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Caravaggio: The Definitive Reading List

Caravaggio tours

The Calling of St Matthew, Contarelli Chapel

The Definitive Reading List for Lovers of Caravaggio

Discover more about the artist’s turbulent life

Who was Caravaggio?

Caravaggio became the greatest painter of religious works of the early 17th century. His dramatic but naturalistic style of painting emphasised the common humanity of his subjects, the apostles and martyrs of the Christian faith. He is credited with introducing two techniques aimed at enhancing reality: the use of live models, and their illumination (and that of his painting) with light directed from a high point in the composition. These techniques, and his dramatic realism, were a major influence on the Baroque artists who followed in his footsteps. This list includes Rembrandt, Rubens and Velazquez.

Odyssey’s small group tour, Following Caravaggio, follows in the footsteps of this brilliant but troubled painter. Beginning in his birthplace, Milan, we follow him to Rome, Malta, Sicily and on to Naples, exploring his artistic legacy. But if you are interested in learning more about this intriguing historical figure, the following reading list features nine books and a documentary film on Caravaggio. You might like to familiarise yourself with current understandings of the artist’s life and legacy.

1. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (2012)

by Andrew Graham-Dixon

In the tradition of John Richardson’s Picasso, a commanding new biography of the Italian master’s tumultuous life and mysterious death.

For four hundred years Caravaggio’s (1571-1610) staggering artistic achievements have thrilled viewers, yet his volatile personal trajectory―the murder of Ranuccio Tomasini, the doubt surrounding Caravaggio’s sexuality, the chain of events that began with his imprisonment on Malta and ended with his premature death―has long confounded historians. In a bravura performance, Andrew Graham-Dixon delves into the original Italian sources, presenting fresh details about Caravaggio’s life, his many crimes and public brawls, and the most convincing account yet published of the painter’s tragic death at the age of thirty-eight. With illuminating readings of Caravaggio’s infamous religious paintings, which often depict prostitutes and poor people, Graham-Dixon immerses readers in the world of Italy at the height of the Counter-Reformation and creates a masterful profile of the mercurial painter’s life and work. This New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book of the Year features full-colour reproductions of the artist’s best paintings.

Says Hilary Spurling for the New York Times Book Review: ‘This book resees its subject with rare clarity and power as a painter for the 21st century’.

2. Caravaggio: The Complete Works (2017)

by Sebastian Schütze 

Caravaggio, or more accurately Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, was always a name to be reckoned with. The notorious bad boy of Italian painting, the artist was at once celebrated and controversial: violent in temper, precise in technique, a creative master, and a man on the run. Today, he is considered one of the greatest influences in all art history.

This Bibliotheca Universalis edition offers a neat yet comprehensive Caravaggio catalogue raisonné. Each of his paintings is reproduced from recent top-quality photography, allowing for a vivid encounter with the artist’s ingenious repertoire of looks and gestures, as well as numerous detail shots of his boundary-breaking naturalism, whether a grubby foot or the soft folds of a sagging stomach. Five accompanying chapters trace the complete arc of Caravaggio’s career from his first public commissions in Rome through to his growing celebrity status, while the book’s detailed chronology traces his tempestuous personal life, in which drama loomed as prominently as in his chiaroscuro canvases.

Please note that this is a compact version of the collection. If you wish to purchase a larger-scale copy, a hard-cover version is sometimes available. Alternatively, you may like to consider Rossella Vodret’s Caravaggio: The Complete Works.

3. Caravaggio (2007)

by John T Spike

The result of over 20 years of research by a leading authority on Caravaggio, this work reproduces every known work of the artist. John T. Spike explores in detail Caravaggio’s scandalous life and provocative work. Placing Caravaggio within the broad panorama of society and ideas at the turn of the 17th century, the author sets a detailed stage for an artist who has been called ‘the first modern painter’. Caravaggio (1571-1610) reflected in his canvases his own desires and spiritual crises to an extent no one ever had imagined possible, and he shocked his contemporaries by portraying the saints and virgins of Christianity with the faces and bodies of his companions and lovers in Rome’s demimonde. Accompanying the book is a CD-ROM in which all of Caravaggio’s extant paintings, as well as lost and rejected works, are described. Each entry specifies the work’s medium, dimensions, location, and provenance, and provides an annotated bibliography of sources. Most of the entries conclude with a brief technical analysis.

