Exploring Caravaggio’s Rome – and his killer legacy

As a Caravaggio exhibition opens at the National Gallery, Michael Hodges goes in search of the extraordinary Italian painter in Rome's churches and palaces

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A swaggering Lombard with a short temper, Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1592. Moving from patron to patron he seldom settled – he drank and brawled, he killed a man, welched on deals and had sex with all and sundry.

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At the same time he re-energised post-Renaissance Italian art with his unique use of chiaroscuro, drawing a vivid divide between light and shade to heighten dramatic impact. Caravaggio also used ordinary people as models and introduced a compelling sense of narrative into his paintings, traits that were so widely and enthusiastically copied that a whole generation of painters were called the Caravaggesques.

Four hundred years after his death there is much of Caravaggio’s work that we can still see in Rome, some in institutions and galleries. But walk round Rome’s churches and palaces and you travel alongside the great artist whose work still graces them.

Piazza del Popolo

Site of the old entrance into the city from Caravaggio’s homeland in the north, the square’s wide, neo-classical 19th-century terraces and the Leonardo da Vinci Museum make it a sensational place to start a tour of Rome. Next door to the museum is the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where the Cesari Chapel features two major Caravaggio works, Conversion on the Way to Damascus and the Crucifixion of St Peter.

Refusing to be honoured with the same fate as his saviour, St Peter was crucified upside down and Caravaggio himself turned convention on its head by painting biblical scenes with real-life models. His Peter is unnervingly realistic, not so much a saint as an immensely brave, and strong, old man. In the Conversion Caravaggio even contrives to make a horse expressive, as it regards its rider, Saul, dismounted and struck blind.

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The Piazza del Popolo marks the old entrance to Rome; above, Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist © The National Gallery, London

Caravaggio is not the only northern incomer on the Piazzo; if hunger overcomes you, the eternally fashionable Dal Bolognese restaurant is famous for its eponymous sauce. Sit on the terrace amid the media figures and politicians and enjoy that most Italian of sights – alpha males with no socks on.

Villa Borghese

When he came to Rome in 1592, Caravaggio was on the run after stabbing an officer of the law in Milan. After a low-key beginning working on still lifes for other artists’ studios, he began to produce the highly detailed and quirky, often coyly sexually suggestive, small works for private clients.

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Villa Borghese

There are two famous examples – Boy with a Basket of Fruit and Young Sick Bacchus – in the Villa Borghese, a repository of wonderful art, set in its own wooded parkland on the Pincian Hill. And don’t miss the later Madonna and Child with St Anne (Dei Palafrenieri). Look closely and you’ll see the pinholes Caravaggio used to establish the positioning of his figures.


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Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi deI Francesi

Caravaggio’s first big religious commission, The Calling of Saint Matthew triptych, in the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, made the artist’s public reputation. It was painted while Caravaggio was under the protection of Cardinal del Monte, who put the painter up in the Palazzo Madama (now the home of the Italian Senate).

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Contarelli’s Chapel

The shocking realism of the Saint Matthew paintings drew enthusiastic crowds. Today The Calling of St Matthew is Pope Francis’s favourite Caravaggio. “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew,” he said on visiting. “That’s me. I feel like him.” 

Church of Sant’Agostino

Around the corner from the Piazza Navona, the Church of Sant’Agostino is home to the Madonna di Loreto. Completed in 1606, at the time its portrayal of the Virgin Mary caused outrage. The dirty feet of the pilgrims were fair enough – they were common men who had walked far – but the mother of God! Sure enough, the Virgin stands languidly in a doorway, showing grimy toes and generally looking like she’s in a Rome tenement, rather than the Holy Land.

Naples

After completing Madonna di Loreto, Caravaggio murdered a pimp called Ranuccio Tomassoni, with a knife thrust to the groin. Caravaggio fled south to Naples then on to Malta from where, after attacking a Knight of St John and escaping from a dungeon, he returned again to Naples.

You can do Rome to Naples in an hour by high-speed train. After the comparative calm of Rome the chaos of the Via Toledo is quite bewildering, but steel yourself with the thought that Caravaggio would have loved this surging humanity and slip into the still Palazzo Zevallos, home to The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. Believed to be Caravaggio’s last painting, it was completed in Naples before he made a final attempt to return to Rome. He didn’t survive the trip, succumbing to fever aged 38.

End your trip at the Museo di Capodimonte. Here is The Flagellation of Christ, in which Caravaggio paints his saviour as an ordinary man under extreme duress. It is intensely moving; approach with due awe.

Beyond Caravaggio is currently at the National Gallery in London until 15 January 2017

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