The Art and Influence of Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi or Amerighi (1571-1610) took his name from his birthplace of Caravaggio in Lombardy (Read, 1994) though elsewhere he is noted as probably born in Milan (Wittkower, 1882). Apprenticed at age 13 he was trained in Milan by the undistinguished Mannerist Simone Peterzano. Although Caravaggio received the training of a Mannerist painter he became, in European terms, the most influential of all 17th century painters (White, 1995) as he became a mainspring of realism and one of the innovators of Baroque painting. Eventually his influence was immense with elements of Caravaggism becoming a permanent feature of European painting (Wittkower, 1982).

In 1593 he was  very poor and working for other painters in Rome having already achieved notoriety in police records as a bravo. Caravaggio was as temperamental in his painting as he was in his wild life. In his short and violent life Caravaggio’s wild and anarchic character was in constant revolt against authority. In 37 years he hilled a man in a quarrel about tennis (1606), had trouble in Valletta, and after a serious wounding in Naples died on a each at Port Ercole (White, 1995; Wittkower, 1982). The killing of his companion in the tennis brawl necessitated flight from Rome (Read, 1994), an event that led to short periods of asylum and painting in Naples, Malta, and Sicily. Each residence ended in brawls and fights when eventually wounded in Palermo, he died on a beach. One source states he died of malaria (Wittkower, 1982). The life of Caravaggio was further made unbearable by the criticism he bore as well as rejection by the clergy. Nonetheless, he had rich private patrons that included cardinals and a rich “…vein of realistic painting throughout Europe found inspiration in him.” (Levey, 1994).

1.  The art and style of Caravaggio

Caravaggio looked to Baroque whereas the Carracci  (founders of the Bolognese School) developed a revitalised classicism. Caravaggio, like Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), was influenced by the Venetians (Levey, 1974), and through his work put paid to the Mannerist style with an apparent realism, the active involvement of the spectator, and the creation of illusionism rather than illusion, indeed “…he was so accurate and ingenious an imitator of nature, that what other painters are wont merely to promise he has accomplished.” (Borsieri, 1619). Caravaggio’s revolutionary realism was his own creation but still a style “…fostered by the traditional realism already found in Moroni and Salvedo.” (Levey, 1994).

Giovanni Battista Moroni (1525-1578) was an Italian painter influenced by Lorenzo Lotto (Read, 1994) whose portraits combined both German and Dutch realism with the technical skill of the Venetian School (a well known portrait being Portrait of a Tailor in 1550). Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1480-1550) painted religious and portrait subjects (Read, 1994), being influenced by the Venetian School and Leonardo da Vinci, anticipating Caravaggio’s realism and the German painter Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) in his strange use of light effects.

In 1596 Caravaggio’s fortunes took a dramatic turn when some paintings were bought by Cardinal de Monte whereupon he was commissioned to paint a series of large religious paintings for the Contarelli Chapel of S. Luigi de Francesi (Read, 1994). In early 17th century Rome a new type of patronage had developed. The various papacy’s had indulged in nepotism derived from papal family ascendancies. Relatives, and clients of the popes, surrounded the papacy and became patrons of the arts. With the comings and goings of popes the papal entourages tended to rise and fall. Likewise, patronage worked in a familial manner around the pope.

It is within this milieu that Caravaggio lived and worked whilst in Rome. Caravaggio was surrounded by the demands of the Counter-Reformation who adopted a formal teaching on religion, art, and style. The Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola’s Jesuits, asked for visualisations of the sufferings of Christ and demanded the use of their ‘Spiritual Exercises’. The second patrons of Caravaggio were the ‘Oratorians’ who were guided by unostentatious piety.

For the Contarelli Chapel Caravaggio painted an altarpiece, the St Matthew and an Angel, and two wall panels, the Calling of St Matthew, see Figure 1, and the Martyrdom of St Matthew.

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Figure 1.  The Calling of St Matthew (detail). 23.7.1599-4.7.1660. Oil on canvas.

All of these paintings caused a sensation. Prior to his commission by Cardinal del Monte Caravaggio had painted his Basket of Fruit in 1596, see Figure 2, a series of Bacchus based on a live model, the Musical Party, a double half portrait entitled The Fortune Teller. This latter work owes something to Giorgione in subject and composition but that lighting and composition also reveal a new and original talent.