4. Caravaggio: Art, Knighthood and Malta (2006)

Caravaggio’s sojourn on the island of Malta in 1607-08 is one of the most fascinating episodes in Baroque art. The painter had committed a murder in Rome in May 1606 and subsequently fled to Naples, where he soon became well-known for his gritty, naturalistic altarpieces. Suddenly, in the early summer of 1607, he decided to leave his thriving Neapolitan studio for the newly built city of Valletta, the headquarters of the Knights of Malta. The chance to obtain a knighthood and redeem himself for his Roman crime was no doubt foremost in his mind.

Written by two leading authorities in the field, this richly illustrated book tells the story of Caravaggio’s voyage to Malta, his interactions with the Knights and their leader, Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, and the magnificent paintings he made for them. Among the works he produced on the island are the Beheading of St John the Baptist – his largest and only signed picture – and the St Jerome Writing, a canvas of exceptional pyschological force.

The book presents new iconographic, technical, and stylistic analyses of all of the Maltese pictures as well as two chapters devoted to discussions of Caravaggio’s importance in the history of art and the chronological problems in his late works. Based on original archival research, this study also includes an account of Caravaggio’s crime in Malta, his imprisonment, and his daring escape to Sicily.

5. Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity (2016)

by Troy Thomas

Undeniably one of the greatest artists of all time, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio would develop a radically new kind of psychologically expressive, realistic art and, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would lay the foundations for modern painting. His paintings defied tradition to such a degree that the meaning of his works have divided critics and viewers for centuries. In this original study, Troy Thomas examines Caravaggio’s life and art in relationship to the profound beginnings of modernity, exploring the many conventions that Caravaggio utterly dismantled with his extraordinary genius.

Thomas begins with an in-depth look at Caravaggio’s early life and works and examines how he refined his realism, developed his obsession with darkness and light, and began to find the subtle and clever ambiguity of genre and meaning that would become his trademark. Focusing acutely on the inherent tensions, contradictions, and ambiguities within Caravaggio’s paintings, Thomas goes on to examine his mature religious works and the ways he created a powerful but stark and enigmatic expressiveness in his protagonists. Lastly, he delves into the artist’s final hectic years as a fugitive killer evading papal police and wandering the cities of southern Italy.

Richly illustrated in colour throughout, Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity will appeal to all of those fascinated by the history of art and the remarkable lives of Renaissance masters.

Odyssey Traveller offers a specialised tour for lovers of Caravaggio, which is scheduled to depart in May and October 2020. As we uncover more about this mysterious artist, we also explore key sites in Italy, Malta and Sicily. It is a European small group tour with a focus on education, designed for senior travellers who have a passion for history and art. If you have a keen interest in art, you might like to check out our list of specialised art and literature tours. We also offer small group tours based on music and the performing arts, as well as more general tours of Europe and beyond. Odyssey Traveller offers small group tours designed especially for seniors, and we welcome both couples and solo travellers. To keep in touch with Odyssey Traveller and receive information on our upcoming tours, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!

6. Caravaggio: The Art of Realism (2006)

by John Varriano

The dramatic realism of Caravaggio’s art has fascinated viewers since the seventeenth century. Yet no prior monograph presents the thorough investigation of Caravaggio’s ‘realism’ as ventured in John Varriano’s remarkable book. Forgoing the ‘life and works’ format of most earlier monographs, Varriano concentrates on uncovering the principles and practices—the intellect and the imagination—that guided Caravaggio’s eye and brush as he made some of the most controversial paintings in the history of art.

Caravaggio’s irascible personality, libertine sexual preferences, and lawless, even murderous, behaviour have attracted as much heated commentary as his realism. Varriano sheds important new light on these disputes by tracing the autobiographical threads in Caravaggio’s paintings and framing these within the context of contemporary Italian culture. Ultimately, Varriano links Caravaggio’s aggressive persona and innovative methods to changes taking place throughout seventeenth-century Europe.

Caravaggio: The Art of Realism begins with a highly original investigation of the artist’s studio practices. In subsequent chapters, Varriano discusses Caravaggio’s response to the material culture of his day, his use of gesture and expression, and his eroticism and violence as well as other issues central to the painter’s legendary realism.

