Today we will discover 10 Caravaggio’s paintings that are an absolute must-see in Rome in only 3 days.
He is undoubtedly one of the most admired artists of all time, the one who, like no one else, was able to make light “tangible” through the medium of painting, in contrast with the darkness of the background. We are, of course, talking about Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, one of the greatest painters in history.
Our beautiful capital has the fortune of preserving in churches and museums some of his most representative paintings, since he lived in Rome for several years after leaving his native Lombardy.
Before to start, don’t miss to read also: Rome for Free: Here are 10 Must-See Places!
Let’s start our tour right away to discover all of Caravaggio’s paintings in Rome!
1. PIAZZA NAVONA
Ideally, our itinerary to discover the treasures of Caravaggio kept in Rome could start from Piazza Navona: it was here, in fact, that the artist settled when he first arrived in the capital, in those “streets full of knives” that find their central hub in the square.
Caravaggio therefore frequented “ordinary people,” the same people he would later depict in his paintings as Saints, Christs, and Madonnas.
But let’s now start moving towards the first place where we can admire firsthand the great art that the painter was able to create…
Enjoy your visit!
2. SAN LUIGI DEI FRANCESI’S CHURCH
The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi is located not far from Piazza Navona, in the area of Corso Rinascimento.
Once you enter, walk all the way down the left nave and, right at the end, in the Contarelli Chapel, three wonders will open up before your eyes:
- the “Calling of Saint Matthew“;
- the “Martyrdom of Saint Matthew“;
- and “Saint Matthew and the Angel“.
Caravaggio obtained this commission at just over twenty years old, following a refusal to continue the decoration by Cavalier d’Arpino, in whose workshop the artist had “applied himself to painting flowers and fruit.”
Caravaggio first completed the side canvases (1599-1600).
In the Calling (the left canvas), the moment of Saint Matthew’s “calling” by Christ is represented: the artist sets the scene in his time, as we see the tax collectors dressed according to the fashion of the seventeenth century.
What makes the scene suggestive is the beam of light coming from above that, almost touching Christ’s hand, illuminates the recipient of that “pointing finger”: it is not naturalistic light but “divine” light.
In the Martyrdom (the canvas on the right), the composition revolves around the figure of the executioner, who prepares for the final blow on the Saint, lying at his feet, while an angel rushes to offer the palm of martyrdom.
Finally, regarding the central canvas, the Saint Matthew and the Angel (1602), what we see today is the second version that Caravaggio depicted:
the first version was rejected, as it showed the Saint as an illiterate, “with his feet roughly exposed to the people,” and the Angel guiding his hand as if he were almost unable to write.
This second version is instead more composed, despite maintaining the contrast between the figure of Saint Matthew, “all too human,” and that of the angel, created according to Mannerist canons.
3. SANT’AGOSTINO’S CHURCH
At the end of Corso Rinascimento, towards Piazza delle Cinque Lune, you can find the Church of Sant’Agostino. Here, the “Madonna dei Pellegrini” (1604-6) is preserved in the first chapel on the left, right near the entrance.
The curiosity of this painting lies in the fact that the face of the Madonna was “borrowed” from Lena Antognetti, a famous courtesan of the time. At the feet of the Madonna, we can see the two travelers who are depicted in a gritty, true-to-life style, with their legs partially exposed in the foreground.
4. Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo is easily found, as it is located right on Piazza del Popolo, near the gate that opens onto the Aurelian Walls.
The Cerasi Chapel opens onto the transept, and here are exhibited the Caravaggio’s paintings:
“The Conversion of Saint Paul” (1660-1), and “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” (1600-1). In the first painting, Saint Paul is depicted lying on the ground, in a twisted position, at the feet of the horse, having fallen at the moment when he was struck by the “strong light of revelation”: the divine event is totally “internalized”, once again thanks to the use of symbolic light.
In the second painting, Saint Peter demonstrates incredible stoicism in the moment of his ultimate suffering.
5. Doria Pamphilj Gallery
Moving from Piazza del Popolo towards Piazza Venezia, almost at the end of Via del Corso, you will encounter on your right the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, where you can have a nice treat as the Gallery hosts three paintings by Caravaggio:
- the “Penitent Magdalene” (ca. 1595);
- the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (ca. 1595);
- and one of the two identical versions of “St. John the Baptist” (1602).
