Wondering where to find Caravaggio paintings in Rome?
Read on for our complete guide to Caravaggio's works in the Eternal City!
In Rome, not only do we have three churches but also museums and palazzos where you can see many masterpieces by one of the world's most celebrated artists, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known as just "Caravaggio."
Who was he? Why did he die so young?
And what was his effect on Baroque painting?
Read on to find out where you can find Caravaggio in Rome!
On this page, we'll cover:
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in 1571 in a small town of that name in Lombardy, Northern Italy.
Some sources have him as being born in Milan instead.
His father was a stonemason, but although he was from a simple background, Caravaggio's mother had connections with the local nobility, particularly the influential and powerful Sforza and Colonna families.
This link to power would prove enough to open doors for Caravaggio as he got older.
At just thirteen years old he became a painter's apprentice in Milan, but had to leave the city in 1592 because he had got himself in trouble with the law.
This pattern would be repeated many times over his lifetime!
Caravaggio arrived in Rome with very little to his name, and few connections.
However, very quickly his innate talent attracted attention, although his naturalist style choice was not popular at the time and some commissions were rejected.
In 1599 he was selected to decorate the Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi (located in between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon), and when his paintings were unveiled in 1600 they caused a sensation.
From this point on he was very much in demand, producing his most famous works for patrons all over Rome.
When in Rome Caravaggio had a reputation as a violent and difficult-to-handle individual, even at a time when violence was common.
He was often involved in bar brawls, challenged adversaries to duels, and in 1606 had a sword fight with Rannucio Tomassoni who died from his injuries.
Wanted for murder, Caravaggio fled Rome, going first to Naples and then to Malta, where he joined the military and religious order, the Knights of Malta.
True to form, he fought with another member of the order and was expelled.
Caravaggio then moved on to Sicily before returning to Naples, where he lived for some time.
While in Naples, he was involved in yet another street brawl and was injured badly.
He got on a ship headed for Rome, hoping to gain a papal pardon, but sadly he died before he could attempt this.
Caravaggio's paintings are particularly known for their unique style.
He painted using a special technique known as chiaroscuro, a treatment of light and shade which uses contrast to highlight specific details.
He also chose to portray subjects in extreme realism, which was in direct contrast to the Renaissance style of artists like Michelangelo and Raphael.
This was very unusual at the time, and caused Caravaggio to stand out.
He also tended to paint straight on to the canvas with no preparation, and favored a subject matter of ordinary people with few embellishments.
He was subject to significant criticism from some quarters during his lifetime because of his unusual choices, but others could see his genius.
His work came to be universally admired and hugely influential on future artists.
Caravaggio died in 1610, and while we know roughly where and when, the cause of his death is the subject of much debate.
The ship that was to take him to Rome reached its destination, but there is no record of him in the Eternal City.
The most generally accepted location of Caravaggio's death is the small coastal town of Porto Ercole in Tuscany, but it has also been suggested that he died in the Lazio countryside near Rome.
As for how he died, many sources claim that Caravaggio succumbed to malaria.
This is disputed by some historians who suggest he may have died from syphilis.
At the time of his death, rumors circulated that he had been killed, either by the Knights of Malta or a family of an adversary in Sicily.
Others claim he had died from sepsis due to being stabbed in a sword fight just before leaving for Rome.
Another possible cause of his death was lead poisoning.
This is a strong possibility as paints of the time were lead-based, and Caravaggio was known to be liberal with his paints.
However, the possible events surrounding Caravaggio's death took a strange turn in 2002, when the Vatican released documents claiming that the Tomassini family had killed Caravaggio as revenge for the murder of Rannucio Tomassini.
As with all claims to his death, the document is hotly disputed.
While we will likely never know the cause of Caravaggio's death for certain, it's fitting that such an enigmatic figure should meet such a mysterious end!
Luckily for us, you can visit many Caravaggio masterpieces in Rome.
More of Caravaggio's works can be found at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, the Capitoline Museums, Galleria Borghese, Vatican Museums, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Palazzo Corsini, and Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi.
Keep reading for our complete breakdown of where to go and which of Caravaggio's works you can see in Rome:
There are two versions of St Francis in Prayer.
There is this one in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccino and another found in the Carpineto Romano.
The differences are in the layout and presentation, each featuring a slightly different pose and head position.
There have been disputes about whether they are both by the artist, but art historians are confident they are from the hand of Caravaggio.
Judith Beheading Holofernes is one of the most famous paintings by Caravaggio.
The painting depicts the moment of the assassination of Holofernes, a Syrian General who was sent to destroy the city of Bethulia.
Judith, a pious young widow moved by the plight of her people goes to the general's tent on the pretext of bringing information.
He is charmed by her beauty and asks her to dine with him.
Holofernes gets drunk, Judith seizes a sword and slays him and saves her city.
