ARTISTS FROM CARAVAGGIO
Long before Michelangelo Merisi made a name for himself all over the world, Caravaggio had been the birthplace of many a prominent artist who, throughout the centuries, established themselves in the most diverse fields, from painting to sculpture and music to literature. This aspect should not be overlooked when we reflect on the connection between Michelangelo Merisi and his hometown, and therefore on the influence of the town and local artists on the famous painter in his youth.
You can learn more about the lives of Caravaggio’s diverse major artists, below.
Born at the end of the 15th century, Nicola Marangone, known as il Moietta, was an apprentice to the painters Zenale and Butinone. At the beginning of the 16th century he was active in Milan. Little is known about his whereabouts and his artistic work during that period. He certainly painted the great cycle of frescoes in the church of Santa Maria Annunziata in Abbiategrasso, near Milan, but one can explore his works also in the Sanctuary of the Madonna delle lacrime in Treviglio, a town close to Caravaggio, and in other parts of our town, like two altarpiece panel paintings. The former, an Adoration of the shepherds, is in the parish church of Saints Fermo and Rustico; the latter, a Sacra conversazione (sacred conversation), is part of the picture gallery in Palazzo Gallavresi (town hall). Interestingly enough, Moietta signed the Sacra conversazione as nicolaus caravaginus (Nicola from Caravaggio) fifty years before Michelangelo Merisi, who would also use the name of the town as pseudonym, was born.
Inside the church of San Bernardino Moietta painted St. Francis in Glory in an unusual style and one Ecce Homo (behold the man) at the bottom of Fermo Stella’s great Cycle of Passion. The frescoes were restored in 1944 and in 2019, respectively.
Francesco Prata’s style was highly influenced by the style of the painter Girolamo Romanino, although it remains unclear as to how Prata became acquainted with him and became familiar with his style. Knowledge about Prata’s life is scanty and incomplete, but he is known to have worked mainly in the area of Brescia, where he had moved around 1510. He kept travelling between Brescia and Caravaggio, maintaining a strong bond between him and his roots. Information about his life after 1531 is unknown.
In Caravaggio, Prata frescoed the Holy Sacrament Chapel in the parish church of Saints Fermo and Rustico. He painted twelve apostles and several putti at the bottom of the dome. The parapet in the fresco reads de prato, clearing any doubt about the artist who created it. On the altarpiece panel is a Deposition from the Cross by Prata.
Apprentice to painter and sculptor Gaudenzio Ferrari, Fermo Stella was active mainly in the Valtellina region of Lombardy. Nevertheless, he has left significant artworks in Caravaggio. He painted the Cycle of Passion, an imposing fresco (roughly 80-square-metre broad) on the partition behind the altar in the church of San Bernardino in Caravaggio. In 2019 a restoration was carried out to treat water seepage and dampness and helped re-establish the original condition of the fresco.
An earlier sacred fresco by Fermo Stella, which most probably dates back to 1515, is in the church of San Bernardino. It is the Madonna with Child between Saint Bernardino and Saint Rocco. At the bottom there is a rebus, a puzzle device combining pictures and letters, which enables the viewers, if not to decipher completely, at least to guess the approximate date of the painting and the name of the artist.
Fermo Stella developed a unique style, distinguished by recurring patterns and references to his earlier works.
Born in Caravaggio at the beginning of the 16th century, Polidoro Caldara was not active in his hometown as he moved to Rome when he was fifteen years old. At the beginning of his career he joined Raphael’s workshop decorating the Vatican Logge and proved himself to be incredibly talented. He also painted the façades of several palaces in Rome using the sgraffito technique. Thereafter he moved to Naples and then to Messina, Sicily, where he would be murdered by one of his pupils during an attempted robbery.
Born into a wealthy family from Caravaggio, Giovanni Moriggia trained at the Accademia Carrara, the art gallery and academy of fine arts in Bergamo, after Accademia’s Director Giuseppe Diotti had encouraged him to enrol.
His first masterpiece was the decoration of the lunette with Caravaggio patron saints Fermo and Rustico above the gate of the church dedicated to the two saints.
Liberal and a devoted follower of Mazzini’s ideology, he met with hostilities and ended up in trouble. Following this, he had no other choice but to initially head back to Caravaggio and hide in the Manusardis’ house, and then to flee to Switzerland. Moriggia painted several portraits for his benefactors Raffaele Manusardi and Giulietta Fusi. One of them, a portrait of Giulietta, is in the picture gallery of Palazzo Gallavresi (town hall).
The artist is known in Caravaggio for the frescoes in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Fonte, one of the most important worship places dedicated to the Virgin Mary in northern Italy. In the Sanctuary, he was initially commissioned the painting of the four dome pendentives with scenes from the life of the Bible figures Ruth, Abigail, Esther, and Judith. Following that, the Sanctuary’s administration entrusted Moriggia with the frescoes on the inside of the dome, where he painted a Glory of the Trinity and an Apotheosis of the Mother of God. Later the painter was commissioned to paint the church transept. He worked on the frescoes of the Sanctuary from 1844 to 1862. Some of the original drawings are exhibited in the picture gallery of Palazzo Gallavresi in town.
Moriggia spent the last fifteen years of his life in Caravaggio, where he died in 1878 in poor health and unable to paint.
Luigi Cavenaghi was a portrait painter and was regarded as the greatest painting restorer of his time.
Cavenaghi trained and studied at the Accademia di Brera, the fine art academy in Milan, thanks to a scholarship awarded by the Municipality of Caravaggio. Following his training, he painted frescoes in several churches in Milan Metropolitan area. Together with Giovanni Moriggia, Cavenaghi worked on the painting of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Fonte in Caravaggio. There he frescoed the nave walls and the choir, following Tibaldi’s style, the architect who had designed the church.