In the first painting, the religious theme is represented in a domestic key, with the contrite Magdalene in the center of an empty space, who has just abandoned on the ground a necklace of pearls and jewelry, as a sign of her renunciation of worldly life.
Really few people know about these wonderful places, and you will hardly find them elsewhere:
The second painting represents a real masterpiece of the early phase: the space is indeed organized in a completely original way, with the two groups of figures (St. Joseph on one side and the Virgin with the Child on the other) connected through the central figure of the Angel, represented from behind; the latter plays the notes of the Song of Songs on the violin, whose score is held open by Joseph.
Finally, we will see both versions of St. John the Baptist, as the second one is preserved in the Capitoline Museums: the pose of the Saint is derived from that of Michelangelo’s Ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, but the figure gains greater volume thanks to chiaroscuro effects.
6. Borghese Gallery
The Borghese Gallery gathers the largest group of Caravaggio’s paintings in Rome.
Among the painter’s early works, simply magnificent are the “Boy with a Basket of Fruit” and the “Sick Bacchus” (1593-4).
In the first painting, the attention to detail is striking, in depicting the still life that the young man holds in his hand (see, for example, the bloody split of the ripe fig or the rendering of the leaves, sometimes yellowed, others withered). Of the Sick Bacchus, it is said to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, determined to depict himself during a period of illness.
Among Caravaggio’s paintings from his more mature period, here you can particularly admire the “Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Madonna dei Palafrenieri)” (1605-6) and “David with the Head of Goliath” (1609-10).
In the Madonna dei Palafrenieri, we recognize once again Lena Antognetti in the face of the Madonna;
in the David with the Head of Goliath, it has instead been suggested to identify the same artist in the features of Goliath, endorsing a reading of the work in a psychoanalytic key (we are in the years of the artist’s death sentence, who, however, went on the run).
7. Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums house a single but extremely significant work by Caravaggio: the “Deposition of Christ” (1602-4).
This was one of the few paintings to receive immediate unanimous praise, probably thanks to the classical approach that Caravaggio wanted to give it.
The group of figures is arranged on top of the tombstone, which with its protruding edge gives three-dimensionality to the entire scene. All the characters are depicted with extreme naturalism, typical of the Lombard manner: Christ’s body is livid, Nicodemus’s face is wrinkled, and those of the pious women are distorted by grief.
8. Palazzo Barberini
Once you cross the threshold of Palazzo Barberini, you’ll be able to admire a work that was widely used as a model by subsequent “Caravaggisti,” first and foremost Artemisia Gentileschi: we’re talking about “Judith and Holofernes” (1599).
The painting is capable of conveying the “movements of the soul” that stir the depicted characters:
Holofernes shows an expression of extreme pain and his body is tense from the same.
Judith seems to fulfill her task with disdain and reluctance; her youthful beauty is contrasted by the wrinkled face of the servant, who is also emotionally involved in the barbaric event.
Also in Palazzo Barberini, we find one of most suggestive Caravaggio’s paintings: a “Narcissus” (1599) who, looking at his reflected image on a water surface, captures his own image. An interesting fact is that the size of the canvas creates an almost perfectly double representation.
9. Pinacoteca Capitolina
The themes of both paintings in the Capitoline Gallery, the “Fortune Teller” (1593-4) and the “St. John the Baptist” (1602), were addressed several times by Caravaggio.
In the first work, the artist creates an interesting interplay of gazes between the two figures: it depicts a gypsy woman who, while pretending to read the hand of a naive young man from the upper class, cleverly takes the ring from his finger.
The second work, as mentioned before, is a practically identical copy of the one preserved in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery.
10. Palazzo Corsini
Let’s conclude this Caravaggio itinerary in Rome at the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Palazzo Corsini. In the gallery, you can admire another version of the “St. John the Baptist”: the saint emerges from the darkness with the whiteness of his body, wrapped in a purple cloak; his face is hidden by the adopted oblique pose.
If you have made it this far, you can say that you have virtually seen all 10 of Caravaggio’s paintings in Rome!
Now it’s your turn:
What are you waiting for to discover all of Caravaggio’s paintings in the places I have indicated???
Only then will you become an expert connoisseur of Caravaggio’s work in Rome!
Don’t forget to let me know about your experience after you have admired these unmissable works in the comments below 😉
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