Are you a Caravaggio enthusiast? This guide to the Caravaggio Trail in Rome. It tells you where to find all his paintings the city. It will take some time to track them all down — there’s a staggering 25 Caravaggio paintings in Rome.
Caravaggio’s paintings are undeniably among the most stunning works in the history of Western painting. As a revolutionary, Caravaggio almost single-handedly pioneered the 17th century Italian Baroque style, leaving a lasting impact on the art world.
Caravaggio’s life 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.
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.
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.
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.
Click here to book a skip the line ticket to the museum.
- 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 Vatican 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.
You absolutely must pre-book a skip the line tickets for the museum. I also personally recommend this 3 hour no wait tour that also includes the Raphael Rooms.
- 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:
- Narcissus (1597-1599)
- 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. You can also book a 2 hour guided tour.
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.
The Borghese has timed entrances with limited tickets. It’s absolutely essential to book a skip the line ticket in advance. They sell out weeks in advance.
- 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.
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.
- 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
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Caravaggio Trail in Rome. You may enjoy these other Rome travel guides and resources:
- 8 ways to spend 1 day in Rome
- 3 day itinerary for Rome
- 5 day itinerary for Rome
- Hidden gems in Rome
- Best museums in Rome
- Archaeological sites in Rome
- Guide to the Borghese Gallery
- Guide to Palatine Hill
- Guide to the Roman Forum
- Guide to the Colosseum
If you’d like to discover Caravaggio’s art in Rome, pin it for later.