters. It wasn't "pure" enough, despite its sense of the miraculous in ordinary reality.
The painting was sold for a pittance to Cardinal Borghese. Any chance of Caravaggio receiving papal favor and future commissions was forever eliminated. Caravaggio was humiliated.
5. Caravaggio Is Exiled From Rome For Murder
This rejection might have spurred Caravaggio's next bad act. In 1606, he murdered a possible rival pimp and gang leader, Ranuccio Tomassoni. "Murder" may be too strong a word, used by an unreliable narrator. The Tomassoni family had social standing. But Ranuccio himself was as disreputable as Caravaggio.
In 2002, historians uncovered evidence that their deadly clash was likely an old fashioned pre-arranged duel, with the combatants showing up with seconds. Caravaggio killed Tomassino by piercing his femoral artery. The placement of the wound suggested that Caravaggio was trying to castrate him.
It sounds appalling, I know. But in the honor culture of Rome, castration was a sign. Caravaggio was likely defending the honor of a popular courtesan and his frequent model, Fillide Melandroni.
Whatever the cause, Pope Paul IV exiled Caravaggio from Rome for life. He also put a bounty on Caravaggio's head, bando capitale, granting anyone permission to kill him. At the height of his career, Caravaggio was forced to live the rest of his life as a fugitive.
With the help of patron and advocate Constanza Colonna, Caravaggio escaped to Naples, where the papal authority was weak. He quickly became a celebrity there and produced more paintings.
6. Caravaggio in Malta
But in 1607, Caravaggio left for Malta to attempt to join the holy and chivalric order of the Knights of St. John. They were an armed religious order and a possible road to redemption for troubled nobles in need of a pardon.
To impress the Maltese locals, Caravaggio created a massive painting (27 feet long), called The Beheading of John the Baptist, for the cathedral in Valletta. It was the only one he ever signed. For his efforts, Caravaggio was proclaimed the world's greatest painter, living or dead. And he was invested as a knight.
At last, Caravaggio had some proper accolades. But then, as usual, Caravaggio engaged in self sabotage. Caravaggio's worse enemy was himself. In 1608, he attacked a senior knight. Caravaggio was imprisoned and defrocked. He later escaped, possibly with external help.
In 1609, when he was on the lam, Caravaggio was attacked, his face slashed by armed men in a street brawl. The assailants could've been anyone -- knights of Malta, Tomassino's henchmen, or others out for revenge. After this attack, Caravaggio convalesced at Constanza Colonna's palace until July 1610.
7. Caravaggio Paints For A Pardon, But Dies
After his exile from Rome, Caravaggio had attempted to win a papal pardon by gifting Cardinal Borghese one of his masterpieces, David With the Head of Goliath. In 1610, after a three year wait, Borghese secured the pardon. Caravaggio headed back to Rome. But he disappeared along the way, without leaving a trace, dead at 38.
Historians have speculated for centuries over what exactly became of Caravaggio.
Most believe that Caravaggio died from his risky lifestyle -- from malaria, a bacterial infection, syphilis, lead poisoning from his paints, or complications from alcoholism. Or a combination of them all.
But in 2018, the skeletal remains of the painter were exhumed and tested. It's now believed Caravaggio died of sepsis, a complication from an infected sword wound he received during the 1609 knife attack.
Caravaggio's Legacy and Influence on Painting
Caravaggio pioneered Baroque painting, much as Bernini pioneered Baroque sculpture. He was especially lauded for the originality of his chiaroscuro technique.
His intense use of light and dark became a Caravaggio calling card, called Tenebrism (which translates to dark and gloomy). It sometimes paradoxically obscured the human form, contrary to the earlier Renaissance theory that promoted it. But the technique gave his paintings a dramatic, even theatrical, quality.
Caravaggio also departed from academic strictures by depicting sacred subjects in a contemporary and unassuming life-like way. He would often get models from the street, even using prostitutes and other figures from society's underbelly. But Caravaggio still portrayed them with dignity. He was the people's champ.
Caravaggio was protective of his groundbreaking style. He would threaten painters who attempted to copy his unique renderings. But he was so revered that he nevertheless became one of the era's most imitated painters. His followers, like Artemisia Gentileschi, were called "Caravaggisti."
Caravaggio influenced later painters like Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Vermeer, Diego Velazquez, and Edouard Manet.
