The first time I learned about Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, was during my undergraduate degree programme in the History of Art and Architecture at DePaul University in Chicago. I had the most incredible art history professor, who brought the masters of the Renaissance and Baroque to life during her filmstrip and overhead projector presentations. This is how I learned about Caravaggio’s innovative tenebrism (bright, dramatic illumination), chiaroscuro (high light/dark contrasts), thick impasto (baroque brushwork with rich colours and textures to give a creamy and broad brushwork effect), his mind blowing techniques for active movement, using swirling spirals and upward diagonals to convey the illusion of motion combined with provocative and violent sensuality.

My second introduction to Caravaggio was ‘in situ’ in Rome with Roy Doliner. He is the author of a well-researched manuscript (Caravaggio: A Light In The Shadows) about Caravaggio, an artist whose temperament was horrific, who had a seedy life, but who was sought by the popes of Rome. Doliner taught me how to understand the complex background of one of the most incredible Baroque masters in art history.

While modern art history classes teach that Caravaggio was an influential Baroque painter in Rome from 1592 to 1610 who subsequently became a wanted fugitive on the run for murdering a man in an illegal street duel, Caravaggio is the James Dean of the History of Art. (Doliner, Caravaggio: a light in the shadows) Well, he can be considered in these, at least. He was the most realistic modern artist of his generation, and his premature death made him a legend, says Doliner.

The word Baroque derives from the French word baroque, meaning “irregularly shaped.” Some of the visual styles associated with the Baroque are drama, tension, movement, emotional exuberance, sensuous richness, grandeur, and tension, to name a few. However, why is it called Baroque. The term “baroque” also derived from the Portuguese barroco“oddly shaped pearl.”

The Baroque style started with the Catholic Church. The church in Rome wanted its religious paintings to become dramatic, full of life, movement, and emotion. The focal point of Baroque art showed action and movement, such as angels flying and saints rising to heaven. Baroque sculptures were often made of rich materials such as colourful marbles, bronze, or gilded with gold.

Caravaggio shocked his contemporaries and started a new era in art history with his realistic style of painting the human form, which he painted from life and powerfully spotlit against a black or dark background.

Although there is a wealth of scholarly writings, scientific publications on the restorations of Caravaggio’s works that have helped to clarify particular technical aspects of the painter’s unique creative process, and hundreds of curated art exhibitions, Doliner’s Caravaggio: A Light In The Shadows is meant to bring poor Caravaggio back into the light, to make him a three-dimensional person again, and to reveal some of his many secrets.

To understand what drove Caravaggio, we must follow him into the shadows, says Doliner. (ibid)

There were two movements in the Church during the life of Caravaggio. What were they?

While there were several competing theological movements in the Church at that time, I think you are asking about the Baroque and Mannerist art movements. Above, you have already very succinctly defined the Baroque style. The Mannerist style is a mix of art and artifice, i.e., beautiful Renaissance-quality subjects with exaggerated elements for emphasizing a message. A prime example is Caravaggio's 1604 painting of the Madonna of Loreto. The baby Jesus in the Madonna's arms is enormous; in fact, the Romans refer to the infant in this work as "er Bambuccione", the giant baby. In this way, Caravaggio is not so subtly directing our focus on the infant and not his mother.

Only in the Vatican Museums can visitors see “painted” artworks by Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Caravaggio. What makes Caravaggio different?

Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael are all deeply rooted in the Renaissance, which means that they were deeply concerned with perfect anatomy and proportionality. Caravaggio is from the next century—the Baroque period, also known as the time of the Counter-Reformation. The Church no longer looked kindly on nudity or pagan mythological subjects in artworks, which is why, except for rare examples like his naked Cupid in Amor Vincit Omnia, Caravaggio's subjects are mostly clothed and depict biblical and Christian narratives.

The Vatican has only one work by Caravaggio: the Deposition in the Pinacoteca wing of the Museum. Here we can see another "trademark" of the artist: his use of real people off the street as his models. The other artists portray the Holy Family and Saints with beautiful, idealized features, sometimes inspired by the perfect faces found in Greco-Roman sculptures. Caravaggio, on the other hand, used humble, normal-looking people from the less-savory levels of society, with all their wrinkles and imperfections. The deposition is a prime example of this. Let us say that the background of his models was not so saintly, but this was Caravaggio's point: to show the saintliness in ordinary folks, not in statuesque figures of unattainable beauty.

Caravaggio’s would frequent Piazza Navona, which you compared to New York City’s infamous 42nd Street at its lowest point of pornography, prostitution, and petty crime in the 1970’s. Why did Piazza Navona have a surprising influence on Caravaggio’s art and career.

Piazza Navona is where the young Caravagio began his painting career in Rome, doing piecework in bottega (workshop) paintings, usually relegated to painting baskets of fruit and vegetables and garlands of flowers, while lesser-talented masters would put in the faces and special symbols of the clients. It was here that Caravaggio learned that the faster one painted, the more drinking and gambling money one could earn. He soon was painting portraits of middle-class merchants, sometimes three in one day, an amazing show of speed.

With the money he earned from this, he would enjoy the rowdy nightlife of Piazza Navona, wearing fancy outfits until they were ruined, drinking, gambling, and whoring. Another aspect of the nightly entertainment of the piazza was the roughshod wooden stages for commedia dell'arte, an early ancestor of vaudeville and burlesque, with much ad libbing and raunchy humor. The pitched stage, the theatrical lighting, the dark backdrops, and the red curtains influenced his art for the rest of his life.

Since Robert Longhi’s published work, Register of Times (1928), in which he set the chronological dates and order of Caravaggio’s life and works, the date of birth was set at 1573, based on a death notice for the artist found in the Inscriptiones of his friend Marzio Milesi that certified his death as July 18, 1610, but stated that he was only 36 years, 9 months, and 20 days old when he died.

Up until quite recently, we did not know exactly where or when Caravaggio was born, where he died, or even how or when. In fact, there are so many major gaps in the story of his life and career, and there is one person above all who is to blame: Caravaggio himself. He lied to friends and associates—and possibly to himself—about his age and his roots, and worst of all, he left behind no writings, explains Doliner.(ibid)

So, what happened to his preparatory sketches? How was he able to work so fast? Why does he paint such dark backgrounds? Which paintings are his? What do they mean to say? Answers to these questions are in my next interview with Doliner.(ibid)

Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.