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Figure 2Basket of Fruit (1596).  Oil on Canvas.

The St Matthew altarpiece, considered sacrilegious and vulgar by the clergy, was destroyed in 1945. Even though his religious pictures possess a sense a sense of dramatic actuality there were many complaints about his failure to observe decorum (Levey, 1994). However, a second and acceptable version still remains in the church. In these works Caravaggio, as a religious painter, demonstrates an essential contrast between light and dark with a realism using un-idealised figures from everyday life. The spiritual actuality of these works is achieved by the active involvement of the spectator. The Counter-Reformation canon, representing a struggle of opposites, the conflict between good and evil, is conveyed by his dramatic lighting sense, an axiom so apparent in later Spanish painting where culturally accepted cruelty is either evident or just beneath the surface. Other major works of the period include the Conversion of St Paul in S. Maria del Popolo, Rome, the Supper at Emmaus, the Death of the Virgin, and the Deposition of Christ. In all of these paintings the life of Christ takes place in ordinary surroundings (Levey, 1994).

Recent scholarship has modified the concept of Caravaggio as a revolutionary whilst classifying him as a true innovator (Read, 1994). The revolutionary aspect of the work of Caravaggio was his “…transition from the Mannerist experiments of the 16th century to the developed Roman Baroque art of the 17th century.” (White, 1995). The supposed scene of Caravaggio’s supposedly ‘realistic’ art is Rome – an aspect of which strangely sees him as a pioneer of modern art – but he is “…less naturalistic and revolutionary than he would like to appear.” (Levey, 1974). Caravaggio painted still-life subjects, so it seems, for the simple pleasure of it independently of primary subject matter. In his pictures there is carried a robust naturalism with violent contrasts of bright light and opaque shadows. Again, his apparent predilection for the unusual and striking scenery creates a picaresque style that does not lack tenderness and is incorporated into his great religious paintings. Caravaggio used down to earth models for his characters many of whom appear roguish and thus picaresque in that sense. Such art recalls the Spanish literary variants, the picaresque novels for example of 1554 and 1626, so much a feature of the art of Velasquez (Alpert, 1969).

Caravaggio’s technique was one of verisimilitude whereby he remained faithful to truthful detail beyond that normally seen. He created a type oh hallucinatory realism that grips the spectator’s attention to the symbolic meaning of the detailed content of the composition. His figures thus became the vehicles for contrast between light and dark. His scenes are posed, re-enactments of events, creating an artificial and contradictory reality. By focussing our attention on the dramatic lighting Caravaggio excludes all but the essential an telling detail (White, 1995) for which the waxwork appearances and hollowness of modelling convey perhaps an absence of conviction (Levey, 1974), However, to consider Caravaggio a ‘realist’  is to overlook his real innovation and that is his “…heightening of dramatic effect by the use of lighting that was always contrived and often highly artificial showing his emphatic sense of chiaroscuro.” (Read, 1994). The subject matter of Caravaggio’s work does remain quite conventional in his preference for religious themes and thus his effects on “…theatrical realism may well be called Baroque.” (Levey, 1974).

Tableaux vivant are representations of paintings, sculptures or historical scenes presented by silent and motionless persons or groups. In this way Caravaggio’s linking of realism and theatricality can be related to tableaux vivants and the Italian touring companies known as verismo. Caravaggio, by reacting against Mannerism and idealism, introduced a powerful realism into his paintings of biblical scenes. For models he used crude peasant types and then dramatised them by means of harsh light and violent contrasts. The naturalistic method earned him much opposition, and even though he was attacked by many during and after his death (Read, 1994). Nonetheless, as will be seen, his influence was very important for succeeding generations of painters. Before examining the influence of Caravaggio it is worthwhile to consider in more detail some of his paintings.

Caravaggio’s initial style possessed  an Ingre-like quality in terms of style and finish (Levey, 1994) as can be seen in his shockingly refreshing Bacchus, see Figure 3, painted 1593 t0 1594 on canvas and measuring 98 by 85 centimetres. The white draperies, the still life, the transparent glass and the flask are all painted in a fresh style yet to show his later chiaroscuro technique.

