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The long history of Rome has been chequered by characters full of controversy and brilliance, and no-one has encapsulated this confounding mix of the high and the low more than Caravaggio, one of the most famous painters in the story of Italian art. Extraordinarily prolific, despite his tragically early death at 39 and his long flight from the law, Caravaggio's startlingly original work changed the landscape of art forever. Join us as we uncover his dramatic life of violence and intrigue through the prism of the artistic legacy that he left to the Eternal City. On this Caravaggio Tour of Rome we will retrace his steps through taverns and brothels, palaces and churches, and discover how the troubled life and art of this great genius have remained inextricably linked in the popular imagination of the city.
The ancient church of Santa Maria del Popolo hides two of Caravaggio's greatest masterpieces, The Conversion of Saul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter. In these stark expressions of Caravaggio's unique brilliance, guileless figures loom out of the darkness at us, disconcertingly close and unexpectedly large. These are no idealized paragons of classical beauty, but men with dirty feet and faces marked by their wearisome work. In The Conversion of Paul, Caravaggio undoes at a stroke centuries of conventional wisdom concerning composition and symmetry, his canvas dominated not by the moment of divine revelation but instead by the huge and inelegant flank of a draft horse. The contrast with the classical serenity of Annibale Caracci's altarpiece could hardly be more obvious, as two visions of representation vie for the ascendancy in the space of this tiny chapel. It was the vision of Caravaggio that would win the day. These rough and unadorned canvasses of real people thrust into the world of biblical narrative constituted nothing less than a revolution in religious art, and painting would never be the same again.
The magnificent Palazzo Barberini houses some of Caravaggio's finest works, from his Narcissus eternally lost in the reflection of his own unmatched beauty to the sensational Judith Beheading Holofernes, a heady cocktail of sex and violence that shocked contemporary viewers. Its graphic violence remains nothing short of hypnotic, and it seems almost impossible not to be transfixed by the livid streams of blood that spurt from the Assyrian general's neck and across the canvas. Caravaggio also courted controversy in his representation of Judith. In her features, contemporaries recognised not an ancient Israeli widow but a local prostitute, and in the withered crone accompanying her not a faithful maidservant but rather a deadly procuress. This often overlooked gallery is undoubtedly one of the outstanding hidden gems of our private walking tour of Rome.
Caravaggio's disturbing tendency to mix the sacred and the profane surfaced once again in the church of Sant'Agostino, not far from Piazza Navona. The Madonna of Loreto that he painted for the Cavaletti Chapel is a wonderful work of introspection and quiet devotion, but the pilgrims' dirty feet, the Virgin Mary's barefooted apparition and the general urban decay in which the scene is set worryingly brought the impoverished and lowly streets of Rome into the rarefied air of the church. Was this the apt reflection of a new religious inclusionism, or wildly inappropriate irreverence? Caravaggio's idiosyncratic approach to sacred imagery divided the art scene of the 17th-century city.
In the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, we will be confronted with one of the painter's most famous evocations of violence, the electrically tense Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. A scantily clad youth apparently awaiting baptism has risen up from the crowd of the faithful, sword in hand, and is poised to dispatch the unsuspecting saint. An altar-boy flees in panic as a motley crowd looks grimly on, powerless to intervene. Amongst the whirling vortex of confused figures, a bearded man in the shadows catches our eye. It is none other than Caravaggio himself, at once repulsed and yet beguiled by the terrible power of violence, the violence of his own creation.
In 1606, when Caravaggio was at the height of his fame after so many transcendent successes, the artist's volcanic temper finally brought about his downfall. During a duel on one of the city's many tennis courts, Caravaggio fatally stabbed his rival, the otherwise obscure Ranuccio Tomassoni. The details remain shrouded in mystery – perhaps the argument arose over unpaid gambling debts, or competing affections for a young woman, but whatever the cause, at a stroke Caravaggio became persona non grata. The moody violence that seemed to grow more forceful in every passing work that he painted had erupted from the world of pictorial fantasy and into reality. In that instant of transformation from observer to perpetrator, Caravaggio lost everything. From the most famous painter in Rome, a man feted by cardinals and aristocrats, Caravaggio was reduced to an exiled fugitive, fleeing justice and pursued by unknown assassins out for revenge.
Caravaggio would never again return to Rome. The sins of his past never left him in peace, and the great artist was destined to die feverish and alone on the beach of Porto Ercole in the blinding light of an Italian morning. Fashioning works of sublime beauty from the inky blackness of his imagination, Caravaggio had invented a new language of pictorial drama that was all his own, a chilling world of executions, assassinations and martyrdoms. Those dark fantasies overtook him, and with a tragic inevitability became his own reality. Obsessed with his own work, he had become a part of it. To find Caravaggio, we must seek him in his images, on our walking tour with expert guides.
On the left side of the entrance gate to Palazzo Barberini on Via delle Quattro Fontane, 13.
This is a tour through the city center of Rome, including a museum and some churches. There are some steps. Comfortable shoes and a bottle of water are recommended.
Our guides are fluent in English and have a contagious passion for Rome's inspiring cultural heritage. Experts in their fields, they will immerse you in the hidden histories and intriguing lives of history's great protagonists. So much to see, so easy to miss out: with the help of our guides, visit the most absorbing sites and uncover the stories that have changed the world. Don't miss this fascinating journey!