Michelangelo Amerigi da Caravaggio (1569 - 1609)
What is known as the Neapolitan School of Painters originated with Michelangelo Amerigi, called Caravaggio after his birthplace near Milan where he first saw the light in 1569. Undaunted by the great achievements of the Italian masters who immediately preceded him, Caravaggio sought to form an independent style of his own, instead of slavishly copying Titian, Tintoretto, Raphael and Michel Angelo. As Sir William Orpen points out, Caravaggio saw the error of his contemporaries and "perceiving that art based on art leads to decadence, he gave his whole attention to nature and so became a pioneer of realism." "His real fight," observes Professor Mather, "was with the nobility of Raphael. His saints are taken from the streets and often from the gutters. He loves character above all, and wants it proletarian. Within his chosen limitations he admittedly is a powerful and sincere artist."
The Penitent Magdalene
Both at Rome and Naples this sturdy, swaggering Caravaggio appears to have had an immense success. His pictures - especially portraits - are said to have commanded better prices than were obtained by any of his contemporaries. He boasted himself the greatest painter of all time, and was often believed. From his swarthy tones his school of disciples took the name of Tenebrists. The novelty in his treatment chiefly consisted of the use Caravaggio made of light and shade (technically known as chiaroscuro) to render his pictures more dramatically intense. He exaggerated his shadows which, to quote Orpen, "were far too black to be scrupulously faithful to nature, but by the emphasis he thus gave to his lights he produced original and arresting effects which undoubtedly had a powerful influence on the two greatest painters of the next generation - Velasquez and Rembrandt."
Rest On The Flight Into Egypt, 1596
David Showing Goliath's Head, 1605
In his own time, Caravaggio's experiments in interior and artificial lighting were widely imitated, and again are to be seen in modern impressionistic painting. His rejection of noble form - of the idealistic method - in favor of what one sees with the naked eye, and of decorative color in favor of natural, was a sharp and direct challenge of the Renaissance style, and outside of Italy where the noble tradition was only incipient, Caravaggio did much to arrest its influence. Mather goes on to say, "From the point of view of modern art there are few more important figures than that of Caravaggio. From the point of view of art broadly he has his serious limitations. Most damaging is his waiver of civilization, he looks at low life not with the eyes of a detached artist but with those of a ruffian.|
Nor did he live up to his own formula. His contemporaries regarded the Caravaggio method as 'too natural'. A modern realist would make the far more radical criticism that Caravaggio is not natural enough. He really makes no close study of the subtleties of natural appearance or of the actual refinements of illumination. Logically he should have gone forward with Ribera and Velasquez to a real investigation of appearances. But his logic was only that of scorn, and it would doubtless have somewhat compensated him for a sordid and premature end, could he have foreseen that his biographers would credit him with the ruin of Italian painting."
Caravaggio's love for the low life, symbolized in his famous picture "The Card Players," led him to commit a murder in a gambling quarrel at Rome. To avoid paying the penalty of this act he escaped to Naples and then to Malta where his fierce temper again landed him in prison. Later, being pardoned, he set forth for Rome, where he died of a fever..