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Figure 3Bacchus (1593-94).  Oil on canvas, Uffizi

An interesting feature of the figure is the head-dress which despite its Bacchanalian symbolism also exudes an Oriental flavour. Ideed, the whole image is one that appears oriental and resembles somewhat that of Japanoiserie. An interesting comparison can be made with Jan Vermeer (upon whom Caravaggio had some influence) whose female head-dress, see Figure 4, in Allegory of Painting or The Artist in his Studio (1666-1667) bears a strong resemblance to that of Caravaggio’s Bacchus.


Figure 4.  Jan Vermeer Allegory of Painting (1666-1667).  Oil on canvas

It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss this element further but during this period oriental Chinoiserie and Japanoiserie was known in northern Europe and northern Italy via Dutch company maritime activities in the Philippines, China and Japan as well as the Moluccas. Perhaps an indication of early Dutch or Flemish influence on Caravaggio himself.

The Supper at Emmaus in the national Gallery is oil on canvas, measuring 39 x 195 cm. Painted in 1596-1598 it depicts a revelatory moment with considerable force and illustrates its impact upon ordinary men. In the Calling of St Matthew, see Figure 1, an oil on canvas some 338 x 348 cm, in the Church of S. Luigi dei Francesi in Rome., Christ summons the saint from a seat. A shadow slants down the wall and thereby guides one’s eye to the hand of Christ to St Matthew’s self-indicating hand. The Conversion of St Paul (1601) is an oil on canvas some 230 x 175 cm, in the Church of S. Maria del Popolo in Rome. Again, typically of Caravaggio, light is restricted to a few areas. The fallen saint creates an arc of outstretched arms before the blinding miracle that befalls him. These works are examples of Caravaggio having opened the way towards the “…dramatic naturalism and dynamic focussed unity which were to be the prime characteristics of developed Roman Baroque art.” (White, 1995).

3.  The influence of Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s influence was exercised initially through his direct disciples Bartolommeo Manfredi and Domenico Felti. The Genoese and Neapolitan Schools (the Caravaggiste) were derived from Caravaggio. The Caravaggiste developed a fundamental ‘blood and guts’ style. In following generations the best endowed artists oscillated between the lessons of Caravaggio and the Carracci and include the romantic Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) and probable pupil of Ribera, the fertile Luca Giordano (1632-1705) another pupil of Ribera and Pietro da Cortona, and who covered the vaults of churches and ceilings of palaces with brillian compositions that presage Tiepolo. The ‘tenebrists’ (from the Italian ‘tenebroso’ for dark) were painters in a low key in imitation of Caravaggio’s light-shade.

The peculiarity of the school of Caravaggism was stated as “…the use of an unvaried light shining from above without reflections, as wold occur in a room with one window and with walls painted black…” (Mancini, 1619-21). Located in the Netherlands, Spain, and Naples they were founded in Naples by Caravaggio and like him were an influential and turbulent group. Nonetheless, despite his imitators and the forcefulness of his own works in terms of light and gesture. Caravaggio himself was far more so than any of his contemporaries. The followers of Caravaggio were very influential and include the Utrecht School, Georges de la Tour, and Jusepe de Ribera who influenced in turn Murillo and early Velasquez. The influence of Caravaggio followed on to Zuburian and Rembrandt who learned much from him. A work entitled Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge was originally classified as Caravaggist and possibly by Manfredi or Pietro Paolini, and dated around 1630. Research has now decided the still-life is an original Caravaggio painted over an earlier portrait and dating from 1605 (Guardian, 1996).

3.1  The influence of Caravaggio in Italy

Giovanni Baglione (1573-1644) was an Italian late Mannerist who wrote a history of art in Rome entitled La Vite de’ Pittori, scultori ed architetti in 1642. Even though he expressed hostility  towards Caravaggio the work of this artist around 1600 bore a superficial resemblance to that of Caravaggio (Read, 1994). Baglione was one of the painters commissioned by Pope Paul V for frescoes in S. Maria Maggiore in Rome. Baglione is known for his libel action against Caravaggio and Orazio Gentileschi for the circulation of scurrilous verses concerning his person (Kitson, 1969) and after his Caravaggesque imitation 1600-1603 he declined into a watered-down classicism. Indeed Baglione himself opined that Caravaggio was “…a mocking and arrogant man…often spoke ill of all painters past and present…it seemed to him that through his works alone he had excelled all others in his profession.” (Baglione, 1642).