On the Caravaggio Trail: Where To Find Caravaggio's Art In Rome
Now that I've got you interested in Caravaggio, you'll want to ferret out his paintings on your next trip to Rome. Let's take a tour of Caravaggio's art. I'll tell you about his paintings and where you can find them in Rome
1. Doria Pamphilj Gallery
Three Caravaggio works are casually placed on one wall in the Aldobrandi Room in the beautiful Doria Pamphilj Gallery. They include:
Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1595-1596)
Penitent Mary Magdalene (1594-1595)
John the Baptist (1602)
Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (shown above in the center) is the most ambitious piece. Caravaggio uses the theme of a musical picnic in a rural setting. There's no hint of the divinity of this subjects. They're portrayed realistically, with nary a halo over baby Jesus.
In The Penitent Magdalene, Caravaggio portrays Mary Magdalene alone in an empty room. Her loneliness and misery are palpable.
It's branded as a religious painting, apparently Caravaggio's first. Mary is portrayed as an ordinary woman, a relatable ordinary sinner. Some critics think the painting was simply a portrait of Fillide Melandroni, sad after a whipping as punishment for prostitution.
Saint John the Baptist was one of Caravaggio’s favorite subjects. This painting may be his most controversial depiction. It didn't conform to conventional counter-Reformation works. It was too naturalistic, and an intentionally provocative nude.
The actual subject of the painting has been debated over for years. It could be the biblical Isaac and the ram, just a shepherd boy, or a random model. However, the man who paid for the work asked for a John the Baptist, hence the title.
There's some dispute over whether this version (there's another in the Capitoline Museums) was painted by Caravaggio himself.
Address: Via del Corso 305
Metro: Take Line A and get off at Piazza Barberini
Hours: 9:00 am to 7:00 pm (last entry at 6:00 pm). Most museums in Rome are closed on Mondays. The Doria Pamphilj isn't, something to keep in mind.
Entry fee: 12 €, free audio guide
2. Vatican Museums, Pinacoteca Gallery
The Vatican owns one of Caravaggio's most famous painting, The Entombment of Christ. It's housed in the Pinacoteca, the Vatican's painting gallery that's often skipped on Vatican tours.
In this painting, Caravaggio rejected the prevailing tendency to portray Christ as a hero. Instead, the viewer is confronted with a heavy corpse in a black tomb. As such, the painting sparked controversy.
Behind Christ, three women mourn and Mary stares at her son’s lifeless body. Typical of Caravaggio, the spot-lit figures are set against a dark space.
Address: 00120 Vatican City
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Entry fee: € 16
3. Palazzo Barberini
The Palazzo Barberini is a wonderful underrated museum in Rome. It boasts three seminal Caravaggio works:
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-1599)
St Francis in Meditation (1606-1607)
Narcissus is one of Caravaggio's most beautiful paintings. It's based on the Greek myth of Narcissus, most famously recorded by Roman poet Ovid. The myth is a tragic story about a boy who falls in love with his reflection in inky waters.
Caravaggio's painting is a darkly melancholic morality tale. It's an almost abstract depiction of a double figure, real boy and reflected boy. The boy is dressed in 16th century attire, similar to Caravaggio's The Penitent Madeleine in the Doria Pamphilj.
The surface of the water divides the canvas in half, with only a small strip of dirt to delineate the scene. The painting has all the quintessential Baroque elements -- emotion and longing on the boy's face, a naked knee centering the composition, and stark lighting and shadow effects.
Judith Beheading Holofernes is one of Caravaggio's most famous paintings. This painting shows a classic (and juicy) biblical scene, popular with many artists. It's the Old Testament story of Judith and Holofernes. In this tale, a heroic woman beheads the Assyrian warlord who’s besieged her town in Israel.
Caravaggio's rendering is audacious. He intensifies the body language. He shows Judith as beautiful and decidedly not nun-like, with nipples protruding. A nude Holofernes is in his last second of consciousness. The grizzled and intense servant leans forward to retrieve the soon-to-be disembodied head. The entire scene is violent and naturalistic.
Saint Francis in Meditation is another classic example of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro. Caravaggio shows the venerated saint starring rather mournfully at a skull in his hands. There's some question about its provenance. It's possible that it's a copy, with the real Caravaggio hanging in the Church of S. Maria Immacolata.
Address: Via delle Quattro Fontane 13
Hours: Tues to Sun 8:30 am to 7:00 pm, closed Mondays
Entry fee: € 12. You can purchase a ticket online here.
