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After the death of her husband in 1577, Caravaggio's mother, Lucia Aratori, raised Michelangelo and his three siblings with the help of her father. Caravaggio is thought to have received the basics of a formal education, but he appears to have had no interest in writing unlike, say, Leonardo da Vinci, who composed learned treatises, or Michelangelo Buonarroti, who left a body of written work that ranges from poems to grocery lists. Not a single letter, drawing or preparatory sketch by Caravaggio has ever been found. He wrote nothing about himself, certainly nothing about his childhood, and his adult life seems to have included no one who knew him as a boy.


But evidently his eruptive anger was never directed at the influential aristocrats and ecclesiastical authorities who furthered his career. Heading toward the Tiber from the Campo Marzio, you can pass the Palazzo Madama, now the home of the Italian Senate, where Caravaggio lived for several years in the household of his first, most loyal and important patron, the Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. An avid art collector, music lover and adviser to Ferdinando de' Medici, Del Monte bought two of Caravaggio's canvases, The Gypsy Fortune Teller and The Cardsharps, then supported him while he painted the dewily sensual, lush-lipped and seductive young men who populate such early masterpieces as The Musicians and The Lute Player(Robert, pp 473).

As the Caravaggio pilgrim traces the artist's erratic path through the city where he led a sort of double life spanning low and high society, it soon becomes clear that even the intense drama of the artist's biography rather pales beside the vibrancy and high-wire theatrics of his paintings. The Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia is in the midst of the frenetic (to say the least) and colorful historical center, on one of the most heavily trafficked blocks of the ancient road that has become the Via dei Tribunali (right). Looking up the dark, narrow, perpetually thrumming Via dei Tribunali, it's easier than it is in Rome to imagine you back in Caravaggio's time, in the city where Caravaggio found refuge, and which he managed to translate onto the canvas of The Seven Acts of Mercy.

With its teeming composition set in a nocturnal streetscape, the altarpiece may make you feel as if the cyclonic street life of the city has somehow followed you inside the church. Indeed, the relationship between Caravaggio and the atmosphere of Naples (which can make Rome appear quiet and orderly) seems so complex and synergistic that looking at Caravaggio's paintings makes you see the city in a new way--and vice versa. The heavy blacks that appear so frequently in his late works make a different kind of sense after you've experienced the city's inky shadows, and the drapery that floats near the top of some of his canvases begins to remind you of the laundry strung across its narrow alleys(Muller, pp 229).

Caravaggio thrived in Naples. It was there that he painted his extraordinary version of The Flagellation of ...
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