Bartolommeo Manfredi (1580-1620) was born near Mantua but worked in Rome between 1610 and 1619. His works were influenced by Caravaggio and even mistaken for those by him (Read, 1994). Even though he influenced the Utrecht School he later adopted a Mannerist style painting gentle idiomatic religious subjects. As Caravaggio’s closest follower in Rome he specialised in influential genre pieces (Kitson, 1969).

Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) was “…hardly capable of offering more than competent and colourful variations…” (Levey, 1994) of Caravaggesque treatment. An example is his Lute Player (1626) in the Lichtenstein Collection, see Figure 5. This composition can be compared to The Lute Player by Caravaggio (1594), see Figure 6, an oil on canvas measuring 94 x 119 cm in The Hermitage, St Petersburg.


Figure 5The Lute Player (1626).

Orazio Gentileschi.  Oil on canvas.


Figure 6.  The Lute Player  (1596).  Oil on canvas.

It is almost certain that that the ‘girl’ playing the lute is a boy and this is based on the fact that Caravaggio and some of his patrons (Cardinal Del Monte) had known homosexual inclinations (Kitson, 1969). If one considers the male model of the Bacchus (1593-1594) the androgynous features of the young dipsomaniac god resembles Caravaggio’s Lute Player of around the same time.

Gentileschi was in Rome in 1576 but from 1626 he was court painter to Charles 1 in England. His work is emotionally gentler than Caravaggio’s but Caravaggio’s naturalism remained the major influence on the painting of Orazio (Read, 1994). In Gentileschi’s The Martyrs St Cecilia, St Valerian and St Tiburzio with an Angel we see a fine example of the refinement of feeling of which Caravaggism was capable (Bazin, 1996). This painting, an oil on canvas, is in the Brera in Milan. It contains, however, a Baroque element foreign to Caravaggio in the form of the spiral movement of the composition. This is axiomatic of the Counter-Reformation and Baroque tenet of expressing the aspiration towards heaven in art. Gentileschi became acquainted with Caravaggio around 1600 and was concerted to Caravaggism in 1605 and became on of the “…most important, sensitive and original Caravaggists.” (Kitson, 1969).

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1651) was the artist daughter of Orazio who worked mainly in Naples and painted in a strongly Caravagessque style (Read, 1994) and is known especially for her Susannah and the Elders (1610) see Figure 7. Born in Rome she spent some time in Florence (1614-1620) which was not without


Figure 7.  Susannah and the Elders.  (1610).

Artemisia Gentileschi.  Oil on canvas.

influence on her style (Wittkower, 1982) but she settled in Naples in 1630. She visited her father in London between 1638 and 1639. She impressed the Neapolitans with her romantic Caravaggism. An artists of high calibre and fierce temperament – in common with Caravaggio himself – she paid meticulous attention to detail employing lively transluscent tones. An influence on all major Neapolitan artists she vied for popularity in Naples with Vouet’s decorative Baroque style, an example being the oil on canvas Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620), see Figure 8, now in Naples. Artemisia’s composition can be compared


Figure 8.    Judith Slaying Holofernes.  (1612-1613).

to that of Caravaggio, see Figure 9.  The Judith by Artemisia is an example of her blood-thirsty paintings (Kitson, 1969), and even though trained by her father Orazio she still adopted an independent and precocious lifestyle.


Figure 9.  Judith Beheading Holofernes  (1598-1599).  Oil on canvas.

Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (1578-1635), better known as Battistello, was a Neapolitan painter in the Caravaggesque style (Read, 1994) who strongly influenced 17th century painting. He probably visited Rome in 1616 and is regarded as the founder of Caravaggism in Naples and closely followed Caravaggio until the 1620’s (Kitson, 1969). Angelo Caroselli (1585-1652) was a Roman who visited Florence in 1610 and Naples in 1615. It is thought he knew Caravaggio personally and was also influenced by Gentileschi (Kitson, 1969). However, only some of his works, mainly genre pieces, are Caravaggesque in style.  Bartolommeo Cavarozzi was born in Viterbo in 1590 and died in Rome, after arriving there in 1610, in 1625. One of Caravaggio’s most sensitive and lyrical followers (Kitson, 1969) he preferred idealised figures combined with Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro technique. A number of minor Caravaggiste are listed by Kitson (1969) and these include: Tommaso Salini (1575-1625), despised by Caravaggio he was Baglione’s sole defender in the libel trial of 1603; Carlo Saraceni (1568-1620) was a Venetian owed something to Elsheimer but painted several Caravaggesque altarpieces. Worked in Rome till shortly before his death in Venice; one Alonso Rodriguez (1578-1648) was the only Sicilian (born Messina) to know and be influenced by Caravaggio’s late Sicilian paintings. Rodriguez was in Rome in 1606 and then visited Naples before his return to Messina and death in 1648; Lionello Spada (1576-1622) as a Bolognese was only slightly influenced by Caravaggio but possibly visited Malta with him in 1608. Specialising in violent easel pictures he was in Rome in 1608-1614 but returned to Bologna in 1614 until his death; Giacomo Galli (1590-1649) and known as Lo Spadarino was a Roman painter and a Caravaggist influenced by Saraceni; finally Andrea Vaccaro (1604-1670) spent his life in Naples where he was influenced by Caracciolo. Like most Neapolitan artists he moved away from Caravaggism during his later career.

3.2.  The influence of Caravaggio in Flanders and Holland

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) during his early career experienced the direct influence of Caravaggio in Rome (Wittkower, 1982). Rubens was a Flemish painter, draughtsman and diplomat who studied initially under the Mannerist Otto van Veen (1556-1629) in Antwerp. In 1600 Rubens went to Rome which influenced his further development as an artist. He not only studied Titian but also the work of the Caracci and Caravaggio. During this early period Rubens laid his colours on strongly with obvious contrasts. Rubens was a prolific artist and humanist scholar who fused his Italian studies into his own personal and dramtic style. His later period sees a softening of the Caravaggesque chiaroscuro technique. Rubens was the greatest master of the Flemish School regarded as the perfect  example of the Baroque style with its power, exuberance, sensuousness and dynamism. Attempting the perfect blend of naturalism and classicism Rubens took from Italy, including Caravaggio’s influence, all he felt necessary to develop his own robust Flemish art, see Figure 10.


Figure 10.  Leda and the Swan (1598-1600).

Peter Paul Rubens.  Oil on canvas.

An actual Flemish Caravaggist was Lowys Finson or Louis Finsonius (1580-1617) who came from Bruges and was in Rome between 1600 and 1610. He was then in Naples after that until he went to Aix-en-Provence in 1612. He is known as one of the first northern Caravaggists to journey south to Rome and his work still exists in southern France.

The Utrecht School was a group of Dutch painters, including Terbrugghen, Honthorst and Baburen who were influenced in Rome between 1610 and 1620, by the realism of Caravaggio and his follower Manfredi (Read, 1994). The Utrecht School in turn exerted an influence on the art of Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629) was a painter of genre and religious subjects who, after studying under Abraham Bloemaert (1564-1651), went to Rome from 1604 until 1614. He thus became a follower of Caravaggio and Manfredi before settling in Utrecht as a leading member of the school (Levey, 1994). The influence of the Caravaggist painter Manfredi is seen in his half-length figures that play musical instruments, sing and drink. In his later works, for example Jacob, Laban, and Leah (1627), he approached the style of Vermeer. There is no actual known work from his Roman sojourn but he became the “…most individual and poetic of the Utrecht School of Caravaggists.” (Kitson, 1969). Dirk van Baburen (1590-1624) was also a principal member of the Utrecht School who for a short period worked in Rome. Affected by Caravaggio he was the first to introduce that artist’s chiaroscuro technique into Holland (Read, 1994). Baburen spent four years in Rome (1617-1621) and is known for his adaptation of Caravaggio’s subjects and compositions which he treated in a vigorous and coarse style (Kitson, 1969). Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656) left Utrecht for Italy, where he stayed mainly in Rome, for the years 1612 until 1620. He was the most famous and prolific of the Dutch Caravaggists – having a reputation for candle-lit scenes (Kitson, 1969).


Figure 11.  The Matchmaker (1625).

Gerrit van Honthorst.  Oil on canvas.

