Apprenticeship, 1584–1588

Bellori is generally regarded as a key source for Caravaggio’s life. He is not always accurate, but he preserves vital information found nowhere else. Born in Rome around 1615, he studied to become a painter, and, when still quite young, joined the Accademia di San Luca, which enjoyed considerable prestige. Instead of pictures, he began to write about artists. In 1671 he became the Accademia’s secretary, and when his Lives of Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects was published the following year, it was greeted with applause.

Although he was unquestionably a dedicated scholar, he must be read with caution. “When Michele [Caravaggio] was employed at Milan with his father, who was a mason, while making glue for some painters working on a fresco, he was suddenly seized with a wish to become a painter himself and went off with them, devoting all his energy to painting,” Bellori informs us most inaccurately. Caravaggio’s father, Fermo, was not a mason, and Caravaggio is known to have at least begun a formal apprenticeship.

When Fermo Caravaggio died, his widow lost her social position and most of the presumably substantial income and perquisites from her husband’s post with the marchese. Unable to return to the Maestro di Casa’s apartment in the Sforza Palace at Milan, she had to stay at Caravaggio, living on whatever came in from Fermo’s small estate. By no means reduced to poverty, she nevertheless found it hard to manage, falling into debt within a few years.

It is reasonable to suppose that, in her straitened circumstances, she was relieved to have Michelangelo taken off her hands and apprenticed to a respectable Milanese painter in April 1584, when he was about twelve and a half. He indentured himself to serve his master for four years, in both his house and his workshop at Milan, paying twenty-four gold scudi. In return, he was to be fed, clothed, and taught the painter’s craft.

His master, Simone Peterzano, may have been respectable, but by no stretch of the imagination could he be described as a great artist. Once a pupil of Titian, he ever afterward signed himself “Titiani Discipulus.” He had become what art historians call a “late Mannerist.” Several churches at Milan still contain his stiff and dreary works with only a faint dash of Titian’s color.

Surprisingly, Peterzano’s friends included extremely interesting painters. He obtained at least one commission by securing the approval of a genuinely distinguished Mannerist, Pellegrino Tibaldi. Architect as well as painter, Tibaldi had impressed Cardinal Borromeo, who employed him as his favorite church-builder. Among Tibaldi’s paintings was a fine Beheading of St. John the Baptist, a theme that would one day inspire one of Caravaggio’s greatest pictures. Tibaldi may have chosen it because of the cardinal’s close links with the Knights of Malta, whose patron saint was the Baptist.

Peterzano was also a friend of the blind Milanese writer and former painter Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, who, in the year Caravaggio was apprenticed, published a book in Milan explaining precisely what Lombard Mannerists hoped to achieve in their painting. Another friend was Antonio Campi, who painted in the “black” manner, emphasizing light and shadow and anticipating Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. The boy could easily have seen Campi’s own Beheading of St. John at the church of San Paolo in Milan.

One guesses there was a good deal of friction between master and pupil. Caravaggio had a violent temper. Peterzano came from Bergamo, in Venetian territory, and the Bergamaschi looked down on the Milanese. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the Contado, which at Milan meant Bergamo and the Bergamo Alps, were something of a joke among the Milanese. Many came from the mountains to work in the city, or in the plain of Lombardy, and a substantial number had taken over farms abandoned during the French wars. The sophisticated citizens of Milan laughed at them as clodhoppers and bumpkins.

Presumably Peterzano taught Caravaggio to stretch canvases, grind pigments, mix paints, and use beeswax for softening colors. But he never taught him to paint frescoes, which meant painting on a wall with watercolors on wet plaster. Since most of Peterzano’s commissions were for frescoes, he must have found his apprentice idle and unprofitable. Later, when frescoes were very much in fashion, Caravaggio nearly starved because his lack of proficiency in this field made him almost unemployable.

Mancini tells us that Caravaggio studied with diligence, if occasionally he did something odd from hot blood and high spirits. Mancini’s word stravaganza is associated with Caravaggio throughout his career. Bellori, too, believed that when Caravaggio was an apprentice at Milan he worked hard enough, but only at “painting portraits.” He seems to have visited picture galleries regularly in an eager quest for ideas. Historians can only speculate on where he went, but it looks as if he traveled as far as Brescia, Cremona, Lodi, and Bergamo.

Bellori was convinced that, as a very young man, Caravaggio had been to Venice, “where he was delighted by the colors of Giorgione, which he copied.” He also believed that Caravaggio derived his naturalism from Giorgione, who, in Bellori’s opinion, was, of all Venetian artists, “the purest and simplest in rendering the forms of nature with only a few colors.” But the accepted view among modern historians is that Bellori’s judgment was faulty, because of insufficient knowledge of Giorgione’s work, which he had never actually seen himself.

A visit to Venice, which Bellori thought took place when Caravaggio was on the run “after certain quarrels,” also seems unlikely. A penniless youth would have had difficulty finding money for the journey, and the earliest sources, Mancini and Baglione, make no mention of such a trip. But Bellori is certainly right about the quarrels. His belief that Caravaggio was “gloomy and quarrelsome by nature” is more than confirmed by Caravaggio’s behavior in later life. He may even have failed to complete his apprenticeship. In any case it would have come to an end in 1588. He did not arrive in Rome until 1592, and we have no information about how he spent the four years in between. There are, however, reasonably strong grounds for supposing that he had to leave his native city in a hurry, after a crime that may have been a murder.

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