Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti

Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, was responsible for an important movement that emerged in the 17th century.

He went to Rome in his early twenties. The Roman Catholic Church was seeking religious art to counter Protestantism, and was ready for new ways to attract followers, and Mannerism just didn't seem to do it any more.

Start free drawing lessons

Receive your free drawing lessons right in your inbox every week.
These are not just little tips and techniques, but a full course of learning how to see, think, and draw like an artist.

He brought what was needed: novelty. He became known for his exploration of chiaroscuro (a dramatic, theatrical use of light and shadow, as in the painting to the left), and the school that developed in his wake became known as Caravaggism or Tenebrism - "tenebre" meaning "shadow". The followers themselves became known as the Caravaggisti, or Tenebrosi.

Quite the character, the artist was an immediate success with his first paintings in the very early 17th century; from then on he had all the commissions and work he could possibly want, but his good fortune went completely to his head. A swaggering, brawling, pigheaded brute of a man, an account of the time said delicately that "it is most awkward to get along with him." He only lived to the age of 38, when he fell ill on his way to Rome to be pardoned for his reportedly considerable sins.

In the history of art, however, his impact was considerable, opening the way for the Baroque. Strictly speaking, Caravaggism is restricted to the years the artist himself was active; in reality it extends as well to the young painters who discovered and imitated him enthusiastically after his death. The movement continued in Rome, and then as the artists returned to their home cities, it gradually extended throughout Italy and then Europe. It triumphed, and then declined by the mid 17th century.

Generally speaking, it can be said that it is comprised of religious art, with easily recognizable themes: stories from the Old and New Testament, well-known stories of saints. This was not a school of erudition.

Scenes reflecting Caravaggio's brawling life were also common - concerts with rough musicians, tavern scenes, fights, Bohemian encounters were rife.

But more than anything, the artist and his followers looked to subjects that were powerful and dramatic, such as Holofern's death at the hands of Judith, Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, or scenes of martyrdom.

A painting of this school is immediately recognizable for the dark palette of colors used, the deep shadows and almost violently theatrical floods of light and color to set off the drama of the scene.

While the artists listed below are not necessarily strictly known as Caravaggisti, they are the most important to have come under the Italian painter's immediate influence; they are also considered early Baroque artists.

Caravaggio and His Greatest Followers

31. The Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) brought novelty to the 17th century with his dramatic use of light and shadow - chiaroscuro. He had considerable impact on the early Baroque painters.

32. Orazio Lomi Gentileschi (1563-1639) was one of the most important of the great artist's followers, a true Caravaggisti. He was father to the gifted woman painter Artemisia (see below, number 35).

33. Frenchman Simon Vouet (1590-1649) is important for having been the artist who introduced the Italian Baroque to France; he studied Caravaggio's work while in Rome.

34. French painter Georges de la Tour (1693-1652) worked just about exclusively in his native Lorraine. He is best known for his night scenes, lit by candlelight (left, detail from "Card Sharp with Ace of Clubs").

35. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) was an exceptional Italian woman painter, one of the most gifted of her generation at a time when painters were men. She was influenced by Caravaggio through her father's work (see 32).

36. Spaniard Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez (1599-1660) was leading portrait painter at the court of Philip IV; his realist style later influenced Manet, Dali, Picasso and the even more contemporary Francis Bacon.

Click here to take a look at Caravaggio paintings on the Wiki Commons website.

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.