There are many places where you can admire the work of Caravaggio in Rome. This troubled artist was actually not from Rome – in fact, he was from the area of Milan, and while he traveled to many places to escape justice throughout his life, he certainly contributed to shaping the artistic side of Rome.
In this post, I will unveil the places you must visit to admire the works of Caravaggio in Rome, and provide some practical tips to plan your visit and make the most of it. Before discovering where to see the works of Caravaggio in Rome, let me share a bit more about the artist’s incredible life.
Who Was Caravaggio?
In his short but wildly successful life, Caravaggio left behind a legacy in art that survives to this day. Rather than focusing on gods and highly esteemed individuals as his subjects, Caravaggio’s artwork depicted everyday people.
He was born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio on September 29th, 1571, in Milan. His father was an architect and decorator for the Marchese of Caravaggio. The family made the move to the town – around 35 kilometers east of Milan – to escape a plague in 1576.
It’s believed that Caravaggio spent his childhood here, where he eventually began a four-year apprenticeship under the Milanese painter Simone Peterzano in 1584. During this time, it’s thought that the young Caravaggio may have visited Venice, and seen the works of great Renaissance artists of the time, including Giorgione. It’s also thought that Caravaggio became well acquainted with masterpieces closer to home, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.
Caravaggio made the move to Rome when he was in his 20s, following his initial training under Peterzano, in 1582. But this wasn’t an artistic endeavour: it’s documented that Caravaggio made the move in an attempt to avoid “certain quarrels” after a police officer was wounded.
Arriving in Rome “naked and extremely needy… without fixed address and without provision… short of money,” Caravaggio spent his first years in Rome doing menial artistic tasks. This mainly meant painting fruits and flowers for highly successful artists such as Giuseppe Cesari.
His talents, however, were soon noticed. Rome was, at the time, in a period of rebuilding and transitioning from one style of art to another, and the church was on the lookout for skilled artists.
Moving away from his employment under Cesari (following an argument), Caravaggio began to make his own way in the world of art in Rome. He made friends with a string of influential painters of the time, which in turn introduced him to influential collectors and patrons. One of these was Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who provided him with food, lodgings and artistic commissions. His work from this time celebrated music, depicted still life, and androgynous males.
It was also around this time that Caravaggio was introduced to a more gritty side of Roman life, namely street brawls. It is said that Caravaggio would work for two weeks at a time, then spend a month or so with a sword at his side, roaming around the city with a servant in tow.
In 1599, del Monte helped Caravaggio in landing his first major public work commission: the decoration of Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. He went on to paint the walls of Santa Maria del Popolo, with other commissions following that defined his creative style.
His religious paintings were not always well received; sometimes they were actually rejected, on grounds of blasphemy and indecency.
Much like his life in Rome, Caravaggio’s time in the city came to a dramatic end. His fighting and brawling around the city was marked in court records. One instance in 1604 has him fighting with a waiter over an order of eight cooked artichokes; this apparently upset the artist so much that he threw them in the face of the waiter.
On May 28th, 1606, Caravaggio killed his friend, Ranuccio Tomassoni – possibly accidentally, but during a duel all the same. Seeking to escape possible charges of murder, and a death sentence, he fled the city. Anybody who was in the Papal States would receive a reward for killing the exiled Caravaggio.
The following months were spent in the city of Naples (then under Spanish control). Miraculously, he was still painting, and began to experiment with colour, taking inspiration from Titian. In 1607 he moved to Malta, where he achieved such great success that he was made a Knight in the Order of Malta.
A month later he became embroiled in a violent fight, and the Knights of Malta revoked his honors. Though imprisoned after this, he managed to escape. Caravaggio returned to Naples, and upon hearing that a former patron had secured a Papal pardon for the artist, he traveled to Rome. His death is a matter of debate, but some believe that he died of malaria en route to Rome; others say he was murdered by pursuants from Malta.
