Life of Caravaggio by Giovanni Baglione

(from Le vite de' pittori Rome 1642 pp. 136-9)

Michelangelo was born in Caravaggio in Lombardy and was the son of a respectable master builder named Amerigi. He began to study painting and because nobody in Caravaggio could teach him in the way he wanted he went to Milan and lived there for some time. Then he came to Rome with the intention of applying himself diligently to this noble discipline.

At first he settled down with a Sicilian painter who had a shop of crude works of art. Then he went to stay for some months in the house of Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari d'Arpino. After this he tried living by himself and he made some small pictures of himself drawn from the mirror. The first was a Bacchus with some bunches of various kinds of grapes painted with great care but a little dry in style. He also painted a boy who was bitten by a lizard as it emerged from flowers and fruits; that head actually seemed to cry out and it was all done very carefully. Nevertheless he was unable to sell these works and soon found himself in a pitiable state without money and very poorly dressed. Fortunately some charitable gentlemen of the profession came to his aid until Maestro Valentine an art dealer near San Luigi dei Francesi arranged to sell a few of the paintings. On this occasion he made the acquaintance of Cardinal del Monte who being an art lover took him into his house. Now that he had a home and an allowance he gathered his courage and reputation and painted for the Cardinal youths playing music very well drawn from nature and also a youth playing a lute. Everything in this picture looked alive and real most notably a carafe of flowers filled with water in which one could easily distinguish the reflections of a window and other objects in the room. On those flowers was fresh dew rendered with exquisite accuracy. This Caravaggio said was the best picture he had ever made.

He portrayed a gypsy telling a young man's fortune with beautiful colours. He painted a Divine love conquering the profane and a very terrifying head of a Medusa with vipers for hair and placed on a shield which was presented as a gift by the Cardinal to the Grand Duke Ferdinand of Tuscany.

On the recommendation of his Cardinal he obtained the commission for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi where over the altar he painted Saint Matthew with an Angel. On the right side the Apostle is called by the Saviour and on the left side he is wounded on the altar by the executioner with other figures. The vault of the chapel however is very well painted by Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari d'Arpino.

This work because it contained some paintings drawn from life and was in the company of others made by Cavalier Giuseppe whose talent had aroused some envy on the part of his colleagues increased Caravaggio's fame and was highly praised by malicious persons. But when Federico Zuccaro came to see it while I was there he said: 'What is all the fuss about?' and carefully examining the entire work added: 'I do not see anything here but Giorgione's conception in the picture of the Saint when Christ called him to the Apostolate'; and sneering and marvelling at all this excitement he turned on his heel and left.

For Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani he made a seated Cupid drawn from life so exquisitely coloured that the Marchese admired Caravaggio's works beyond limits; and the painting of a Saint Matthew that he had first made for that altar in San Luigi which no one had liked he took for himself because it was Michelangelo's work. The Marchese’s opinion of Caravaggio was reinforced by the great fuss which was made of him everywhere by his henchman Proserpino [Orsi] of the grotesques who was hostile to Cavalier Giuseppe. Signor Ciriaco Mattei for whom Caravaggio had painted a Saint John the Baptist and Our Lord on the road to Emmaus and the [painting] in which Saint Thomas touches the Saviour's chest with his finger was likewise seduced by the uproar and Caravaggio relieved that gentleman of many hundreds of scudi.

In the first chapel on the left in the church of S. Agostino he painted a Madonna of Loreto portrayed from life with two pilgrims one of them with muddy feet and the other wearing a torn and soiled bonnet: and because of these frivolities in the details which a great picture must have the populace made a great fuss over it.

The pictures in the Madonna del Popolo on the right side of the main altar in the chapel of the Signori Cerasi and facing each other on the side walls the Crucifixion of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul are all by Caravaggio. These pictures were first worked by him in another manner but as they did not please the patron Cardinal Sannesio took them for himself: and Caravaggio himself made those which can now be seen painted in oil because he did not work in a different manner: and (so to speak) Fortune and Fame carried him along.

In the Chiesa Nuova on the right side in the second chapel is his Dead Christ about to be buried with other figures painted in oil; and this is said to be his best work.

In St Peter's in the Vatican he also made a Saint Anne with the Madonna who holds the Child between her legs and who with her foot is crushing a serpent's head - a work painted for the Palafrenieri of the palace - but it was removed on the order of the Cardinals of the Fabbrica [di San Pietro] and then given by the Palafrenieri to Cardinal Scipione Borghese.

For the Madonna della Scala in Trastevere he painted the death of the Madonna but because he had portrayed the Madonna with little decorum swollen and with bare legs it was taken away; and the Duke of Mantua bought it and placed it in his most noble gallery.

He painted a Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes for the Signor Costi and several pictures for others which I omit because they are not in public places; instead I will say something of his habits.

Michelangelo Amerigi was a sarcastic and haughty man. He would sometimes speak badly of all the painters of the past and present no matter how distinguished they were because he thought that he alone had surpassed all the others in his profession with his works. However some people consider him to have been the ruination of painting because many young artists after his example are devoting themselves to imitating a head from life without studying the rudiments of artistic design and of spatial depth. They are only satisfied with colouring; thus they are incapable of putting two figures together or of composing any story because they do not understand the value of so noble an art. Because of the excessive ardour of his spirit Michelangelo was a little wild and he sometimes looked for the chance to break his neck or to risk the lives of others. People as quarrelsome as he were often to be found in his company: and having in the end confronted Ranuccio Tomassoni a well-mannered young man over some disagreement about a tennis match they challenged one another to a duel. After Ranuccio fell to the ground Michelangelo struck him with the point of his sword and having wounded him in the thigh killed him. Everyone fled Rome and Michelangelo went to Palestrina where he painted a Saint Mary Magdalen. From there be travelled to Naples where he also made many things. Then he went to Malta and being invited to pay his respects to the Grand Master he painted his portrait as a sign of merit; that prince then presented him with the habit of Saint John and made him a Knight of Grace. Here engaged in some sort of dispute with a Knight of Justice Michelangelo insulted him in some way and ended up in prison. After escaping from the prison by night he fled from Malta to the island of Sicily where he made some works in Palermo. As he was being chased by his enemy he decided to return to the city of Naples; but here the enemy finally caught up with him and he was so severely wounded in the face that he was almost unrecognizable. Having given up all hope of revenge although he had attempted it he boarded a felucca bound for Rome with a few of his belongings on the assurance that Cardinal Gonzaga was negotiating with Pope Paul V for his pardon. When he got ashore he was mistakenly captured and put in prison where he was held for two days. On his release unable to find the felucca he was furious and made his way along the coast in desperation under the cruel heat of the summer sun trying to catch sight of the vessel at sea that was carrying his belongings. Finally reaching a place of habitation along the shore he was put to bed with a malignant fever: and after a few days without human succour he died as miserably as he had lived. If Michelangelo Amerigi had not died so soon he would have accomplished much in his art because of the good style of painting from nature he had taken up even though he did not have much judgment in selecting the good and avoiding the bad in the things he represented. Nevertheless he acquired a great reputation and people paid more for his heads than for the history pictures of others; such is the value of popularity which does not judge with its eyes but looks with its ears. And his portrait now hangs in the Academy.