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Caravaggio (1571-1610)  
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Although no conclusive evidence of Caravaggio's sexuality has survived, derogatory accusations made by contemporaries, coupled with the aggressive representation of male eroticism in his paintings, suggest that the most original painter of early seventeenth-century Europe was actively bisexual, if not primarily homosexual.

A poet of dramatic stimulation, Caravaggio was fascinated by the intrusion of the divine into the mundane world; in canvas after canvas he used shifting planes of light and dark to fashion a moment of spiritual anagnorisis, that moment of perception that precipitates the reversal of the action in Greek drama.

The divine, however, can manifest itself erotically for Caravaggio, whose earliest paintings (insofar as his paintings can be dated) depict in the most quotidian scenes male youths whose curls, musculature, and luminescent skin tones made Caravaggio the wonder of his age.

Most significantly, in Caravaggio's works the erotic is invariably a part of the scene even when the subject is spiritual intrusion. His religious scenes are often framed in terms of homosexual opposition or comfort. Caravaggio, like his English contemporary John Donne, is a poet of erotic spirituality, but, unlike Donne's, Caravaggio's spirituality is invariably homoerotic.


Born Michelangelo Merisi in 1571, but better known to posterity by the name of the town outside Milan where his family owned property, Caravaggio apprenticed with Simone Peterzano before moving to Rome where he found work in the studio of Cavalier d'Arpino.

The artist's early works won him the support of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, one of the period's most influential arbiters of taste, and a patron who seemed especially appreciative of--or whose own tastes encouraged--the homoerotic elements of Caravaggio's style. Caravaggio's other patrons were as much fascinated by his realism as they were offended by his refusal to idealize his religious subjects.

The artist quickly became the most important--and controversial--painter in Counter-Reformation Rome. His personal life proved as unorthodox as his work. His involvement in a series of street fights and legal wrangles culminated in a brawl during which he killed a man.

He was forced to flee to Genoa, then Naples, and eventually seek refuge on the island of Malta. There he was inducted into the politically powerful Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, which protected him until a scandal, possibly involving a sexual liaison with a nobly-born male page, forced him once again to flee the execution of a legal sentence.

Caravaggio died in 1610 under mysterious circumstances while on a return journey to Rome, possibly the victim of malarial fever, but just as possibly the victim of a Machiavellian revenge plot by the family of the man whom he had killed in Rome several years before, whose forgiveness he may have been duped into thinking he had finally won.

Caravaggio's Realism and Psychological Drama

To the amazement of his contemporaries, Caravaggio delivered on canvas the energy and realism of daily life. In his still lifes (a genre that Caravaggio is credited with inaugurating), one can see the spots and bruises on each piece of fruit.

His representations of saints, and even of the Holy Family, reject the conventional use of clouds and putti to mark a sacred scene, but instead depict everyday figures in the most common settings rather than the static, idealized figures mandated by Counter Reformation church edicts.

Thus, in The Madonna of Loretto, Caravaggio ignores the famous house that legend holds was miraculously delivered by angels to the Italian city, and focuses instead upon the Virgin and Child standing in a shadowed doorway to greet two pilgrims with dirty feet and gnarled fingers. No space divides the divine figures from the coarse yet spiritually earnest pilgrims who crowd the scene with them, suggesting the immediacy and accessibility of the divine in common life.

Likewise, when commissioned to paint The Seven Acts of Mercy, which were traditionally depicted separately in images of noble self-sacrifice, Caravaggio painted a single crowded street scene in which realistic persons can be singled out behaving charitably under the oppressive circumstances of daily life.

Again and again Caravaggio brought religion to life. He refused to promote idealized behaviors beyond the reach of the average person. Instead, he produced church paintings with which the multitudes could identify.

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zoom in
Three paintings by Caravaggio.
Top: Judith Beheading Holofernes.
Center: Victorious Amor.
Above: David with the Head of Goliath.

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