The model for Judith is probably the Roman courtesan Fillide Melandroni, who posed for several other works by Caravaggio in 1598.
This painting is one of only two known Caravaggio's with a theme from classical mythology.
Caravaggio paints the handsome youth Narcissus who falls in love with his own reflection.
Unable to tear himself away, he dies and as he crosses the river Styx, he continues to gaze at his reflection.
The Fortune Teller is typical of Caravaggio's works, which often painted ordinary people.
He painted two versions of the scene, this one is in the Capitoline Museums and the other, a slightly later version, is in the Louvre in Paris.
The version in Rome shows a young man whose manner of dressing puts him in the upper classes of Roman society.
Holding his hand is a Romanian girl, the Fortune Teller of the title.
She holds his hand underneath, palm up, stroking his palm while looking straight at him.
The boy does not realize she is removing a ring from his finger!
The date for the painting is disputed but is thought to be around 1594.
This unusual composition depicting a young naked St John the Baptist or San Giovanni Battista.
Unusually, the Baptist is without the items he is usually identified by; a bowl, a reed cross, and a lamb, which has raised discussions about the accuracy of the subject.
Dated to 1602-03, this wonderful masterpiece is a remarkable example of a portrait of Saint John that removes the religious connotations.
It was intended for private ownership rather than to display openly in a church or place of worship.
The world-famous Borghese Gallery houses a fabulous collection of quality artworks, including several famous paintings by Caravaggio.
The Borghese Gallery was once the home of the Borghese family, and the collection was put together originally by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who had an eye for art.
Along with the Caravaggios, the Galleria Borghese also features significant works by the painter Titian and sculptures by one of the finest of all, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Young Sick Bacchus depicts an unwell Bacchus with grapes and is painted against a dark background.
It is considered a still life, and yet historians believe it was a self portrait created using a mirror.
The self portrait was likely used by Caravaggio to market himself, demonstrating his capability in painting still life and portraits.
Formerly in the collection of Guiseppe Cesari, this painting is another early example of Caravaggio's work in still life.
The model in the picture is Mario Minniti, about 16 years old, and a friend and companion of Caravaggio in Rome.
In this composition, Minniti holds an intricate bowl of fruit and stands in a slightly awkward pose, looking out at the viewer with his head tilted.
It is a very realistic work for the artist, and the fruit is highly detailed.
This painting of Saint Jerome reading intently, an outstretched arm resting with quill was created for Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
It is believed to have been done during Caravaggio's late Roman period.
Madonna and Child with St Anne is a Caravaggio with an interesting back story.
The painting shows the Virgin leaning forward, holding the Christ child, with Saint Anne looking on.
On the floor is a snake, the 'serpent of heresy', an ancient myth that appears in biblical writings.
The painting was initially installed on an altar in St Peter's Basilica but was removed after a few days as the Virgin is considered to be showing too much bosom, and the snake was too realistic.
This would not be the only time the artist painted a Madonna thought to be indecent!
Caravaggio is known to have painted at least eight images of John the Baptist, and the one in the Galleria Borghese is of particular interest.
Unusually, it depicts him as a playful child, with a sheep in the composition.
The date of this San Giovanni Battista painting is disputed, yet art historians have claimed that it is from the artist's time in Sicily, judging by the use of light and color.
Caravaggio's painting, David with the Head of Goliath, is interesting for a few reasons.
First, it is undoubtedly one of his most famous works, explicitly depicting the famous biblical legend.
What is more interesting to art historians is that the head of Goliath is a Caravaggio self-portrait.
The painting is believed to have been a personal gift from the artist to Cardinal Borghese, who held great status within the papacy.
It is thought to have been intended as a plea for clemency while Caravaggio was wanted for murder.
The Deposizione is one of Caravaggio's most admired altarpieces.
Caravaggio was commissioned to paint The Entombment Of Christ for the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella.
The dead Christ is being moved to his tomb by Nicodemus and John.
Close to him are Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Cleophas who is raising her arms and eyes towards heaven in prayer.
The painting was removed by Napoleon and taken to Paris in 1797, it was not returned to Rome until 1816 when it was installed in the Vatican Museums.
A copy of the painting is now in the chapel in Santa Maria in Vallicella, with the original in the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums.
Penitent Magdalene depicts Mary Magdalene in a repentant and spiritual transformation.
Mary Magdalene's expression convey her repentance and devotion.
The portrayal of human emotion make it a timeless masterpiece, capturing the themes of redemption and forgiveness.
Rest on the Flight into Egypt captures a moment of rest during the Holy Family's escape to Egypt.
The painting portrays The Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus sleeping under a tree, while Joseph holds a manuscript for an angel who plays a hymn on a violin.
John the Baptist is depicted as a young, contemplative figure, illuminated by a soft light that accentuates his introspective gaze.
The youthful San Giovanni Battista is shown half-reclining, one arm around a ram's neck, his face turned to the viewer with an impish grin.
