Caravaggio in Post-Renaissance Rome.

Caravaggio is in the neighborhood.

The Pantheon has the oldest dome in the world.

I discovered Caravaggio during my Junior Year Abroad, 1974 to 1975, at the Tyler School of Art in Rome. 40 American students studied in a 500-year-old palazzo on the Tiber River. In addition, every Friday, Dr. Benge’s Renaissance Art History class explored the churches, museums and streets of Rome. While I concentrated in printmaking, literature and art history, I should have studied harder in Italian. My struggle continues with the language to this day and I’m in love with the sound of it. Living in the Eternal City deepened and nurtured my love for Italian art and art history, as well as the restless, rebellious Caravaggio.

Rome is a place where you can walk through 2000 years in a few blocks.

We always stay in the Old City, which still feels like home even after all these years. Our September trip brought us to the Sole Al Pantheon, a lovely, historic hotel on the Piazza delle Rotunda. The ancient piazzas that open up along the arteries of Rome are irresistible. They gather people into their light, noise and space. What is it about cobblestones, fountains and ancient monuments that make me never want to leave? Could be the salumeria across the piazza from our hotel.

San Luigi dei Francesi

Caravaggio painted his figures with light.

One of the big attractions of this neighborhood is that Caravaggio lived and worked here in the early 17th century before fleeing in 1606 after murdering his opponent in a tennis match. He lost his parents in a plague in Milan as a boy. Years later his family connections, studies and commissions brought him to Rome. His paintings are of the vulnerability and heroism of man, faith, secrets and turbulence. Figures are rendered in a severely contrasting light called “chiaro scuro”, a technique that features a single candle-like glow that draws figures and spirits out of the dark. Caravaggio’s huge canvases are thrilling and intense, especially when you can see them for yourself in the churches that commissioned them.

The Catholic Church directed Caravaggio what subjects were to be painted.

You have to struggle to see the three masterpieces, barely lit, in left rear of the nave of San Luigi dei Francesi. This is an adjustment one has to make when searching out the many privately commissioned treasures of Rome. Murky light invaded by the sun though a dome as the day wanes is exactly the way it was when Caravaggio painted these images. The Calling of St. Matthew, The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew are engrossing in subject, mood and realism, even in the 3 minutes of light that you can pay for with coins. I think the light box was the same 20th century contraption we popped 600 lire into in 1975.

Madonna of Loretto in chiaro scuro

A short walk away is another Caravaggio masterpiece.

Alongside the main altar by Bernini and near a Raphael painting almost hidden in the darkness, in a second church just minutes away from the first one, is the Madonna of Loreto. This is a calm and focused work painted for the patrons of The Church of Sant Agostino and hung amid the profusion of the Renaissance.

Rome is truly The Eternal City.

Every time we go to Rome I see the City from a different vantage point as we investigate the infinite layers of civilization, art and cuisine. Therefore, we will visit other churches that were on my way to school where Caravaggio paintings adorn the chapels along with the other great masters of the Renaissance and its aftermath. The legacy of Michelangelo was placed in the hands of this tortured soul who invented the Baroque style, sought salvation in his canvases and never found it.

Read more about Caravaggio’s life here.

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