One lived to be almost eighty-nine; the other died before he turned forty. One thought of himself primarily as a sculptor; the other was a painter. Both were named for St. Michael the Archangel. Neither was someone you’d want as a guest at your dinner party. What they lacked in social skills, however, they made up for with creative talent: the two Michelangelos were among the finest artists that Western Civilization ever produced.
The one you know by his first name (pronounced MEEK-uh-LAN-gel-oh by Italians and some art critics) was Michelangelo Buonarroti. Born in 1475, he was the principal artist of the High Renaissance. He was 23 years old when he carved the incomparable Pietà that flanks the entrance to St. Peter’s. ( We overheard an American tourist point it out to a traveling companion, calling it “that Michelangelo thing”.) He was 26 when he began chipping away at a block of Carrara marble, revealing the David who had been hiding in it.
Although he excelled at carving stone, Michelangelo was also a painter; he taught himself fresco techniques to do the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was an architect as well, and even wrote some poetry. Incidentally, he died in 1564, the same year Shakespeare was born. If you’re putting together a list of the all-time greatest artists, write in Michelangelo Buonarroti at #1.
Somewhere near the top of that list is where the other Michelangelo also belongs. He is not usually known by that name, or his surname, which was Merisi. He is commonly referred to by the name of his hometown, which was Caravaggio.
If the Renaissance was about the return to classical idealism and the discovery of perspective, you could say that Caravaggio ushered in realism and the discovery of light. His paintings are done in high contrast — strong light and dark shadows; you Art History majors will remember the term for this approach is chiaroscuro. For those of you who weren’t Art History majors, the technical jargon doesn’t matter. Just stand in front of Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew or Crucifixion of St. Peter and marvel at the way he “lit” the scene, and the way he captured the key moment in the drama — what photographers sometimes call “the peak of the action”.
In the early seventeenth century, contemporary audiences were shocked by Caravaggio’s use of ordinary people with dirty feet and callused hands as models for saints. They were also shocked by his terrible behavior. From 1600 on, he was almost constantly in trouble with the authorities, brought up on charges ranging from wounding a soldier to throwing a plate of artichokes into the face of a waiter. In other words, if Caravaggio was living now, he’d be regularly featured on the E! Channel.
In 1607 he got into a brawl over a disputed call in a tennis match and wound up killing a guy. He fled Rome, hiding out in Naples and Malta and Sicily. His only hope was to get the pope to grant clemency, so he arranged a trip back to Rome. At a place called Porto Ercole, Caravaggio literally missed the boat, collapsed of a fever, and died a couple of days later (July 18, 1610). That probably came as a bit of a relief to the people who knew him personally, but subsequent generations of painters studied his work and said “wow”. As the eminent twentieth-century art critic Bernard Berenson wrote of Caravaggio, “with the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence.”
OK — so let’s go back to my hypothetical list of the all-time greatest artists. I’ve already admitted my bias toward Caravaggio; who do you think is worthy of a Top-10 ranking? Nominations are welcome in the Comments section. Just to get you thinking… What about Diego Velázquez? Bernini? Pieter Bruegel? Vermeer? Albrecht Dürer? Picasso? Renoir? Or, what the heck — the woman who painted that mural in your den?