What makes Caravaggio important to us today (or at least those of us who care about this shizzle) is the fact that he spearheaded the realist rebellion of the Italian Baroque. Even though the renaissance (and the movements that came from it) are extremely important in the development of art they have one downfall (in my opinion): lack of realism. The Renaissance masters were limited by the words of Leon Battista Alberti, the man who set the new-age boundaries of what art must be.
How did his treatsies limit them? He said art must be naturalistic (fine) but must pick and chose the most beautiful of what nature has to offer - in other words idealised. Therefore, the Quattrocento was a beautiful century: tearful Madona's were strikingly beautiful (when most of us would look horrendous crying), a large nose may have had some artistic nip and tuck, and there was strickly no portrayal of normal, realistic life...
SO, cue Caravaggio! He would use people from the streets of Rome as models for his characters and depicted the uglier aspects of life.
His better known works (which tend to be at the turn of the 17th century) are renowned for his use of Tenebrismo which is a word used to describe sharp contrast in painting. This tenebrismo became more contrasted as time went on and although it's a bit of a cliche it is general belief that his paintings got darker as his life also 'got darker'.
Although I've already babbled on enough and it's time to move on to some paintings, I think Caravaggio's life was incredible enough to deserve at least some mention. After going through my notes I feel quite incredulous towards what I have written down and as any university student would I had a quick wikipedia check. Now... wikipedia's series of events vary from those of what my lecturer told us but seeing as the story passed on from my lecturer is far more entertaining I'll be telling you that, in my own amazing note taking prose:
"Caravaggio killed an opponent in a football match. He then fled to Naples, then Sicilly and then Malta. He became a knight but was found as a fugitive and sentenced to a beheading. He was imprisoned for a year but then escaped with bed linen like Rapunzel. He came to Rome in a boat but died as he arrived at the age of 39"
I think what I like about Caravaggio is that he reminds me of a baby French realist of the 1800's, although not on the same scale he deserves some credit. This painting here portrays a cheated card game, whereby the cheat signals the number on the card to his accomplice. I read here that the concealed eye of the cheat suggests the fragile nature of what's going on in the painting. In other words, the precise and coincidental positioning of the boys feather infront of the mans eye can be disrupted with the slightest movement, which mirrors how easily the cheats could be sussed.
The Fortune Teller, 1594.
This again shows what could be likened to French bohemian life. More 'tomfoolery'. The young boy is visibly happy, while he gets his palm read by a gypsy...little does he know she's stealing his ring! It may not be so obvious to us now but portraying mishaps in normal life like this was virtually unheard of in Italy at this time.
Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599.
It could be the quality of the above pictures but in any case the palette in this is far darker than before. Although this biblical scene was a popular choice for artists, it was never portrayed quite like this. We can see Judith, having seduced a drunk Holofernes, in the process of beheading him. Judith is famous for looking half disgusted and half determined to get the job done - none of the victorious hero stuff that we were treated to in abundance during the Renaissance.
Martyrdom of St Matthew, 1600.
St Matthew was ordered to be killed by the King of Ethiopa, of whom was criticised by the saint for wanting to marry his niece (who happened to be a nun and therefore was off-limits).The year this was painted is considered (in a process of trying to categorise art) the year Baroque came onto the scene. Here we see the previous level of drama in his paintings increased by a tenthfold: notice the boy dramatically waving his arm, the squirming man at the bottom right, St. Matthews arm out in a dramatic protest "NO PLEASE" etc etc.
As a realist, Caravaggio couldn't resist painting the Virgin Mary as an old woman, whereas the Renaissance and Mannerist lot portrayed her as eternally and unrealistically young.
Death of the Virgin, 1606.
Caravaggio was famous during his own lifetime, but not always for particularly good reasons. One of the bad reasons are this below. Those mourning the dead Virgin Mary are all dressed like peasantry while the model for the Virgin herself was a dead prostitute found in the River Tiber. Mary Magdalene is crying more realistically than how Renaissance women cried: back curled and head down in disbelief? Caravaggio's use of models would not have gone down well with the Catholic church seeing as they already had their backs up following the counter-reformation. A brilliant detail in this is Mary's dirty feet.
Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1608.
This was comissioned by the Knights of Malta (of which he served for briefly remember?) and is the moment where Salome awaits the head of the saint that she is to deliver to her mother Herodias. It is the largest painting by Caravaggio and is the only one that has been signed by him. His signature was only discovered in a 1950's restoration and thus whether his signature was meant to read 'I. Caravaggio' or 'F. Michelangelo' is unclear. Because of the fact that the signature is written in the blood on the floor, the former is asserted to be his confession for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni: 'I, Caravaggio, did this'. The latter assumption would suggest he is referring to the brotherhood of the Knights of Malta.
David with the Head of Goliath, 1610.
Here, nearing the end of his life, he painted himself as the head of Goliath. I do not know the exact dates but regardless of whether he'd escaped or not by now this picture clearly is a reference to what was to be his fate.