4. Borghese Gallery
The wonderful Borghese Gallery is, hands down, the best place to admire Caravaggio's work in Rome. There are six Caravaggio paintings in Room VIII, spanning the artist's entire career. It's the greatest collection of Caravaggio anywhere in the world and includes:
Self-Portrait as Bacchus | Young Sick Bacchus (1593-1594)
Boy with Basket of Fruit (1593-1594)
St. Jerome Writing (1605)
Madonna and Child with St. Anne (1605)
Portrait of Pope Paul V (1605-1606)
David with the Head of Goliath (1609-1610)
St. John the Baptist (1610)
I'll comment on my favorite three, for the sake of brevity. (I discussed the infamous Madonna and Child With St. Anne above.)
Young Sick Bacchus is an early self portrait by Caravaggio. It's an unusual portrayal of Bacchus, who's usually depicted as a happy bon vivant. But in this portrait, he looks sickly.
Caravaggio had just spent six months in a hospital, possibly suffering from malaria or jaundice. Young Sick Bacchus seems to suffer the same fate.
Was Caravaggio portraying himself as a god? Or was he bringing Bacchus down to earth on the same footing as a mere mortal? Either way, it was a revolutionary way to depict a god.
David With the Head of Goliath is a brilliant psychological painting of uncompromising realism. It's been interpreted as self-oblation, or evidence of Caravaggio's guilty conscience from murdering Tomassino.
David carries the severed head of Goliath, having conquered his superior foe. Caravaggio painted his own face on the grisly Goliath. The painting is renowned for its use of chiaroscuro.
St. Jerome Writing may not be as soulful or graphic as Caravaggio's David, but it's powerful. St. Jerome was a Roman priest who translated the bible into Latin. In Caravaggio's rendering, a devout St. Jerome appears bald and wrinkled. He innocently stretches out an arm to refill his writing quill, thereby drawing your attention to the skull.
Address: Piazzale del Museo Borghese
Hours: Open daily 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, except closed on Monday.
Entry fee: 20 €. The 1.5 hour audio guide is 5 euros. I advise getting it, if you're not on a guided tour. Under 18 free.
Pro tip: It's essential to purchase tickets and make a timed entry reservation online in advance. I tell you how in my guide.
5. Capitoline Museums
John the Baptist - Youth with Ram (1602) The Fortune Teller (1593-1595)
Caravaggio painted two versions of The Fortune Teller. One is in the Capitoline Museums and the second version is in the Louvre (though it was formerly in the Doria Pamphilj collection). It was Caravaggio's first major work, sold to Cardinal Del Monte.
The Fortune Teller shows a pretentiously dressed boy, having his palm read by a gypsy girl. The unsophisticated boy looks with anticipation as the girl returns his gaze with a fake smile. There's a sleight of hand. The girl is slipping off his ring as she tells his fortune.
I discussed John the Baptist above. It's very similar to the one in the Doria Pamphilj. But this one is indisputably a Caravaggio.
Address: Piazza del Campidoglio 1. The entrance and ticket office are in the building on your right after you climb the stairs.
Entry fee: € 15. The audio guide (which is worth it) is € 6.
Hours: Daily 9:30 am to 7:30 pm
6. Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600-1601) Conversion of St. Paul (1600-1601)
In 1600, Monsignor Cerasi commissioned Caravaggio to create two paintings for the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popola. This was a difficult commission. Cerasi rejected Caravaggio's initial paintings, forcing him to redo them. Caravaggio later resold them to his more avid collectors.
Both accepted paintings are austere and intense. The Crucifixion of St. Peter is still full of bold choices. In it, Peter looks like an ordinary man, not a glorified saint. One of his executioners even has dirty feet. Caravaggio effectively put biblical characters on the same level as ordinary citizens.
The Conversion of St. Paul is also powerful. It shows Caravaggio’s masterful use of light. A warm glow washes over Paul as he falls from his horse and emerges from the darkness in an ecstasy of revelation.
The horse rather than Paul is the dominant feature of the composition. Its rump is pointed at another painting in the chapel by Caravaggio's Baroque rival, the painter Annibale Carracci.
This controversial angle sparked controversy. A church official queried, “Why have you put a horse in the middle, and Saint Paul on the ground?” Caravaggio responded: “Because! Is the horse God? No, but he stands in God’s light!"
Address: Piazza del Popolo 12
Hours: Monday to Friday 7:00 am to noon & 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Saturdays 7:30 am to 9:00 pm. Sundays 7:30 am to 1:30 pm & 4:30 to 7:00 pm
Entry fee: free
7. Basilica di Sant'Agostino
A Caravaggio painting can be enjoyed for free in the Cavalletti Chapel of the Church of Sant'Agostino in Rome's Campo Marzio area. (As an aside, this is the spot where Caravaggio allegedly murdered Tomassino.) The chapel holds one of Caravaggio's most tender paintings, Madonna di Loreto or Madonna of the Pilgrims.