Yet another painting of Saint John, this is one of two John the Baptists painted by Caravaggio in or around 1604.
The figure has been stripped of identifying symbols with no belt, and the reed cross is only suggested.
This version of John the Baptist introduces him with more realism and drama.
The only known Caravaggio oil painting on a ceiling, this dramatic rendition of three gods from ancient art was painted for the artist's patron Cardinal del Monte.
The villa is now a private house, and there is considerable interest in this artwork as it is within a building that currently stands empty.
A famous recent incident saw the inhabitant, Princess Rita Ludovisi, the widow of Prince Nicolo Boncompagni, evicted from the villa following an inheritance dispute with her husband's children.
Italian authorities ruled the house must be sold to solve the dispute.
The authorities have put the house up for auction four times, and there were no bidders.
The fate of the famous and unique Caravaggio and many other precious artworks, including a statue of Pan by Michelangelo is currently unknown.
In all these churches listed here, Caravaggio's masterpieces are in chapels that are best seen when lit.
So while it's free to enter the churches, you may wish to spend the 1-2 Euros required to light up the chapel.
Caravaggio painted the Virgin Mary holding her child and two pilgrims kneeling at her feet.
The painting caused an uproar upon its unveiling, as it depicts the Virgin Mary as an ordinary woman with only a slight halo highlighting her saintliness.
She is barefoot, as are the pilgrims in the painting, and the background is a simple setting.
Such a composition came as a shock to those used to traditional religious paintings.
There are two Caravaggio paintings in the lovely church of Santa Maria del Popolo, both in the Cerasi Chapel:
The Crucifixion of Saint Peter is a dramatic and highly detailed painting.
It depicts the famous tale of St Peter asking to be crucified upside down as he didn't believe he was worthy of death in the same manner as Jesus Christ.
Also in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, The Conversion of Saint Paul or Conversione di San Paolos tells a well-known biblical story.
According to the New Testament, Saul of Tarsus went from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians but witnesses a 'divine light' and hears the voice of Jesus, causing him to convert and take the name of Paul.
An interesting detail in the painting is that Caravaggio has Saint Paul falling from a horse.
The painting therefore started a myth that Saul was on horseback, yet the text in the Bible does not mention this.
The use of light in his typical style makes this stand out as one of Caravaggio's most impressive works.
The church of San Luigi dei Francesi, just to the east of Piazza Navona, is the home of the world-famous three painting cycle that Caravaggio painted about the life of Saint Matthew.
All three Caravaggio's paintings of Saint Matthew are in the Contarelli Chapel.
The three Caravaggio paintings were his first major commission in Rome.
The Calling of St Matthew is on the left wall of the chapel inside the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
The painting depicts the moment at which Jesus inspires St Matthew to follow him.
The Martyrdom of St Matthew inside San Luigi Dei Francesi is on the central panel.
As with many Roman chapels, the Contarelli Chapel is not lit permanently, and yet Caravaggio uses his style of contrasting dark and light to bring it to life.
Notably, the two side panels are lit by a solitary beam of light from the only source of natural light.
Caravaggio clearly considered this and painted his images accordingly.
The inspiration of St Matthew is on the right hand panel in the church of San Luigi.
In this painting, Saint Matthew sits at a desk as an angel stands before him to the right guiding his hands as Saint Matthew writes.
Caravaggio is generally considered to be a Baroque artist rather than a Renaissance artist.
While he lived and worked during the late Renaissance period, his dramatic use of light and shadow, his naturalistic approach to depicting the human figure, and his emphasis on emotion and realism are all hallmarks of the Baroque style.
Caravaggio's work is often seen as a precursor to the Baroque period, which began shortly after his death.
Caravaggio was also known for his naturalistic approach to painting, with a focus on creating lifelike figures with dramatic lighting and realistic facial expressions.
His work often featured everyday people as his subjects, and he sought to convey their humanity and emotions in a direct and unvarnished way.
While Caravaggio's work was innovative and groundbreaking in its own right, it can be seen as a reaction against the exaggerated style of Mannerism that had dominated the preceding period.
Plenty of Caravaggio's life was spent in Naples, and there is a Caravaggio painting on display at the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano.
The Martyrdom of Saint Ursuala was painted during Caravaggio's time in Naples and is widely believed to be his last work.
It was commissioned by Marcantonio Doria, an avid collector of Caravaggio.
The work depicts Saint Ursula after her companions had been brutally murdered by the king of the Huns who offered to spare her in return for her hand in marriage.
She refused and was punished as a result.
While the artist did not spend much, if any, time in Florence, you can see many of his works here.
The two best places to see masterpieces by the artist are at the Uffizi Galleries and Pitti Palace.
A third location, the Fondazione Roberto Longhi, is out of the city center but also visitable, so if you're visiting Florence, you will not miss out on seeing some Caravaggio!