Finally, continue reading to discover the best works of Caravaggio in Rome.
Where To See The Works of Caravaggio In Rome
The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi
The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew
The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi contains a triptych that tells the life of Saint Matthew. The work was carried out between 1599 and 1602 under the commission of Cardinal del Monte.
The Calling of Saint Matthew depicts the moment when Christ points at Matthew to follow him. The scene, however, is less biblical and is actually set in a tavern from Caravaggio’s time, with figures dressed much like his contemporaries.
The Inspiration of Saint Matthew depicts an angel dictating words to the saint. The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew depicts the dramatic death scene of Matthew, with the murderer poised to stab the saint.
San Luigi dei Francesi is located in Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi; it’s open every day but Thursdays from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and from 3:00 to 7:00 pm.
Basilica of Sant’Agostino
Mother of Pilgrims
The Mother of the Pilgrims can be found in the Cavalletti Chapel in the Basilica of Sant’Agostino. In true Caravaggio style, the painting is dark with almost glowing figures in bold chiaroscuro. Also true to his style, the figures themselves are naturalistic.
In the painting, the Virgin Mary stands barefoot, holding the infant Jesus, with two pilgrims praying at her feet. It’s believed that the model he used to paint the Virgin Mary was actually a sex worker.
The painting, dated between 1604 and 1606, caused a stir. The bare feet of Mary, equal to the pilgrims, was seen as blasphemous. A contemporary painter noted that the painting caused the common people to laugh about it.
The Basilica is located in Piazza Sant’Agostino; it is open daily from 7:30 am to 12:00 pm and from 4:00 to 7:30 pm.
Church of Santa Maria del Popolo
Crucifixion of Saint Peter and The Conversion on the Way to Damascus
Two of the best paintings of Caravaggio in Rome can be found in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Both paintings date from 1601 and were commissioned by Tiberio Cesari.
The Crucifixion of Saint Peter is a dark and dramatic portrayal of Saint Peter, who was requested to be crucified upside down; the woeful expression on his face highlights the tragedy of the scene.
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus shows Saint Paul, who has fallen from his horse in shock at the appearance of Jesus. It’s reported that the initial versions of both of these paintings were rejected because they didn’t please the patron.
Santa Maria del Popolo church is located in Piazza del Popolo 12, near Porta Pinciana, and is open Monday to Thursday from 7:15 am to 12:30 pm and from 4:00 to 7: pm; Fridays and Saturdays from 7:30 am to 7:00 pm; Sundays from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm and from 4:30 to 7:30 pm.
Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Young Sick Bacchus, John the Baptist, Saint Jerome Writing, Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, David with the Head of Goliath
For some of the best works of Caravaggio in Rome, head to the Borghese Gallery. This is actually a one-stop shop for some of Rome’s most famous paintings and sculptures. Here you can see masterpieces from a range of artists through the ages, which – of course – includes Caravaggio. In total, there are six works by the artist to be found here.
Boy with a Basket of Fruit, for example, is one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings. Although small, this work is full of color, with apples and grapes overflowing from a basket carried by an androgynous male figure, with a shirt loosely draping off his shoulders.
Also here is the Young Sick Bacchus. Painted between 1593 and 1594, it’s thought to be a self portrait.
Borghese Gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm (closed Mondays). Admission is €13 for adults. Make sure to book your time-slot and get tickets in advance here. For a guided tour, click here.
Odescalchi Balbi Collection
The Conversion of Saint Paul
The Odescalchi Balbi Collection is a private collection of art that is rarely open to the public. But on the occasion that it is open for public viewing, you’ll be able to see another of Caravaggio’s masterpieces on the subject of the Conversion of Saint Paul (the other being The Conversion on the Way to Damascus in Santa Maria del Popolo).
It was commissioned by Tiberio Cesari in 1600. The painting depicts the moment when Paul is struck by brilliant light, and hears the voice of Christ calling him. Critics call it an “odd blend of Raphael and clumsy rustic realism.” Some believe this to be the initial, rejected version of the painting of Saint Paul that is now in the church.
