You may not know that Rome hosts one of the most beautiful series of paintings by this great painter; the itinerary you can follow on this MAP will take you to discover the 10 different sites where you can admire all 22 works of Caravaggio in Rome!
But before leaving with the treasure hunt, I want to tell you in summary what a special character he was, because this will help you understanding and interpreting the masterpieces you will see.
Caravaggio’s adventurous life
The painter’s true name was Michelangelo Merisi, but he was nicknamed “Caravaggio” because his father, an architect, was born in a small village of Lombardy called Caravaggio (if you want to see where the village is, look HERE).
Born in Milan in 1571, he lost most of his family due to the plague when he was 6 years old. But already at 13 he began to study painting in the workshop of a pupil of the famous Venetian painter Titian.
When he was 21 Caravaggio moved first to Venice and then to Rome, at that time governed by the Pope and considered to be the capital of art, where he mastered in the workshops of various painters producing works appreciated and purchased by the best Roman nobility and the clergy.
Some sources report that the real reason for his transfer from Milan was a murder charge: his character was in fact extremely rebellious, quarrelsome and unconventional: he frequented taverns and prostitutes, he was a big drinker and gambler, a true rebel.
In 1605, due to various reports filed against him, Caravaggio was brought to court, where he injured an official; however, he managed to escape to Genoa and then return to Rome, where in 1606 during a quarrel for gambling reasons he killed a man and was sentenced to death. He had to flee again, first to Naples and then to Malta where he started painting for the Order of the Knights of St. John.
When the Knights learned of Caravaggio’s criminal record they tried to prosecute him, but by injuring one in a fight he managed to escape again by taking refuge in Sicily and then in Naples, where in 1609 he was seriously injured and disfigured by hired killers paid by the Knights of Malta, who kept looking for him.
In the meantime, his Roman protectors had promised to get him the grace from the death sentence in exchange for three canvases; Caravaggio, still weak, sick and feverish, embarked for Rome with the canvases. He was landed 40km from the city, but the canvases remained on the boat that continued its voyage heading to Porto Ercole, in Tuscany.
Not being able to return to Rome as a free man without the canvases, in order to recover them Caravaggio had to embark again for Porto Ercole, where on 18 July 1610, exhausted by the septicaemia, he died without having found them, at only 38 years of age.
Caravaggio never knew that the Pope in the meantime had already granted him the pardon.
Influences of life on Caravaggio’s works
The absence of a family education, the frequent attendance of the taverns and their sketchy patrons; romantic relationships with prostitutes and boys; the nights spent drunk in the slums of the many visited cities; his quarrelsome and violent nature; the continuous escapes and his fear of death: all this was strongly combined with his incredible artistic talent. Such merger created works of exceptional, unique and dramatic realism.
The portrayed models are taken from the street, their faces are not beautiful or idealized, but typical of the environment that Caravaggio frequented; their expressions have nothing of the religious mysticism typical of classical iconography; their bodies are true, imperfect, made of flesh and bones.
But the most innovative feature introduced by Caravaggio is light: strong, grazing and warm, it generates contrasts never seen before, it highlights only the chosen details that come out of the dark background with their colours as if they were three-dimensional. For the originality that he introduced in the use of light, I am convinced that Caravaggio can be called the first Director of Photography in history.
I hope that the hunt for these authentic treasures will fascinate you as much as it fascinated me!
All works of Caravaggio in Rome
(strongly recommended to buy online your tickets in advance HERE)
An absolute must visit, this fantastic palace-museum has six of Caravaggio’s works in Rome, no other museum in the world has so many – and these well represent every period of the artist’s troubled life:
a. Boy with Basket of Fruit (Rome 1593–1594)
Beautiful early work, which immediately shows the expressive characteristics of the painter: the light comes from the left side at the top, creating great contrast and illuminating the boy’s bare shoulder and the wonderful fruit basket. Everything is real and three-dimensional; the shadow created on the bare back wall is also particularly innovative.
b. Young Sick Bacchus (Rome 1593–1594)
The skin colour of the young Bacchus is particularly pale, which earned him the definition “sick”. The painting is the self-portrait of Caravaggio, who portrayed himself so emaciated and with blueish lips as an ex-vow of thanks after escaping death for the kick of a horse. This work, with the previous one, was seized in Caravaggio for tax reasons and delivered to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V and avid art collector.
