The painter Michelangelo Merisi is better known to history by the name of the small Italian village in which he grew up: Caravaggio. The artist, who lived from 1571-1610, was a key figure in Western art. He was a painter of extreme realism who incorporated everyday, non-idealized people as his models, and was an absolute master of using the interplay of light and dark to produce gripping, dramatic effects in his paintings.

By the year 1600 he had made his way to Rome and was celebrated as the greatest painter of his age. “The Taking of Christ” and “David with the Head of Goliath” are two of his more famous works and suggest his usual subject matter, along with the interests of his deep-pocketed patrons.

He died young, and in rather mysterious circumstances. “His was a tempestuous life, blighted by violence, brawls, and trouble with the authorities,” a British journalist once explained.

Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome at the height of his reputation after he killed a man. His relatively small body of work nevertheless inspired painters who came after like Rembrandt, Velazquez and Vermeer.

Last fall a powerful exhibit of his works along with some by younger painters who imitated his style was a smash hit and made its only U.S. stop at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth.

Some 400 years after his death, Caravaggio is still making headlines. In June 2010, forensic analysis indicated that bones unearthed in Tuscany were very likely his. The high concentrations of lead discovered in the bones (lead poisoning was a consequence of the standard lead-based paint) possibly contributed to his poor health, bouts of depression and the erratic behavior that repeatedly landed him in trouble with the law. Van Gogh and Goya suffered similar effects from their working environment.

In June 2011, it was announced that a previously unknown Caravaggio painting had been identified in a private collection in Great Britain. Incredibly, until the middle of the 19th century the portrait of a pensive St. Augustine had remained in the family collection of the original patron who commissioned it hundreds of years earlier.  

Last month, two Italian art historians announced that they’d uncovered a treasure trove of more than 100 works they claim to be by Caravaggio, many of them drawings, a medium in which he had not been known to work.

Seems the two researchers were in a castle in Milan, sorting through the collection of the artist Simone Peterzano, with whom a young Caravaggio — and countless others — had studied.

From nearly 1,500 pieces, they and their computer found 100 of them that ostensibly showed great similarity to the mature works of the master.

The announcement has made quite a splash in the art world with numerous experts calling the idea “absurd” and “a total invention.” That the two are releasing their findings only in an e-book makes it all seem more questionable.

The curator of drawings at the castle said the two never even set foot in the drawings research room. One of the claimants countered that yes, they had been in the research room to see the drawings firsthand, but that they were let in after hours by an official they declined to identify.

Whatever the final judgment, of all the artists to make news, we’re fortunate it’s Caravaggio.

One look at “The Calling of St. Matthew” will remind you of the power that a masterful painting can have.

David A. Smith, senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University, is a member of Cultural Arts of Waco’s board of directors. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidASmith12.


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