In Caravaggio’s footsteps: exploring Rome through his art

Italy is very lucky culturally because of its many artistic treasures. In a large city such as Rome, there is often too much to see in a short period of time. A great way to explore the city is to focus on particular artists whose works can be seen in the city while also giving you a chance to see a good portion of the city. For example, you could walk around Rome and see all of Bernini’s fountains, sculptures and buildings, or, as is the topic of this post, walk around Rome and see a good many paintings by the famous Caravaggio while seeing a great deal else, too!

Caravaggio, whose real name is Michelangelo Merrisi, was a very interesting character in the history of art as well as the history of Rome! Caravaggio has been the subject of a great many number of books (see below for a list of recommended reading) over the centuries, and his work has seen a resurgence of interest in the past couple of decades. His paintings are quite extraordinary for their time because of the exceptional realism, theatrics and use of lighting (tenebrism) in his works. Like Bernini, Caravaggio had a way of capturing “the moment” in his works, and they are definitely worth seeing on your trip to Rome.

Rome is fortunate to have the most number of Caravaggio paintings than any other city in the world, dispersed throughout Rome in museums, chapels and churches. While it might be easier to see all of Caravaggio’s works in a single museum, trekking through the streets of Rome not only allows you to explore the Eternal City but also to experience Rome as Caravaggio might have done as well as seeing Caravaggio’s works in the context for which they were created. Typically, works of art were commissioned for homes, chapels and public display as a way for patrons to demonstrate their wealth, power and prestige. As I discussed in my piece on Rome’s fountains, artwork often survived centuries beyond the life of the patron, and not only did these works of art serve their patron during his lifetime, but they continue to serve as vestiges of their power and wealth today.


Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

A great place to start your walking tour would be in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, the French national church in Rome and not far from the Piazza Navona. In this church you will find three works of Caravaggio as well as frescoes of Domenichino (Bolognese School), featuring the life of Saint Cecilia. In this church, Caravaggio’s works are located in one of the chapels. Chapels were often purchased by wealthy patrons in churches that had special significance for them, as is the case with Matthieu Cointrel (or Contarelli, in Italian), a French cardinal who instructed upon his death that the chapel be decorated with scenes from the life of his name saint, Matthew. It took quite a long time for Contarelli’s chapel to be decorated, and the Pope at the time, Clement VIII, felt that the national church of France should echo the recent conversion of the king back to Catholicism. Wasting no time, the clergy of San Luigi dei Francesi, fearing that the Pope’s wishes would conflict with wishes of the now deceased Cointrel, pushed for the chapel to be quickly decorated before the Pope’s wishes could be executed. Caravaggio created three paintings for the Contarelli Chapel all centered around the life of Saint Matthew: The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. These three paintings took Caravaggio three years to complete (the contracts were signed in 1599 and the final painting installed in 1602), and you can see how Caravaggio agonized over them with the exquisite attention not only to the details but also the scenes themselves, creating a sense of theatrics and emotional energy that are hallmarks of Italian Baroque art. Caravaggio also understood his environment, taking into account the church’s low light levels (the interior and chapel are quite dark) in producing works which allow the central theme of Saint Matthew to come out of the darkness.



Madonna of Loreto (Madonna of the Pilgrims), oil on canvas

As you leave San Luigi dei Francesi, head north to the Church of Sant’Agostino in Rome. Not only does this church have a work by Caravaggio, but the church is worth seeing in its own right with its marble facade built from marble taken from the Colosseum as well as a fresco by Raphael of the prophet, Isaiah. The sole work by Caravaggio, Madonna of Loreto (oil on canvas, c. 1604), is located in the Cavaletti Chapel within the church. Here we can see one of Caravaggio’s most distinctive works because of the way in which it depicts the Virgin Mary (barefoot) and the Baby Jesus (nude, barely covered by a cloth, as if to emphasize the mother and child’s poverty). Caravaggio also uses as the model for his painting a known courtesan (who, it is argued, appears in several of his other paintings). The use of this figure as a model for the Virgin Mary is ironic given the congregation of Sant’Agostino regularly featured courtesans of Rome. Also, the locale in which these two iconic figures are placed is controversial with Caravaggio placing them in what could be a slum rather than the usual regal setting that the Virgin and Child are usually placed. Note also the placement of the pilgrims as they kneel before the Virgin and baby. Their bare feet jut into the foreground of the painting, which isolates the Virgin and Baby Jesus by displacing them further into the paintings background, even when they are clearly the subject of the painting. This is a common technique of Caravaggio’s works as he goes to great lengths to push the viewer of the work away from the subject matter much the same way that a stage separates actors from the audience.

