The Birth of Caravaggism

by Danilo Brunetti

Explore the origins of a fascinating artistic movement inspired by the infamous Caravaggio. Tiffany Parks has the details.

All Caravaggio-lovers know that when this radical and thoroughly original painter burst onto the scene, the art world would never be the same. This was particularly true for the two decades following his death, when his vivid, realistic style became so influential on a group of artists in Rome that a new, if fleeting, style was born, Caravaggism.

But who was the first Caravaggista to copy that distinct style that—until Caravaggi—no one had ever dreamt of? An exhibit at the National Gallery of Ancient Art at Palazzo Barberini explores just this question, and they believe they have the answer: Orazio Gentileschi, the father of the now-famous Artemisia. Orazio had been an intimate friend of Caravaggio, one of the first artists to welcome him into the grimy, sordid world of Roman art upon his arrival in the city in the 1590s and introduce him to important contacts in the art world. Gentileschi, in turn, would go on to be inspired by the visionary work of his younger colleague, and would eventually lead a group of artists in keeping Caravaggio’s style alive after his death.


The exhibit’s centerpiece is a previously unknown Saint Francis in Ecstasy, a painting by Gentileschi that has been only recently recognized as a work of extraordinary historical and artistic importance by the Italian State, a rare, relevant example from the time when he beginning to experiment with Caravaggio’s new aesthetic style. Several details of the work show that it marks the beginning of his adherence to Caravaggio’s strict rule of painting only from life. Several related works are also on display, including Caravaggio’s Saint Francis in Meditation, some early works by Gentileschi on loan from the Prado Museum in Madrid, and a number of paintings by his fellow Caravaggisti.