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at the Palazzo Barberini
Judith Beheading Holofernes, Narcissus
Two of Caravaggio’s works are located in the Palazzo Barberini. The first, Judith Beheading Holofernes, is a gruesome portrayal of the Biblical story in which the widowed Judith decapitates the Assyrian general Holofernes after he had passed out following a banquet. Painted between 1598 and 1602, it was only rediscovered in 1950.
Narcissus is a much less gory painting. Dated between 1597 and 1602, it’s only one of two paintings by Caravaggio that deals with the theme of Classical mythology (it’s possible that others just didn’t survive). This time, it’s Narcissus: the youth who falls in love with his own reflection and stares at it until he dies. Caravaggio’s elegant depiction feels suitably melancholic, with the scene surrounded by darkness.
Palazzo Barberini is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 8:30 am to 7:30 pm (closed Mondays). Admission is €12. Get tickets in advance here.
The Fortune Teller
Though many other Caravaggio works are a masterclass in light and dark, the Fortune Teller is surprisingly less melancholic and bright in nature. There are actually two versions. The first was painted in 1594 and is now situated in the Capitoline Museums, while the second dates to 1595 and can be found in the Louvre, in Paris.
The painting sees two figures: a foppish boy and a gypsy girl. The two are gazing at each other, seemingly during conversation, but on further inspection it’s revealed that there is an ulterior motive. While having his palm read, it seems that the girl is skillfully removing a ring from the man’s finger without him noticing.
The Entombment of Christ
The Entombment of Christ, painted between 1603 and 1604, is often considered one of the best paintings of Caravaggio in Rome. It was originally painted for the Santa Maria in Vallicella, but subsequently moved to the Vatican Museums (a copy now stands at the altar in the Roman church).
In the painting, Caravaggio’s trademark chiaroscuro creates a tragic scene in which the lifeless body of Christ is draped across the center. It was painted during a time in which the Catholic Church was going through a period of resurgence in response to Protestantism.
Unlike gory depictions of the crucifixion from the past, Caravaggio’s version is bloodless and dramatic, emphasizing the human side of Christ and the mournful characters carrying him. This influential painting has also seen many copies and inspired pieces by artists such as Rubens and Cezanne.
The Vatican Museums are open from Monday to Saturday, from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (closed Sundays, except last Sunday of the month, 9:00 am – 2:00 pm). Admission is €17. Book a time slot for your visit and get tickets in advance here.
Doria Pamphilj Gallery
The Penitent Magdalene, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Head over to the Doria Pamphilj Gallery and you’ll be treated to not just one, but two masterpieces by Caravaggio.
The Penitent Magdalene (painted between 1594 and 1595) shows the portrayal of a young woman as she sits weeping about her life. At her side are jewellery and a bottle of wine, which she seems to have left behind. It’s very different to other depictions of Mary Magdalene, removing sensuality often associated with her and portraying her in contemporary clothing.
The other painting here is the 1597 Rest on the Flight into Egypt. A popular subject at the time, the portrait tells of the rest that Joseph and Mary took on their way into Egypt, following their escape from King Herod.
Doria Pamphilj Gallery is open very day, from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Admission is €12. Get tickets in advance here.
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at the Palazzo Corsini
John the Baptist
Caravaggio painted multiple versions of John the Baptist, one of which can be found at the Palazzo Corsini. Dating to around 1604, this depiction of John the Baptist sees the saint as a sleepy youth, minus the identifying symbols that usually accompany him.
The background is dark, and feels somewhat mysterious. Part of what’s happening is being excluded from the viewer. This John the Baptist is notably real: his body is pale, but his hands and neck are tanned, showing that this was almost certainly a model, rather than an idealized or dreamt-up version as depicted by artists such as Raphael.
Galleria Corsini is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Admission is €12. Get tickets here.