c. Madonna dei Palafrenieri or Madonna with the Snake (Naples 1605–1606)
Commissioned to Caravaggio by the guild of papal Palafrenieri (horse-keepers, who at that time had to walk aside the stirrup of their riding lord or to drive their carriages) for their altar in the Basilica of San Pietro, but then refused because Jesus was completely naked and overgrown, the Madonna was represented with the face and features of Lena, a well-known Roman prostitute friend of the painter, and Sant’Anna, the grandmother of Jesus and patron of the Palafrenieri, was an old wrinkled and bundled up woman. The canvas was later purchased by Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
d. St. Jerome Writing (1605-1606)
Painted by Caravaggio in Rome for Cardinal Scipione Borghese as thanks for his help in some judicial troubles. Saint Jerome is portrayed while translating and writing the Old Testament and the Gospels in Latin, which were previously known only in Hebrew and Greek respectively. Notice how the bald head of the Saint perfectly balances the skull on the table, and how the warm colours on the right side of the painting contrast with the almost black and white tones of the left.
e. David with the Head of Goliath (Naples 1609–1610)
Made and sent to Cardinal Scipione Borghese to obtain his support to the request for grace he had sent to the Pope. The young David feels pity for the sinner he killed, while the decapitated Goliath has the face of Caravaggio, old and desperate; on the sword of the young David the initials “H-AS OS” are engraved, which in Latin stand for “humility killed pride”. In practice it represents Caravaggio’s contrition and plea for forgiveness.
f. St. John the Baptist (Naples 1609-1610)
Although St. John is meditating in the desert, weakened because of hardship, Caravaggio as usual does not idealize him: he paints a real boy of the people, apathetic and dreamer.
Some think that the sheep symbolizes Caravaggio himself as “lost sheep” who repentant eats the vine (in the Gospel the vine represents Jesus, i.e. the Eucharist); the Saint’s hand holds the cane pole like a pen, indicating that the left hand (the “negative” one) that signed his death sentence can now sign the grace because guided by the right hand (positive symbol).
In fact, Caravaggio painted this work for the Pope shortly before attempting to return to Rome hoping for the grace requested through Cardinal Borghese, who at that time was Minister of Justice. It is one of the three paintings lost during his last trip to Rome, where Caravaggio will never arrive.
(visit in groups of 15 people led in English by the owner Princess, book well in advance by writing to her assistant email@example.com asking to join already formed groups). Other information HERE.
Here, in the vault of Cardinal Del Monte’s alchemical laboratory, in 1597 Caravaggio created his unique oil mural painting “Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto”, which represent the elements Air, Water and Earth. Using a mirror, Caravaggio represented the three divinities using himself as a model; instead, to paint the three-headed dog Cerberus, he took as a model his dog named Cornacchia (Hooded Crow).
The visit of the Villa is extremely interesting, I recommend it even if it is difficult to book it in advance.
(tickets on site without problems, recommended cumulative ticket with Galleria Corsini). Information HERE.
In the magnificent Roman palace, in addition to many unmissable works – some of them in the Caravaggesque style inspired by him, we will find three authentic paintings by Caravaggio:
a. Judith Beheading Holofernes (1597)
Painted by Caravaggio in Rome for the banker Ottaviano Costa, Giuditta, a symbol of purity and virtue, is represented with the features of her prostitute friend Fillide Melandroni. To bring out its beauty, the Jewish heroine who killed the general by saving the city from the Assyrian invader is accompanied by an old and wrinkled slave.
b. Narcissus (Rome 1597-1599)
It is a very particular painting: the Greek myth tells that the beautiful boy, who had refused the love of many attractive suitors making them despair (the Nymph Eco dissolved in pain and only her voice remained), while hunting in the woods he saw his own image in a pool of water and fell in love with it. Trying to touch and kiss his own reflection he fell into the water and died; in that place a flower was born which was then called Narcissus. The work is set vertically with two symmetrical halves, like a playing card. While Narcissus is portrayed in the passionate act of kissing, the face of his reflection already seems to know his own tragic fate.
c. St. Francis in Meditation (circa 1606)
It was painted near Rome, where Caravaggio had taken shelter at the powerful Colonna family to escape the death sentence. The kneeling Saint is represented as a symbol of humility and poverty, and meditates on death with a skull in his hand.
(tickets on site without problems, recommended cumulative ticket with Palazzo Barberini). Information HERE.
