The Musicians, 1595 Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, founded April 13th, 1870, holds over 2 million pieces from various time periods and countries. Some of the collections of art that I had seen at the museum included Greek and Roman, Medieval, Egyptian, and Modern Contemporary pieces. The exhibits contained high diversity, but I found most of my interest in the European Paintings section. One piece that particularly stood out to me was titled The Musicians by Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, who was also known as, “The Italian Baroque Master” (Metropolitan Museum of Art). The painting, dated 1595, expressed Caravaggio’s style of realism, and the tendencies of Baroque Art in Italy during the 16 th century.
Adopting the name of his hometown in Lombardy, Northern Italy, Caravaggio was born
Michelangelo Merisi in 1571, to Fermo Merisi and Lucia Aratori (Caravaggio-Foundation). When the artist was 5 years old, he and his family moved to Caravaggio in order to escape a plague that severely hit Milan (Caravaggio-Foundation). Both his father and mother died in Milan in 1577 and 1584, respectively. In the year his mother had passed, Caravaggio was apprenticed for four years under the painter Simone Peterzano, who was also a pupil of Titian, an Italian painter of the Venetian school
(Caravaggio-Foundation). During this tenure, Caravaggio had become familiar with the art treasures of
Milan, including Da Vinci’s Last Supper, as well as other regional art of Lombardy (Caravaggio-
Foundation). The pieces he had seen and observed, which emphasized simplicity and attention to natural detail, began to shape Caravaggio’s own style, which was shown through his own works.
Many of his peers throughout his lifetime considered Caravaggio to be arrogant, enigmatic, and even dangerous (Warwick 88). At the age of 21, in 1592, he moved to Rome, which was Italy’s new artistic center and an attractive magnet for many young and aspiring artists. He had also begun to work for artist Giuseppe Cesari, who was also a highly revered artist by Pope Clement VIII (The National
Gallery). Caravaggio began painting flowers and fruits he had seen in Cesari’s workshop. His first work,
Boy Peeling a Fruit, along with two other pieces, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, and Young Sick Bacchus demonstrated Caravaggio’s aspect of realism in his work, a characteristic the artist was renowned for
(The National Gallery). Between 1593 and 1610, the artist was active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily
(Caravaggio-Foundation). Caravaggio’s rebellious demeanor had also earned him envy among others; he had also spent much of his life participating in many brawls and fights (Graham-Dixon 67). Despite shortlived success, he is also considered to be the first great representative of the Baroque school of art.
The Baroque period of art in Italy was the direct result of the Counter-Reformation (Baroque
Art). The church wanted a powerful, dramatic style of art to use against Martin Luther. Conflicts between Catholics and Protestants also had a great effect on art in Italy. The Catholics launched building campaigns for their churches, including their furnishings and decorations. There was a great demand for art due to the rise of absolute monarchies and grand courts, which served as statements of authority and power (Baroque Art). The reformation ushered in new artist styles, as well as a different emphasis in paintings.
During the Baroque Period in Italy, there were many patrons who provided monetary support for many artists. Some of these patrons included the church, courts, secular governments, and the middle class (Baroque Art). As opposed to the universal man of the Renaissance Period, many artists began to change their style and become more versatile in order to fulfill the needs of the various groups of patrons. Usually, each artist worked for one patron at a time and the patron had most of the control during the tenure of this relationship.
Baroque Art generally applied to many styles, but art during the period had many unique tendencies. The works and sculptures during this time period were often very stormy and extremely emotional (Baroque Art). The style presented by Baroque was also more dynamic than preceding styles.
Pieces were often sensual, extravagant, forceful, tense, and bursting with energy, evoking an art of passion (Baroque Art). Many artists during this time period were also fascinated with the concept of space, light, and motion, and reflected it through their works. Baroque art is considered to reflect the conflict between passion and the reason of classicism (Baroque Art). Caravaggio’s artwork, The
Musicians, reflected many of these qualities of the Baroque Era.
The Musicians was thought to be his first painting completed for Cardinal Francesco Maria Del
Monte (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Caravaggio had composed the piece by using two figures as his inspiration, his companion Mario Minniti, and possibly a self-portrait of the artist himself (The
Musicians-Caravaggio). The Cupid depicted in the painting also bears a strong resemblance to a character in one of his earlier works, Boy Peeling Fruit, done a few years before. The Musicians which shows four boys in classical age attire playing various musical instruments and singing represents an allegory of music (The Musicians-Caravaggio). The work is also considered to be secular rather than religious. The boys in the piece are practicing madrigals celebrating love, indicated by the presence of
Cupid in the piece (The Musicians-Caravaggio).
The Musicians displays a wide array and a harmonious blend of colors. The shade of peach on the boys faces are accented by the manilas and whites in the picture. The colors of the violin and the lyre, the instruments in the painting, compliment the subtleness of the other colors as well. The central figure dressed in the red sash, Cupid, seems to be the focal point of the artwork, bringing the whole piece together. The work also represents the artistic aspect of chiaroscuro, which is exploiting the strong contrasts between light and dark to enhance the character of the work and to add dramatic effect
(Caravaggio Style and Technique). The painting is also considered to be Caravaggio’s most ambitious,
complex artwork, showing the attention to detail and emphasis on co-extensive space he was known for.
The location of the painting was originally a mystery to many. Many art experts were unable to spot a record of the painting, or even the painting itself. In the mid 1930’s, an antique dealer by the name of Joe Cookson spotted the painting in a Cumberland country house, and it was apparent that the piece had been painted over and over (The Musicians- Caravaggio). The name “Caravaggio” and
“Michelangelo da” were also located on the painting. The painting was obtained by the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in 1952 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Despite the flaws of the artwork and the poor condition of the painting, it still remains one of Caravaggio’s most popular works.
The Musicians although one of Caravaggio’s most known works, had some shortcomings that were often criticized by artistic experts. Since Caravaggio had drawn each figure in the painting separately, a poor use of the picture space was utilized. The painting, which was a monument in
Caravaggio’s style, displays the figures in awkward stances, but it was something Caravaggio improved upon during his tenure as an artist. The figures do not look fluid, and there is a certain “flat” aspect to the painting that had been criticized by many.
The Musicians by Caravaggio is a powerful piece, not only because of the colors used or the painting itself, but the background of the artist as well. Observing the picture, you can see the intense emotion portrayed by the face of Cupid. Many paintings drawn by artists are often a reflection of an aspect of the artist’s life, and this piece suggests the type of emotions that Caravaggio may have felt during the preparation of this piece. The fact that Caravaggio had drawn a piece about musicians suggests that he had a fascination with the effect of music in society, something that many artists had featured in their artwork at that time. There is a huge difference in seeing the piece up close, as opposed to seeing the picture through a secondary source. You get a sense of what the artist was feeling during the time of the painting, as well as the flaws, which are more identifiable when viewed in person.
The Baroque period of Italian art was a time where artists attempted to draw the viewer in to participate into the scene of each work. Many artists instilled intense emotion and defined physical characteristics in their pieces, which is why realism, which can be defined as “a style of art or literature that shows or describes people and things as they are in real life,” was popular during this time
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Caravaggio, one of the most revolutionary artists of his time, exemplified
Baroque art. His outlandish personality and quarrelsome attitude was symbolic of the effect his pieces had on the art during that period. Despite his reputation, Caravaggio’s The Musicians, his most famous work, will continue to be historically one of the most important Baroque art pieces to date.