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The Best Way to Experience Caravaggio in Rome


Arguably, one of the most influential artists of all time, Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio thrived in the Italy's capital city throughout the late 1500s and early 1600s. His work was, and still is, engaging and revolutionary, embracing realism and evoking drama. He is best known for his elaborate use of Chiaroscuro, which is simply a technique of using stark contrasts of light and shadow to create a dramatic atmosphere in a painting. Caravaggio was known to have a short temper and aggressive outbursts and is even rumoured to have been involved in more than one murder case!

Many of his best works can be found scattered across chapels and galleries throughout Rome, as a result of his highly sought after commissions from the Catholic Church. Caravaggio painted during a time of religious turmoil - it was after The Council of Trent rectified that paintings served an important didactic function, that Caravaggio embraced realism over idealisation. This firmly placed the divine world of God and the spiritual in that of the average person. His figures are lifelike, his religious scenes are packed full of drama and thus evoke an array of universal emotions.

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The following are a selection of must sees to visit the next time you are strolling around Rome. Many of which can be accessed totally free of charge.

1) Basilica of S. Maria del Popolo, Piazza del Popolo.

The Cerasi Chapel in the Basilica of S. Maria del Popolo, lies on the northern side of Piazza del Popolo. Two of Caravaggio's masterpieces can be seen here: The Crucifixion of St Peter (1600-1601) and The Conversion of St Paul (1600-1601).

These works are especially captivating as Caravaggio manages to portray the most compelling moment in the midst of a highly dramatic scene. Both of these works are a testament to Caravaggio's use of realism. Below is The Crucifixion of St. Peter - the angle that Caravaggio has depicted the figure on the left of the foreground is far from flattering. In the same manner, the figure of St. Peter is not idealised in any way. The strain of raising the cross is captured in the opposing pushing and pulling motions of the figures on either side of St. Peter. The clever use of harsh alumination and contrasting shadow enables the events of the scene to be highlighted with no distractions emerging from the background.

The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600-1601)

Below is Caravaggio's portrayal of The Conversion of St. Paul. He skillfully manages to capture the exact moment of personal conversion. Saul is dramatically thrown off his horse into our space, as onlookers. Blinded, he hears Christ's voice - and yet, the other figure and the horse do not seem startled by the events of the scene. This creates an intimate and spiritual engagement between Saul (about to become Paul) and the divine. Moreover, the centre of gravity in the painting is skewed - it is low rather than centered which accentuates the dynamism and chaos within the scene. The 'heaviest' part of the painting is the sheer mass of the horse's body - which is situated high up in the picture plane. The horse's raised hoof above the vulnerable Saul, touches on the fragility of the human being in this particular moment of divine transformation.

The Conversion of St. Paul (1600-1601)

2) Church of S. Luigi dei Francesi, Piazza di S. Luigi de' Francesi.

Three masterpieces all dedicated to St. Matthew can be found here, located in the Campo Marzio area of the historic centre. From left to right, we see: The Calling of St Matthew (1599-1600), The St. Matthew and the Angel (1602) and Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1600-1601). Photographed below are the former of the three. Depicted in Caravaggio's notably dramatic use of chiaroscuro, one can see how he has incorporated the natural light of the chapel, entering via the semi-circular window, into the scene of The Calling of St. Matthew.

Two Caravaggio's, in situ, The Church of S. Luigi dei Francesi.

3) Basilica di S. Agostino, Via di S. Eustachio.

This Caravaggio painting can be viewed in the Campo Marzio area of Rome's historic centre - near Piazza Navona. Entitled Madonna di Loreto - Pilgrim's Madonna (1604-1606), the work depicts the apparition of the barefoot Madonna and naked Christ child before two peasants who have embarked on a pilgrimage. One of the most compelling elements of this depiction is the way in which we almost experience the tiredness that the pilgrims are feeling, miraculously lift as they are greeted by the apparition of the Virgin and Child. Caravaggio's unique strategy of utilising realism, firmly roots the scene in the earthy realm. This is seen through the dirty feet of the peasants and the tactile embrace between Mary and her child. If it were not for the delicate halos adorning the head of the Mother and child - they would not appear to be an apparition at all. This contributes to Caravaggio's unique melange of the earthly and the divine.

Madonna di Loreto (1604-1606)

4) Palazzo Barberini, Via delle Quattro Fontane.

The Barberini collection is home to three works by Caravaggio. Arguably, Caravaggio's most well-known work entitled, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-1599), resides here. Caravaggio's famous rendition of this scene is known for is grotesque subject matter. The delicate features of Judith contrast greatly to the act she is undertaking. Her irresistible beauty, which seduced the Assyrian general - is even more exemplified through Caravaggio's choice of clothing for her, as well as the placement of her haggard looking maid directly next to her.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-1599)

4) Galleria Borghese, Piazzale Scipione Borghese.

I cannot end this article without mentioning the incredible Galleria Borghese. Although it can be a little tricky to obtain tickets, it is well worth being organised and planning in advance. Here, one can find Rome's largest collection of Caravaggio works. The painting below is one of Caravaggio's many portraits of Bacchus - god of wine, celebrations and ecstasy. What is unusal here is how poorly Bacchus looks - it is believed that Caravaggio painted a self portrait in the form of a Young Sick Bacchus (1593-1594). while recovering from a serious illness during six months spent in the hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione.

Other notable works by the 17th century master that can be found in the Galleria Borghese include:

Boy with basket of fruit (1593-1594)

St. Jerome Writing (c. 1605)

Madonna and Child with St. Anne (1605)

Portrait of Pope Paul V (1605-1606)

David with the head of Goliath (1609-1610)

St. John the Baptist (c. 1610)

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