This wonderful sixteenth-century palace also guarantees a spectacular visit, thanks to the entire collection of Prince Corsini.
Among the countless works we find one of his (at least) eight St. John the Baptist; this in particular was painted by Caravaggio in Rome probably in 1604. John, Jesus’ cousin, is a half-naked young man who meditates in a remarkably anti-iconographic position; the cross and the bowl with which he baptized his cousin are simple details left almost in the dark, the focus is on the humanity and the realism of the character.
Once home of one of the most powerful Roman families, the palace is truly splendid and full of extraordinary works. Among these, by Caravaggio we find:
a. Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Rome 1597)
A still youthful work as shown by the still quite classic and sweet figures, but which already shows the artist’s nonconformity, dividing the scene in two with an Angel seen from behind and – who knows why – with black swallow wings.
b. Penitent Magdalena, also painted by Caravaggio in Rome in 1597.
Here too the rather classic forms of the crying ex-prostitute, who repented threw her jewellery and perfume on the ground, are highlighted by the minimalist setting, the original pose and the blade of light that symbolically breaks into the darkness of sin on the completely empty back wall.
(tickets on site, there is sometimes a bit of queue if there is a temporary exhibition, but one can get them also online or by phone at +39 060608). Information HERE.
It’s a wing of the Capitoline Museums, which I warmly recommend you to visit in full together with the magnificent Michelangelo’s Capitol Square and the adjacent Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli.
During 2020 the Capitoline Museums are hosting an exhibition on Caravaggesque painters, displaying over 50 seventeenth-century paintings inspired by the style and technique of Caravaggio.
a. The Fortune Teller, which was painted by Caravaggio in Rome for Cardinal Del Monte in 1595, portrays a scene of everyday life: the young and beautiful gypsy woman, while pretending to read the hand of the young man of a good family, slips the ring off his finger without him noticing. A second version is located in the Louvre in Paris.
b. St. John the Baptist (Rome 1602)
It was painted for the noble Ciriaco Mattei who commissioned it in honour of his eldest son Giovanni Battista. It is one of the many adolescent Saint Johns painted by Caravaggio; his pose is extremely similar to that of some of Michelangelo’s “Nudes” in the Sistine Chapel, but his look is mischievous and smiling: the model was the young Cecco, his helper, friend and perhaps lover, who in turn became a painter.
(We strongly recommend purchasing tickets online to avoid long lines in high season. Admission is free every last Sunday of the month, but get ready to queue!). Information HERE.
The Picture Gallery of these majestic museums preserves a single wonderful work painted by Caravaggio in Rome between 1602 and 1604, probably the most dramatic: The Deposition. The painter distinguished himself also here by originality: he does not paint the classic deposition from the cross, but the moment when the dead Christ is placed on the stone under which he will be buried. The weight and abandonment of his body contrast with the painful tension and movement of the other characters. Small curiosity: the disciple Nicodemus, the guy who holds the legs of Christ, has the face of Michelangelo, of whom Caravaggio was a great admirer.
It is a beautiful baroque church, a true jewel for art and atmosphere; it is owned by France, masses are celebrated in French and are in fact attended by the French community of Rome. Most of the works celebrate French saints and historical figures, but the church also houses a fresco by Domenichino and a painting by Guido Reni both in honour of Santa Cecilia, and in the Contarelli Chapel, at the bottom on the left, three beautiful works performed between 1599 and 1601 by Caravaggio in honour of St. Matthew on commission of the heirs of Cardinal Mathieu Cointrel (Italianized to Matteo Contarelli and died in 1587):
a. The Calling of St. Matthew: my favourite among the works of Caravaggio in Rome.
A tavern setting of his time, the upper half of the painting completely unadorned, grazing light that comes not from the window but back from the shoulders of Christ on the far right and illuminates the action, which is all concentrated on the lower half. Light is in fact a symbol of the divine Grace; Christ is half-hidden by an apostle, probably Peter, and like the other protagonists he has very distant appearances from the classic iconography; together with Pietro he indicates the young Matthew, who was still called Levi and was a hated tax collector on behalf of the Romans. The scene represents the moment when Christ says “Follow me”, and precedes for a moment that in which Levi, converted, stops counting money and gets up to follow him and become one of the 12 Apostles with the name of Matthew.
b. The Inspiration of St. Matthew is the second version of this work: the first one, although beautiful, was considered offensive and ambiguous and was rejected: it portrayed St. Matthew being guided in the writing of the Gospel by a very feminine Angel, giving the impression of an elderly and rough illiterate plagiarized by a sensual prompter. So, without ever renouncing to his own originality, Caravaggio created the current work in a very different way, placing in the foreground a more intellectual and aware St. Matthew than the first, who – while writing in perfect autonomy – is so surprised by the arrival of the inspiring Angel, that he almost loses balance from the precarious support of the poised stool. The Angel is far from feminine, in fact he looks like a bad street boy… the rebel Caravaggio never loses his irony. The light from above, the dark background and the warm and strong colours make the painting almost a sculpture.
