Michelangelo Merisi de Caravagio was born was born on September 29,1571 in the small town of Caravagio, which is outside of Milan, Italy. His father was an assistant to a local nobleman and he grew up in a moderately comfortable life. However, Caravaggio lost both of his parents to plague during his teen years. After his mother passed away he became an apprentice with a painter in Milan. During this time, he trained in the Lombard style, which valued simplicity and attention to natural details. This would show in his work throughout his life. After his apprenticeship, he went to work in a factory like setting painting painting flowers and fruit for the work of a master. This was the common practice at the time, artists would work their way up from painting background details in a better known artist’s workshop until they had gained enough skill and notoriety to open their own studio. Although many artists never rose above this more craftsman like position. However, this was a great time to be a painter in Rome. The Catholic church was expanding rapidly and needed art to fill the new cathedrals and other buildings being constructed. During this time, he developed a dramatic style of lighting to create intense tension and emotion in his paintings. This style, called chiaroscuro, uses a very dark background with dramatically lit subjects.

Caravaggio was rebellious from the beginning of his study. Instead of the perfectly depicted gods of the ancient Greek and Roman sculpture that apprentices faithfully reproduced, he would emphasize their humanity, playing it up to extremes. He infamously painted the god Bacchus (who was the god of fertility and wine-making, essentially the embodiment of the good life) as green and sickly. He painted David and Goliath, but put himself as the beheaded Goliath.

It is not hard to imagine that his contrary nature showed in his interpersonal relationships as well. He had many tumultuous interactions with other artists, especially during his apprenticeship years. He left Milan for Rome after getting into trouble for assaulting a police officer. Then fled Rome after killing another man in a brawl and being sentenced to death in 1606. For the next four years, Caravaggio lived in Naples and Malta (Which were outside of Roman jurisdiction and allowed him to evade punishment). He was knighted and briefly served in the Knights of Malta, but was imprisoned and expelled from the Knights for badly injuring another knight during yet another brawl.

Everywhere he went, Caravaggio was almost immediately successful, but his prideful manner and quick temper made it hard for him to stay anywhere for long. Hoping to gain a pardon from the Pope, He made his was back to Rome and died during the journey in July of 1610. There are varying accounts on what happened. He may have died from a fever, which he had complained to friends about having. Some experts feel it may have been the final stages of lead poisoning from his paints. Others feel that he was most likely killed in a fight or as revenge from the earlier incident with the powerful knight in Malta. However he died, Caravaggio’s influence on art was immediate and profound. He began a shift back to more natural and realistic proportions in art (At this time, the main school of art was Mannerism, which followed the Renaissance. The interest in ideal proportions was so exaggerated that figures often had elegant but very unnatural dimensions and form.) Chiaroscuro is a technique used frequently today to give weight to the subject of a painting and help move the viewer’s eye to what the artist feel is most important.

Today, we will try our hand at chiaroscuro. Think about a dramatic story or scene, then use the chalk pastels to capture it on paper. Set up the scene so that it creates a diagonal line of the most important information in the paper. (See how the shafts of light in Caravaggio fall in a horizontal line across the subjects. Use the light colors sparingly, so that the areas you want the viewer to focus on will jump from the page. You can blend the colors by gently rubbing in a small circle with a finger.

After the picture is complete, spray lightly, holding the can 6” from the paper to set the chalk.