Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) was one of the most revolutionary figures of European art. His practice of painting directly from posed models violated the idealizing premise of Renaissance theory and promoted a new relationship between painting and viewer by breaking down the conventions that maintained painting as a plausible fiction rather than an extension of everyday experience.
Caravaggio was born September 28, 1573, in the Lombardy hill town of Caravaggio, as the son of a ducal architect. He may have spent four years as apprentice to Simone Peterzano in Milan before going to Rome in 1593, where he entered the employ of the Mannerist painter Giuseppe Cesari, the most popular painter and art dealer in Rome.
Huge new churches and palazzi were being built in Rome in the decades of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and paintings were needed to fill them. The Counter-Reformation Church searched for authentic religious art with which to counter the threat of Protestantism, and for this task the artificial conventions of Mannerism, which had ruled art for almost a century, no longer seemed adequate. Caravaggio's novelty was a radical naturalism which combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, approach to chiaroscuro, the use of light and shadow, which almost in all of Caravaggio’s religious subjects emphasize sadness, suffering, and death.
Through the art business Caravaggio met his first patron Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, who secured for him his first public commission. From then on he was flooded by public commissions. Yet because of his violent temper he was constantly in trouble with the law. Since 1600, he is regularly mentioned in police records, is constantly under accusations of assault, libel and other crimes. In 1606, he became involved in murder and had to flee, finding refuge on the estates of Prince Marzio Colonna.
Famous and extremely influential while he lived, Caravaggio was almost entirely forgotten in the centuries after his death, and it was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. Yet despite this his influence on the common style which eventually emerged from the ruins of Mannerism, the new Baroque, was profound. Andre Berne-Joffroy, Paul Valéry's secretary, said of him: "What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting."
Few artists in history have exercised as extraordinary an influence as this tempestuous and short-lived painter. Caravaggio was destined to turn a large part of European art away from the ideal viewpoint of the Renaissance to the concept that simple reality was of primary importance. He was one of the first to paint people as ordinary looking.