Caravaggio was born September 28, 1573, in the Lombardy hill town of Caravaggio, from which his professional name is derived. Originally he was named Michelangelo Merisi. He spent four years as apprentice to Simone Peterzano in Milan before going to Rome in 1593, where he was employed by the Mannerist painter Giuseppe Cesari for whom he executed fruit and flower pieces. Among his best-known early works are genre paintings with young men, made for his first important patron, Cardinal Francesco del Monte.
Caravaggio's mature manner commenced about 1600 with the commission to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome with three scenes of the life of Saint Matthew. About 1601, Caravaggio received his second major commission, from Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome for a Conversion of Saint Paul and Crucifixion of Saint Peter.
Caravaggio is one of the best exemplar of naturalistic painting in the early 17th century. His use of models from the lower classes of society in his early secular works and later religious compositions appealed to the Counter Reformation taste for realism, simplicity, and piety in art. Equally important is his introduction of dramatic light-and-dark effects into his works.
Caravaggio's personal life was turbulent. He was more than once arrested and imprisoned. He fled Rome for Naples in 1606 when charged with murder. In Naples he spent several months executing several works which were crucial to the development of naturalism among the artists of that city. Later that year he traveled to Malta and was made a knight (cavaliere) of the Maltese order. In October of 1608, Caravaggio was again arrested and, escaping from a Maltese jail. He traveled to Syracuse in Sicily. While in Sicily he painted several monumental multi-figured compositions. He achieved great drama through dark tonalities and selective use of lighting. These works were among Caravaggio's last, for the artist died on the beach at Port'Ercole in Tuscany on July 18, 1610, of a fever contracted after a mistaken arrest.
Caravaggio's impact on the art of his century was considerable. Throughout the century a naturalist school flourished in Italy and abroad based on an enthusiastic emulation of his style.