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Caravaggio, or Michelangelo Merisi, was an Italian painter who is considered one of the fathers of modern painting.
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In 1597, Caravaggio was awarded the commission for the decoration of the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. It was an important and daunting assignment, charging the 26-year-old painter with the task of creating three large paintings depicting separate scenes from St. Matthew's life.
The three resulting works, "St. Matthew and the Angel," "The Calling of St. Matthew," and "The Martyrdom of St. Matthew," were finished in 1601,
and together showed Caravaggio's remarkable range as an artist.
But these works also provoked much consternation from the church and public alike. In his execution of the work, Caravaggio eschewed the traditional worshipful depictions of the saints and presented St. Matthew in a far more realistic light. His first version of "St. Matthew and the Angel" caused so much angst among his patrons that he had to redo it.
For Caravaggio, however, the commission provided an exciting new direction for his painting, one in which he could lift traditional religious scenes and cast them with his own dark interpretation. His biblical scenes became populated with the prostitutes, beggars and thieves whom he had encountered on the streets of Rome.
In addition to some financial relief, the Contarelli Chapel commission also provided Caravaggio a wealth of exposure and work. His paintings from the next few years included "The Crucifixion of St. Peter," "The Conversion of St. Paul," "The Deposition of Christ" and his famous "Death of the Virgin." The latter, with its depiction of the Virgin Mary with a swollen belly and bared legs, packed so much of Caravaggio's style that it was turned away by the Carmelites and eventually landed in the hands of the Duke of Mantua.
Controversy, though, only fueled Caravaggio's success. And as that success grew, so did the painter's own personal turmoil. He could be a violent man, with drastic mood swings and a love for drinking and gambling.
A frequent fighter, Caravaggio eventually served a short prison sentence in 1603 following another painter's complaint that Caravaggio had attacked him. But the next few years only saw Caravaggio's temper becoming hotter. His litany of assaults included throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter in 1604, and attacking Roman guards with stones in 1605. Wrote one observer: "After a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ballcourt to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument."
His violence finally erupted with force in 1606, when he killed a well-known Roman pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni. Historians have long speculated about what was at the root of the crime. Some have suggested that it was over an unpaid debt, while others have claimed that it was the result of an argument over a game of tennis. More recently, historians, including Andrew Graham-Dixon, have pointed to Caravaggio's lust for Tomassoni's wife, Lavinia.
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