After his return to Utrecht he gradually discontinued with the Caravaggesque chiaroscuro and became a court painter much in the manner of Van Dyck. Popular in Italy under the name Gherardo delle Notti because of his dramatic night scenes after the manner of Caravaggio – e.g., Christ before the High Priest – he was largely responsible for bringing Caravaggio’s innovations to Holland where he eventually painted the Baroque decorations at Huisten-Bosch (Read, 1994).

Another Dutch Caravaggist was Peter van Laer (died 1642) who spent most of his working life in Rome. In Italy he was known as Bamboccio (bonny baby) – which is actually a cruel nickname – and specialised in low-life scenes. He influenced a number of Dutch artists who became known as the Bamboccianti  or Bambocciata (Read, 1994). Jan Pyanas (1583-1631) painted Caravaggesque historical and biblical scenes. He is known for his Raising of Lazarus and The Entombment. Pieter Pietersz Lastman (1583-1633) was a Dutch engraver who worked in Amsterdam and noted for his religious, mythological and historical works. Lastman visited Italy where he was influenced by Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. He is noted, however, for his pupils Rembrandt and Jan Lievens. Theodore Rombouts (1597-1637) was an Antwerp painter who studied initially under A. Jannasens but then went to Rome. In Rome he was influenced by the Caravaggists. His work comprised Caravaggesque genre scenes and religious pictures after the manner of Rubens. The Dutch Caravaggists eventually replaced Caravaggio’s dark manner with a style of lighter tonality (Kitson, 1969). Rembrandt Harmonsz van Rijn (1606-1669), the Dutch master whose great interest was the revealing and concealing characteristics of light, probably studied the luminist realism of Caravaggio. Rembrandt thus derived his knowledge of Caravaggio second hand and possibly, saw some originals, though of course Rembrandt was far more than a Caravaggist (Kitson, 1969).

3.3.  The influence of Caravaggio in France and Spain

In France the Caravaggist Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) lived, worked and died in Luneville, Lorraine. Possibly he visited Rome around 1620 but his Caravaggism is really derived from the Utrecht School. He became perhaps “…the most refined and gifted Caravaggist of them all.” (Kitson, 1969). Compared to Rembrandt and Velasquez La Tour was the closest to Caravaggio but even his style was different in spirit. La Tour had a preference, influenced by Honthorst and Caravaggio himself, for dramatically lit scenes using a single light with rich but austere reds, yellows and browns (Read, 1994). Simon Vouet (1590-1649) was born in Paris but was mainly in Rome from 1614 until 1627. One of the best Caravaggists in Rome in the 1620’s (Kitson, 1969) he gradually abandoned the style thereafter to become a decoratively Baroque-classical painter. It was this change of style that took him home to France. His surviving paintings include Ceres, Wealth, and Time Vanquished (Read, 1994). Valentin de Boullogne or Le Valentin (1591-1632) was a French painter of religious and genre subjects from Coulommiers. Valentin spent the years 1612 until his death in 1632 in Rome. In Rome he came under the influence of Caravaggio through Manfredi wher he painted his attributed Caravaggesque Brawling Soldiers and The Tavern (Read, 1994). However, the only authenticated work by him – Martydom of SS Processus and Martinian – shows the influence of Nicolas Poussin instead. Valentin maintained the ‘Manfredi manner’ until it became unfashionable in Rome after the 1620’s (Kitson, 1969).

The Neapolitan Spanish émigré Jose de Ribera (1590-1652) painted, despite his baroque brushwork, in a style that would have been unthinkable without the influence of Caravaggio (Kitson, 1969).Settling in Italy his lifestyle, like Caravaggio’s own, was full of dramatic incidents which is reflected in his violent subject matter. See Figure 12.


Figure 12.  Girl with a Tamburine (1637).

Jusepe Ribera.  Oil on canvas.

Employing theatrical lighting and contrast modelling his style is associated now with the Spanish Baroque (Read, 1994). His final paintings he achieved a mastery of light that is similar to Velasquez. It was Jusepe Ribera who ensured the continuation of Caravaggio’s influence on Neapolitan art (White, 1995). See Figure 13.


 Figure 13.  Boy with a Clubfoot (1642).

Jusepe Ribera.  Oil on canvas.

Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velasquez (1599-1660) also derived his knowledge of Caravaggio second-hand and like Rembrandt he was far more important than a Caravaggist (Kitson, 1969). See Figure 14.


Figure 14Old Woman frying Eggs (c. 1618).

