It has been suggested, in fact, by psychologists indulging in art criticism, that Caravaggio's "tenebrism" (Italian -- tenebroso), a style of painting characterized by high contrast between bright light and dark, almost black, shade, which Caravaggio virtually invented, was the way that he actually saw the world: his eyesight, especially his contrast sensitivity, they say, was too acute and was an artifact of his madness. The phenomenon is quite well documented in modern psychology, both as a symptom of illness and as the result of sudden releases of adrenaline into the system.
Two other analyses have also been posited to explain Caravaggio's life and art. The first says that he was an artistic genius who happened also to be extremely evil. The second is that he was an artistic genius who just did what others of his class and status were doing in those days. No one doubts that he was an artistic genius.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a member of the minor nobility. His father, Fermo Merisi, was steward and architect to the Marquis of Caravaggio, a town near Milan. He was orphaned at age 11 in 1582 and apprenticed shortly thereafter to the painter Simone Peterzano of Milan.
In Milan he imbibed the Lombardy/Venezia realist style which contrasted sharply with the idealization of Florentine painting. He arrived in Rome, virtually penniless, around 1590 and sought shelter and work in the decaying but "arty" Campo Marzio neighborhood. He did backgrounds and still life decorations in the paintings of a succession of minor painters, producing whatever the market wanted, but he was tempestuous and troublesome and, above all, violent. He couldn't hold a job.
In 1595 he started to work independently and sold his paintings through a local dealer. The dealer, "Maestro" Valentino, showed Caravaggio's work to Cardinal Francesco del Monte, an influential member of the Papal court, and Caravaggio soon enjoyed del Monte's patronage. He also moved into del Monte's palace and became a member of his salon, which, by most accounts, was homosexual. Shortly thereafter, del Monte helped Caravaggio sell the first of fifteen paintings to the Giustiniani family collection for display in Palazzo Giustiniani.
Despite Caravaggio's influential friends, he was always in trouble, often arrested, and finally forced to flee Rome, first, in 1605, for stabbing a man in a fight over a woman, and again in 1606 after killing a friend in a sword fight that started with a disputed score in a tennis match. He settled for a while in Naples, was involved in brawls and disturbances of the peace there, then went to Malta around the beginning of 1608 and there was received as a renowned artist. He was inducted into the Knights of Malta after donating a splendid altarpiece for the Valetta cathedral ("The Beheading of John the Baptist"). But he was soon expelled from the Order either because word of his criminal past reached headquarters or because of new misdeeds. He was imprisoned in Malta but managed to escape and fled to Sicily.
In Sicily he fled from city to city (all the while painting more pictures) while friends in Rome sought the Papal pardon that would allow him to settle down. In 1609 he returned to Naples, but there got into yet another brawl (perhaps attacked by old enemies) and was severely wounded. After a convalescence of several months, he set off by boat for Rome in July of 1610. He was arrested when the boat made a stop in a small port, but was released apparently on word that his pardon had been approved. The boat, with all of his possessions except a few rolled up paintings in his hand-baggage, had left without him, and he set off overland to meet it at Port'Ercole. There, exhausted and suffering from pneumonia and possibly malarial fever, he died, three days before his pardon finally arrived.
Caravaggio worked directly from life onto canvas. His models were street people, which he posed and painted without preliminary sketches or other preparation. His speed was phenomenal and even while in full flight through Naples, Malta, Sicily, and back to Naples he produced a remarkable number of large-scale masterpieces. He had already produced about 40 pictures by the time Cardinal del Monte took him in and became his patron in 1595 -- many of young boys in openly provocative poses -- and produced many more in the next fourteen years before he died at age 39 on the beach at Port'Ercole.
The many painters that imitated his style soon were known as the Caravaggisti. Among those who remained active in Rome for a few years after Caravaggio's death was Francesco Buoneri, also known as Cecco del Caravaggio, who may have first entered Caravaggio's circle as a model for several of the early provocative pictures of young boys. Some sources say that the name "Cecco", which can be a diminutive form of Francesco, was really used here in its other meaning and indicated that Francesco was Caravaggio's preferred bed partner.
Cecco and the other Roman Caravaggisti were soon eclipsed, but the style flourished elsewhere in Italy (Orazio and Artemesia Gentileschi, and Jose´ de Ribera), in Utrecht (Terbrugghen, van Honthorst, and van Baburen), and Paris (the much over-rated de la Tour). Rembrandt and Velazquez and el Grecco also clearly echo some aspects of Caravaggio.
So what's the difference between Caravaggio's "tenebroso" and the chiaroscuro perfected by Leonardo a hundred years before Caravaggio was even a gleam in Fermo Merisi's eye? Chiaroscuro is just what the word says: clear/obscure (not "light and shadow" which some "experts" will tell you). The principle behind chiaroscuro is to leave the light parts as they are so that they can be seen clearly and to darken the "obscure" parts (defined as the parts the artist deems less important) so that they will not distract the viewer. Tenebroso takes the process one step further and brightens and intensifies the colors of the light parts (in addition to obscuring the less meaningfull parts).
Because we grew up with color television and, more recently, with image processing software, this is easy for us to accommodate. Almost all televisions arrive preset to unnaturally enhance color and brightness, and we're so accustomed to it that true coloration looks washed out -- if you don't believe it, put your arm next to your TV screen and compare your skin color with that of an appropriate on-screen character.
For early 17th century viewers, however, it must have been truly shocking. Neither they nor any artist had ever really seen anything like it. And that's why the shrinks think Caravaggio's vision might have been acutely intensified. Where else could he get the idea?
Caravaggio also did something else, which is not part of "tenebroso" per se, and that was his perfection of the technique of placing the bright light source behind the plane of the picture frame. A man's dark back can be toward the viewer, front and center in the picture, and the space beyond him, including the faces of other people in the picture are brightly illuminated by a light source inside the picture hidden by the dark central figure.
Much has been written about Caravaggio's eclectic sexual preferences and his violent, perhaps mad, personality. All of that, along with much more extensive biographies, pictures, and commentaries about his art and its effects on artistic posterity, is on the Internet.
The following links connect to some
of the better sites:
Caravaggio -- WebMuseum
Caravaggio -- Artchive
Caravaggio -- Web Gallery of Art
Caravaggio -- OCAIW links to pix
Caravaggio -- Olga's
Caravaggio -- Britannica
Caravaggio -- Nerone
Real Caravaggio -- NY Review of Books
Caravagio's Secrets -- NYT RoB
Double life of Cupid -- The Age
Tenebrism/tenebroso -- artlex
Chiaroscuro -- Britannica
Caravagio e i Giustiniani
Caravaggio, The Movie (review of a very fictionalized film)
Peter Robb's M (favorable review of a very speculative "bio")