Head north once again to the Piazza del Popolo and the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which contains two of Caravaggio’s works in the Cerasi Chapel: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus. The Cerasi Chapel is an excellent example of contrasting styles during the Baroque. Cerasi commissioned Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci to decorate his chapel, two artists with opposing styles during the Baroque period in Rome. This chapel provides us with an excellent comparison of the the artistic currents in Rome at the time, the one camp who painted in the style of Caravaggio, while the other, who like Annibale, sought a revival of Renaissance use of color and light. Again, we see Caravaggio use his surroundings to his advantage, knowing full well that his works would be viewed from the side rather than straight on and constructing paintings to reflect this. The subject matter of Peter and Paul, two of the central founders of the Catholic Church who represented martyrdom and conversion, two tenets in vogue at the time that these works were commissioned. The church itself also contains frescoes by Raphael in the ceiling (Creation of the World) as well as sculptures by Bernini and works by Pinturicchio.

Head back south to the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini which houses Saint Francis in Meditation, a work recently attributed to Caravaggio although there is a fierce debate over whether this work is Caravaggio’s or not. Controversy swirls over whether this is even a work by Caravaggio at all, but documents show that during a lawsuit, one of Caravaggio’s contemporaries testified that he lent the artist a monk’s robe, perhaps the same robe worn by the model in this painting. This helps us to understand the work but also to narrow down the state when the work may have been completed, roughly between 1602-1604. After seeing this work in the church, head over to the Palazzo Barberini, which houses not only another copy of this work (which many art historians believe is the true Caravaggio) but a handful of others by the artist. Judge for yourself which work you feel is the true Caravaggio while taking in the sites and splendors of the Palazzo Barberini. The church itself is also worthy of a visit with its altarpiece by Guido Reni as well as the crypt and ossuary!


Judith beheading Holofernes, oil on canvas

While at the Palazzo Barberini, be sure to check out one of Caravaggio’s most striking works, Judith beheading Holofernes. In this painting, Judith, being urged on by her maid, surprises the sleeping Holofernes and begins to decapitate him. Caravaggio’s stunning realism captures the murder in a most grizzly fashion, capturing a popular Biblical theme and taking it to new dramatic heights. Even the blood spurting from Holofernes’s massing neck wound is so real, with Caravaggio presumably having witnessed a public execution or two that were common in Rome at the time. Caravaggio’s painting is a snapshot of the most dramatic and tense moments in the story: The young Judith, with her furrowed brow and tense arms, pulls back on Holofernes hair while her maid waits to help her clean up the mess while the doomed Holofernes, his eyes bulging, his face contorted in pain and his mouth crying out!

As our tour of Caravaggio’s works through the streets of Rome concludes, you have not only learned and experienced the works of this enigmatic artist but have also visited and explored Rome’s environs!

NB: An exhibition entitled Caravaggio a Roma is being held at the Archivio di Stato di Roma until May 15, 2011!

Further reading:

There is a lot on Caravaggio but the following books (all in print and available from your favorite bookstore) are excellent resources for learning more about this artist:

  • Caravaggio, Michelangelo M, F Marini, and Miriam Hurley. Caravaggio. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2006.
  • Puglisi, Catherine, and Caravaggio. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon, 2000
  • Schütze, Sebastian, Michelangelo M. Caravaggio, and Benedikt Taschen. Caravaggio: The Complete Works. Köln: Taschen, 2009

Don’t forget to download mTrip’s Rome Travel Guide for your trip navigation!

Image sources: Lafit86, Acacia217, Mathiasrex on Wikipedia