Velasquez.  Oil on canvas.

Indeed Velasquez was as great, if not greater than Caravaggio himself. The Caravaggist School in Spain thus led eventually to the art of Velasquez (Read, 1994).  See Figure 15.

water seller

Figure 15.  The Water Seller of Seville (1620).

Velasquez.  Oil on canvas.

4. Summary

Caravaggio focussed his attention on dramatic lighting coupled with his “…alliance of intense realism with a masterly simplification of form…” (White, 1995). This was in contrast to the academic eclecticism of the Caracci. Caravaggio resisted the sustained opposition of the fashionable late Mannerists Frederico Zuccaro (1543-1609) and his brother Taddeo Zuccaro (1529-1566). Taddeo was active chiefly in Rome where he worked on frescoes in the Farnese Place. Unlike the Mannerists Caravaggio concentrated attention on dramatic nearness and involvement of the spectator by close cropped frames and bringing his figures into the foreground. Caravaggio was thus the only artist in the history of post-antique Italian art who could endow The Head of Medusa (1596), see Figure 16, with real drama and visual impact. However, it has been said that he was the victim of his own artistic delusion because “…the closer he came to imitating realistic surfaces in paint the more the inner significance is lacking.” (Levey, 1974).


Figure 16.  Head of Medusa (1596).

Caravaggio.  Oil on canvas.

For a while Caravaggio’s art created a great stir and for a while exerted a great influence – especially outside Italy. As we have seen his followers the Tenebrists or the Caravaggisti were located in Italy and northern Europe through to Spain. In France he inspired Simon Vouet and Georges de la Tour, in Antwerp Theodore Rombouts, in the Netherlands it was Gerrit van Honthorst, Dirk van Baburen and Hendrik Terbruggen. It was through these latter three that Caravaggio’s influence touched the young Rembrandt. Whereas the effect on Rubens was a direct process during his Italian sojourn. It was Caravaggio’s dramatic style which made him a pioneer in the century that produced “…the eclectic realism of Rubens, the dignified truth of Velasquez and the poignant naturalism of Rembrandt.” (Levey, 1974).

Caravaggio’s followers either coarsened or sweetened his style and thus they “…sacrificed either his harshness or his poetry; they could not combine both…” (Kitson, 1969). Critical acclaim dates from 1604 with the statement that Caravaggio “…does not execute a single brushstroke without taking it directly from life.” (Mander, 1604) where he was “…the most excellent in colour…he has abandoned the idea of beauty, intent only on the attainment of likeness.” (Agucchi, 1607).

The essence of Caravaggio’s influence on his contemporary imitators or succeeding painters can be admirably summed up by the statement that he was “…one of the most illustrious propagators in Italy of the method that was later to prevail in the Dutch School, which consisted in transforming that which is repulsive in nature into artistic beauty. Nobility of thought was not his aim: his aim was the imitation of anything in nature no matter what it was.” (Selvatico, 1856). Finally, much has been said of the naturalism and realism of Caravaggio’s art and style. His influence on others was immense but not just his technique, not just his chiaroscuro, what often shines through in the work of later masters such as Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rubens, and even Vermeer, is a deep humanity that paid tribute to the common place, to the plebeian who possessed just as much dignity under the brush of Caravaggio as any regal portrait.

As Wittkower (1982) so aptly says of Caravaggio “…when all is said and done, his types chosen from the common people, his magic realism and light reveal his passionate belief that it was the simple in spirit, the humble and the poor who hold the mysteries of faith fast within their souls”. From Caravaggio’s time and through his influence it does seem that the commonality entered his stage set theatrical art and passed on to inherit places in future paintings in their own right, as worthwhile and interesting subjects of art.

Spring, 2000. Uploaded September 2013.


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Hale, J. R.  (1995).  Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance.  Thames & Hudson, London.

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Filed under History Of Art

10 responses to “The Art and Influence of Caravaggio

  1. Pingback: Best Places for a Caravaggio Treasure Hunt in Rome Italy | Vino Con Vista Italy Travel Guides and Events





  6. Pingback: MICHELANGELO MERISI CARAVAGGIO (ITALIA,1573-1610) | Josémaríamedina06



  9. alice cobert

    You need to get rid of the gold patterned background, as I cant read the text

  10. Absolutely excellent essay – thank you

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