In it, Caravaggio once again tests the boundaries between the sacred and profane. The Virgin Mary takes an utterly human form, with only the thinnest of halos glimmering in the dark toned painting. The pilgrims appear as filthy barefoot peasants.
By focusing on earthly life in the painting, Caravaggio may have provided validation for the everyday faithful who entered the church. Art historians dub this an example of "religious mysticism," in which Caravaggio simplified and humanized devotion.
Address: Piazza di S, Eustachio 82
Hours: 7:30 am to 6:30 pm
Entry fee: free, €1 to light up the painting
8. Villa Aurora | Casino Boncompagni Ludovisi
The privately-owned Villa Aurora (also known as the Villa Ludovisi) is a true hidden gem in Rome. It contains Caravaggio's only wall painting, titled Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. It's painted directly on the ceiling, so can't be moved.
The painting was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte. Though it looks like a fresco, it's actually an oil painting. Caravaggio never worked in fresco, which is an extremely difficult technique.
The three figures are all Caravaggio self portraits. Even the dog is modeled after Caravaggio's own dog. With its full frontal "in your face" nudity, the painting was deemed obscene and offended some. Eventually, it was whitewashed over. But in the 1960s, the painting was rediscovered and restored.
Address: Via Aurora 6342 00187 Rome
Entry fee: You can only visit the Villa Ludovisi via a guided tour booked in advance with Principessa Boncompagni-Ludovisi. Contact her via email Tatiana @ principedipiombino.com or call at +39 06 483942 to and make a reservation. It's € 300 for a group of up to 15 people to visit.
9. St. Luigi dei Francesi | Church of St. Louis of the French
After the Borghese Gallery, the next best place to find Caravaggio paintings in Rome is in the small church of San Luigi dei Francesi, or St. Louis of the French. It's just one block from Piazza Navona and absolutely worth a stop.
Inside is the spectacular Contarelli Chapel. It houses an in situ Caravaggio triptych about the life of St. Mathew. (In situ just means the art is shown in the host site for which it was created.) The three paintings, which are all massive, are:
The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)
The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1600-1601)
St. Matthew and the Angel (1602)
You can see the paintings up close and personal under perfect lighting conditions. In each one, a seemingly regular person is caught in a dramatic moment.
The Calling is my personal favorite of the triad. The painting looks almost like a tavern scene. The hand of Christ extends toward St. Matthew, who's depicted in his previous profession as a tax collector. Peering out of the gloom on the far right is a self portrait of Caravaggio.
The extended hand has been compared to the hand in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. It perhaps reflects a self confident Caravaggio.
In Martyrdom, Caravaggio shows the murder of Saint Matthew. An angel extends his arm to Matthew to bring the saint into heaven. At the back of the painting, Caravaggio (once again) paints a self portrait of himself looking in on the scene.
In St. Matthew and the Angel, also called The Inspiration of St. Matthew, the saint is shown at his desk writing gospels. He appears as a dignified scholar saint.
The first version of the painting depicted Matthew as a poor peasant with dirty feet and crossed legs. It was rejected outright and Caravaggio had to create another version. The original ended up in a gallery in Berlin. But it was destroyed in WWII.
Address: Piazza di S. Luigi de' Francesi
Hours: Weekdays: 9:30 am t 12:45 pm & 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm, Saturday 9:30 am to 12:15 pm & 2:30 pm to 6:45 pm. Sundays 11:30 am to 12:45 pm
Entry fee: free, but a small fee to activate the lights
10. Galleria Corsini
The Corsini Gallery is housed in a beautiful 15th century palazzo at the foot of Gaincolo Hill in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood. Though it's a true hidden gem, the museum boasts some good paintings, including Caravaggio's St. John the Baptist.
In this painting, Caravaggio depicts the saint as a nubile young boy. He gazes out intensely from under a mop of hair. It's unclear if he's just sitting up or lying down.
Address: Via della Lungara 10
Hours: Monday & Wednesday through Saturday from 2:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Sunday from 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, closed Tuesday.
Entry fee: € 5
11. Church of Saint Mary Immaculate
This small church on the Esquiline Hill has a recently authenticated Caravaggio painting, The Meditation of St. Francis. It's located in the sacristy of the church. Like the painting of the same name in the Palazzo Barberini, this one shows St. Francis with his hands wrapped around a skull. It's a bit darker and gloomier than the Barberini version.
Address: Via Emanuele Filiberto 137
Entry fee: free
If you'd like to explore more of the stunning art in Rome, check out my other guides:
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