Caravaggio: The Art of Realism will appeal to students and the general reader as well as to specialists in the field. Varriano has a gift for presenting complex scholarship in a clear, accessible way. The book contains numerous colour illustrations that will help readers experience Caravaggio’s art and follow the author’s informative discussion of such famed paintings as Love Victorious and David with the Head of Goliath.

7. Caravaggio (2000)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was one of the most innovative painters of his time, and one of the most momentous artists of any era. Rescued from neglect, he has become a cultural icon in the late twentieth century, not only for his art but also because of his violent and tragic life. Catherine Puglisi’s highly praised monograph supersedes all previous studies of the artist by far. Making full use of the latest research and a series of dramatic recent discoveries, she has produced a concise, clear-headed and comprehensive work of scholarship that also provides a moving biography of the artist and an incisive deconstruction of the genius with which he absorbed and transformed the artistic tradition of his time.
Altogether, Puglisi’s work―a profound achievement in its own right―reveals a poignant aspect to Caravaggio’s life and work, which offers a deeper insight into his function as an artist than has ever been made possible before. The entirety of Caravaggio’s works are discussed with expertise and illustrated in colour, while the book also contains an appendix of documents dating back to the sixteenth century, full notes and a wide bibliography, a checklist of works and full indexes. This authoritative and beautifully produced monograph is the standard work on Caravaggio: it is now accessible to the broadest audience yet in a no less sophisticated but all the more user-friendly (paperback) presentation.

8. M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio (2000)

by Peter Robb
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Peter Robb’s exposition is vividly and unflinchingly presented with ‘blood and bone and sinew’. Caravaggio’s wild and tempestuous life was a provocation to a culture in a state of siege. The end of the sixteenth century was marked by the Inquisition and Counter-Reformation, a background of ideological war against which, despite all odds, brilliant feats of art and science were achieved. No artist captured the dark, violent spirit of the time better than Caravaggio, variously known as Marisi, Moriggia, Merigi, and sometimes, simply M. As art critic Robert Hughes has said, ‘There was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same.’
Reviewer Hilary Spurling wrote for the New York Times, ‘Robb’s prime aim in his remarkable ”M”―part biography, part costume drama, part art-history manual―is to recreate the world of an artist whose few recorded sayings insist that he was not prepared to paint anything but what he saw’.

9. Caravaggio: Realism, Rebellion, Reception (2006)

This volume considers Caravaggio’s revolutionary ‘realism’ from a range of perspectives by a plurality of leading scholars. First, it advances our understanding of Caravaggio’s relationship with the ‘new’ science of observation championed by Galileo. Second, it examines afresh the theoretical nature of Caravaggio’s seemingly direct ‘realism.’ Third, it extends the horizons of research on Caravaggio’s complex intellectual and social milieu between high and low cultures. Fourth, it redefines our understanding of the relationship between Caravaggio’s life and his art in historical terms. As some reviewers have indicated, this book does not contain colour reproductions of Caravaggio’s works. Rather, it is best suited for the reader seeking to learn more about Caravaggio study from leading experts.

10. What Makes a Caravaggio? (Lecture, 2014)

by Frederick Ilchman, chair, Art of Europe; and Mrs. Russell W. Baker Curator of Paintings for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Despite a brief and controversial career, Caravaggio remains one of the most influential and absorbing of all Italian painters. The presence in Boston of four important works from Italy in ‘Visiting Masterpieces: Caravaggio and Connoisseurship’ provides a rare opportunity to confront this artist firsthand, explore his artistic achievement, and consider the complexities of authenticity through a lesson in connoisseurship with curator Frederick Ilchman.
If you wish to watch more films and documentaries on Caravaggio, you might enjoy The Power of Art (Caravaggio) by Simon Schama, or The Glory of Caravaggio discussed on the Agenda with Steve Paikin. 

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Odyssey Traveller offers a specialised tour for lovers of Caravaggio, which is scheduled to depart in May and October 2020. As we uncover more about this mysterious artist, we also explore key sites in Italy, Malta and Sicily. It is a European small group tour with a focus on education, designed for senior travellers who have a passion for history and art. If you have a keen interest in art, you might like to check out our list of specialised art and literature tours. We also offer small group tours based on music and the performing arts, as well as more general tours of Europe and beyond. Odyssey Traveller offers small group tours designed especially for seniors, and we welcome both couples and solo travellers. To keep in touch with Odyssey Traveller and receive information on our upcoming tours, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!