For the record: after many vicissitudes the first version of this work ended in Berlin where in 1945, just after the end of the war, it was destroyed together with other 416 masterpieces in the fire of one of the three armoured towers wanted by Hitler, which after the surrender was entrusted to Russian Army.
c. The Martyrdom of St. Matthew: according to legend, St. Matthew was killed by a group of pagans while saying mass in Ethiopia. As usual, Caravaggio interprets the scene in an unconventional way, setting it in a church with the floor inclined towards the viewer; the spectator thus becomes one of the witnesses. Although taking place in a church, martyrdom is realistically described as a street murder, with a single murderer and passers-by paralyzed or fleeing from horror. Only the Angel, who comes down offering the palm of martyrdom to the dying Matthew, brings us back to the title of the work.
(Free admission, for timetables see HERE).
Just 300 meters from San Luigi dei Francesi, this beautiful Renaissance basilica, with elements designed by Vanvitelli and Bernini, houses a number of works of art by artists such as Raffaello Sanzio, Guercino and Sansovino.
On the altar of the first chapel on the left is the Pilgrims’ Madonna or Madonna of Loreto, painted by Caravaggio in Rome between 1604 and 1605.
According to legend, those who carried out a pilgrimage to Loreto with true faith and sincere repentance and made on their knees the tour of the Holy House of Mary, could have seen her apparition.
As usual, Caravaggio once again scandalized all contemporaries with his great realism: the kneeling pilgrims are poor commoners with worn out dresses and with bare and dirty feet; Mary is certainly not the classic Madonna with the white dress and the blue cape, she is as well a woman of the people with her baby, and only two imperceptible haloes mention the supernatural nature of the two visions. Furthermore, the model used for the Madonna is Lena, the same prostitute portrayed in the Madonna dei Palafrenieri (Galleria Borghese).
(Free admission, for timetables see HERE).
This Renaissance church was built at the behest and with funding of Roman citizens, based on a design by Bramante, Maderno, Raffaello Sanzio and Bernini, and stands symbolically in place of the tomb of Emperor Nero, the first and most ferocious persecutor of Christians.
It houses a beautiful Byzantine icon on the main altar, the Madonna del Popolo, and two wonderful sculptures by Bernini in the Chigi Chapel. To the left of the high altar is the Cerasi chapel, with the Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci on the altar and two famous paintings by Caravaggio on the sides:
a. Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Rome 1600-1601)
With a truly unusual perspective that makes the spectator participate in the scene, Caravaggio shows the Jew (but Roman citizen) Saul who, dazzled by the light of Christ’s vision, has just fallen from his horse while going from Jerusalem to Damascus to organize the repression against Christians. The horse is about to step on Saul, but it locks its paw for divine will. Christ speaks to Saul, who obeying the divine call takes the name of Paul and continues to Damascus dedicating himself to the spread of Christianity. Always nonconformist, Caravaggio does not portray Christ at all, instead leaving enormous space for the horse; some critics have ironically renamed this masterpiece “The conversion of the horse”.
b. Crucifixion of St. Peter (Rome 1600-1601)
Work that I find wonderful, among the most realistic ones painted by Caravaggio in Rome.
St. Peter, captured by the Romans during Nero’s empire, was sentenced to death; as a sign of respect for Jesus, however, he asks to be crucified upside down. The executioners who nailed him to the cross they are now raising are not represented as ruthless soldiers, but as simple workers who carry out orders with big efforts. The typical Caravaggesque lighting highlights remarkable details: look at the wood grain of the cross, at the details of the muscles, at the dirty foot of the character who supports from underneath the first Pope in history, at the wrinkles on the forehead of the guy who raises his feet, at the authentic fatigue of the third one who lifts him with the rope, and finally to the great suffering in Peter’s eyes. Mercy and poetry!