A restless soul, a unique style and an extraordinary talent... Michelangelo Merisi, better known with the name of Caravaggio was one of the greatest Italian painters of all time.
Because of his adventurous life, marked by violent incidents, Caravaggio has entered the collective imagination as "accursed" artist par excellence: its world-known paintings expressed the torment of existence with creative brilliance and unmatched intensity.
The museums, churches and private galleries of Rome preserve and exhibit to the public many of his paintings. And there is no better way to discover his greatest masterpieces than to wander through the historic centre of the city. So here is a list, brought you by ItalyXP, of all the places in the city where you can admire the wonderful art of Caravaggio.
In the large square of Santa Maria del Popolo, inside the basilica of the same name, are preserved two great paintings of Caravaggio: the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter, both realized in 1601.
The original versions of those two paintings were both initially rejected because considered outrageous: for example, the original version of the Conversion of St. Paul showed a complex composition in which the saint appeared to be a figure of secondary importance compared to the dominance of the horse. This first version is kept in the private collection of the Odescalchi Balbi family, in the Piazza dei Santi Apostoli, rarely opened to the public. Unfortunately however, the first version of the Crucifixion of St. Peter has disappeared.
So, the paintings that can be seen today in the chapel are second versions of the original works, although equally astounding: they narrate two different moments of the lives of the two saints, nevertheless there is a certain symmetry between the paintings and both characters are portrayed in unusual positions that desecrate their sacredness.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, being one of the major churches of Rome, deserves a visit itself through a guided tour that will let you discover all its treasures, including obviously the Caravaggio’s works.
Located in Campo Marzio is the ancient Basilica of Sant’Agostino, built reusing the travertine of the Colosseum during the Renaissance.
The most famous work of art presently in the basilica is the Madonna of Loreto (also known as the Pilgrim's Madonna) painted in 1604 by Caravaggio. It depicts a young Madonna holding an overly-large Christ on the doorstep of an ordinary house. In front of them are two ragged pilgrims kneel in adoration.
The panting caused an uproar right from when it was hung on the altar, not only because of the pilgrim’s grimy feet painted in the foreground, but also because the Madonna had been modeled by a well-known courtesan frequented by many cardinals. By doing this, Caravaggio intended to desecrate the holiness of the religious orders, which where against depicting saints as ordinary people or doing every day activities.
But although its “offensive” traits, the Madonna of Loreto remained in Basilica of Sant’Agostino until today, and we highly recommend a visit through a guided tour of the Caravaggio’s art works.
Not far from the Piazza Navona is the Church of St. Louis of the French, the National church of the French Chatolic Community in Rome since 1589. Right in the Contarelli Chapel, the last one on the left aisle, is preserved one of the most important art work in the career of Caravaggio: a cycle of paintings about the life of Saint Matthew, known as the Triptych of Saint Matthew, realized between 1599 and 1602. This includes the three world-renowned canvases of the Calling of Saint Matthew, the Inspiration of Saint Matthew and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
The installation of these paintings in the Chapel had an immediate impact on the public by making Caravaggio and its unique style famous among the emerging artists of his era. Of the three paintings, the Inspiration of Saint Matthew was dismissed and the great artist was forced to make another version: the original one depicts the saint as a bald man in an attitude of considerable effort to write and assisted by an angel who holds his hand to help him. The concept of physical contact between a human and an angel was considered sacrilegious, and so this original version was rejected and, unfortunately, destroyed during the Second World War, leaving as only photographic reproductions.
The Triptych of Saint Matthew is a timeless masterpiece, and definitely a must-see for any lover of art. You can visit it through a private guided tour, which also includes the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo and the Basilica of Sant'Agostino (n° 1 and 2 on this list), or a group tour of Caravaggio, which includes a wine & food tasting session.
The most characteristic gallery of our list is undoubtedly the Borghese Gallery, which is located in the green heart of the Villa Borghese, one of the largest and most beautiful parks in the centre of Rome.
The gallery has a unique set, perhaps the best collection of Caravaggio’s works in just a museum, with as many as six paintings: the Young Sick Bacchus (a supposed self-portrait of the artist); the Boy with a Basket of Fruit; the Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Dei Palafrenieri); the Saint Jerome Writing; the John the Baptist(also known as John in the Wilderness) and, last but not least, the David with the Head of Goliath, one of the most interesting work of his career: this painting, in fact, was realized in Naples, where the artist fled in 1606 after being accused of murder. It is believed that Caravaggio has painted himself in the face of the beheaded giant: his expression is anguished and tormented, representing the human drama lived by the artist in those years.
This collection of paintings by Caravaggio is an artistic heritage of incredible value. Make sure not to miss it, booking a guided tour of the Borghese Gallery, which also includes a visit to the enchanting gardens of the Villa.
In the Pinacotheca of the Vatican Museum (more precisely in the Room XII) you will have the opportunity to admire one of the greatest works of Caravaggio: the Entombment of Christ. This painting was one of the few works produced by the master that has obtained a unanimous agreement, arousing the admiration of the public and the critics.
The scene represented in this canvas is one of the most memorable in the Bible: depicted by many famous painters, there are many paintings with the same subject around the world. Caravaggio chose to capture this tragic moment of the life of Christ and probably his painting, among all the others, is the one that better interprets the feeling of pain through the faces and expressions of the characters that surround the body of Jesus.
The Entombment of Christ is the only work of Caravaggio in the Vatican and it can be visited during your guided tour of the Vatican Museums (also available private and semi-private tours).
The Capitoline Museums, which are located in the beautiful Piazza del Campidoglio, house two important works of Caravaggio in the second floor (room of Santa Petronilla).
The first one, Youth with a Ram, represents John the Baptist, a young boy who was the subject of at least eight paintings by Caravaggio. The openly erotic figure of John, naked with a ram, is a symbol of indecency and difficulty acceptable as a sacred Christian figure. An almost identical version of this canvas is located in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery (n° 7 on this list).
The Capitoline Museums also houses the Fortune Teller, a work that depicts a naïve youth having his palm read by a gypsy girl. The boy looks pleased as he gazes into her face, and she returns his gaze while stealing his ring as she gently strokes his hand. The message of this painting is still unknown, but the result is an absolute masterpiece.
Located in Piazza Grazioli 5, near the Via del Corso, is this private gallery that boasts a large and impressive collection of art, including also three works by Caravaggio: the Penitent Magdalene, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, and one of the two identical versions of John the Baptist.
The Penitent Magdalene depicts a weeping girl, bowed in a chair, as she leaves behind her dissolute life. The painting was part of a group of paintings realized to decorate the rooms of his first patron, Cardinal Francesco del Monte. The model for the Magdalene was a prostitute with whom Caravaggio used to hang out, and that can be recognized in several of his paintings.
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt depicts an angel playing a violin to the Holy Family during their journey into Egypt, and is of great importance because it represents the first painting with a biblical episode and of large size realized by the young Caravaggio.
In Via delle Quattro Fontane 13, right in front of the Fountain of Triton (one of the most beautiful fountains of Rome), is the National Gallery of Ancient Art of the Barberini Palace. This place houses two incredible masterpieces of Caravaggio: the Saint Francis in Prayer and the Judith Beheading Holofernes, which has become famous at the time for having provoked reactions of shock and repulsion among the viewers, because of its realism and its rawness.