In 1901 Cavenaghi started working on the restoration of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. After that work, he was held in so high esteem that he was appointed the artistic director of the Vatican Pinacoteca. Cavenaghi restored the frescoes by Andrea Mantegna in the Camera degli Sposi (bridal chamber) in Mantua, as well.
He is buried in the Caravaggio cemetery of Sant’Eusebio, where his grave is adorned with one sculpture by Danielli.
Born in Caravaggio, Pancera studied and trained in Milan, like many other local artists, where he first attended the School of Fine Arts applied to Industry of Sforza Castle, and later the Accademia di Brera. Later he became a professor at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo. He was a sculptor creating cemetery art. In 1932 in Monza, Lombardy, he created the memorial to Italian soldiers fallen in First World War consisting in twelve five-to-six-metre-high bronze statues. Pancera’s sculptures are kept in many cemeteries, such as the Cimitero Monumentale and the Cimitero Maggiore, the two main cemeteries in Milan, as well as in other places of art such as the Milan Cathedral.
Pancera’s sculptures are disseminated in Caravaggio as well. Two of them, the Funerale Alpestre (Alpine Funeral) and the Christ standing on a page of the Gospel are kept in the town cemetery of Sant’Eusebio. A third piece of art, a bronze plaque dedicated to Luigi Cavenaghi’s memory, is kept in Palazzo Gallavresi.
GIAN FRANCESCO STRAPAROLA: ONE OF US
Written by Claudia Plata
Once upon a time, there was a poorly sunlit lane—and it is still there. It is located right in the historical heart of the town, but it perhaps goes unnoticed as it is rarely trodden and the buildings surrounding it from both sides overshadow the lane.
Perhaps, not many people paid attention, while leaving via Vicinato and turning right, that the street plate bears the name Gian Francesco Straparola, a 16th-century literary author whom the residents of Caravaggio must consider one of their fellow citizens.
The dark street denotes somehow the obscurity Straparola had fallen into until eminent writers such as Charles Perrault, the Grimm brothers and Italo Calvino helped rediscover his literary worth. Credit must be given to Perrault precisely for bringing today’s well-known fairy tale “Puss in Boots” to light: a tale, however, which he always had been wrongly assumed to be the author of. In fact, the tale originated from Straparola’s creative mind, and not from Perrault’s, who merely drew heavily on the Italian writer. In Straparola’s original version, a female cat uses trickery and deceit to save her master Costantino from misfortune and poverty, and she makes his fortune—the title “Costantino fortunato” (lit. “Fortunate Costantino”) derives precisely from this. The story narrated by Perrault owes much to Straparola’s plotlines, except for introducing a cat and not a female cat in the literary genre.
Unfortunately, few are the clues as to the author’s life and shedding light on them was no easy task. Only his family name and his origins are known for certain.
Until a few decades ago, scholars shared the assumption that “Straparola” was a mere pseudonym, given the idiosyncrasy of the name. It was not until recently that further in-depth research carried out by examining the 15th-century registry office records demonstrated that “Straparola” was without a doubt the writer’s family name—which proved the past belief wrong. In addition, the two variations of the name, “Streparola” and “Strepparola”, testify even today to the commonness of the surname in several towns in the area of Bergamo, Milan and Cremona, which are not too far from Caravaggio.
Straparola mentions Caravaggio several times in his works as the place where he was born some time around 1480 and which he left soon to head to Venice. There he published all his works in prose and in poetry, but it was thanks to Le piacevoli notti (The Facetious Nights of Straparola) that he could establish himself as a prestigious writer.
Published in 1550, this work is not a mere collection of fairy tales, but rather the first known work ever where fairy tales, as they are known today, appeared in print. That resulted in Straparola being regarded as the pioneer of fairy tales in Italian literature, as he was the first who introduced the genre as it is known today. Voracious readers and a considerable number of translated versions published continually year after year across Europe made his collection incredibly popular already in the 16th century. Straparola’s creative mind was paramount in making Le piacevoli notti well-known and a real best seller in that century. He was influenced by Boccaccio’s prestigious work, Decameron. In this respect, Straparola distinguished himself from many of his peers who did nothing but copy and paste Decameron’s novellas. He took inspiration from Boccaccio’s tales and he created brand-new adventure stories including features which became over time distinctive of the genre fairy tale. Newly created figures are found in his stories: heroes and heroines taking on challenges and adventures, talking animals or magical helpers, always-present villains opposing the good in the story. Events occur in places, such as enchanted forests and magical mystery towns, which were never to be found in earlier narratives by other writers, and they take place far away in time, in a non-specific imaginary world. Lastly, Straparola introduced a happy ending, a feature rarely to be found in earlier literary narratives, as these typically ended on a negative note.
There seems to have been a happy ending to Straparola’s life as well. After falling into undeserved obscurity after his death, the literary worth of his work has been brought again to light today, and his life and his writings have become object of several studies in Europe as well as overseas. The thought that the residents of Caravaggio can name the father of fairy tales among their past fellow citizens can only but add to the literary pride of Caravaggio—an extraordinary, only apparently ordinary town!
Giuseppe Zelioli was born into a family of musicians: his father, Pietro Gaetano Zelioli, was an organist of the Sanctuary of Caravaggio. From as early as his childhood, Giuseppe showed such exceptional skills at playing the piano, as to be acknowledged as being a talented organist before the age of ten. He gave his first public performance during the commemoration festivities for Michelangelo Merisi from Caravaggio, on which occasion Zelioli performed the Canto a Michelangelo, a song for the painter written by the musician himself. He spent a long, artistically productive period of his life in Lecco, Lombardy, where he composed an extensive repertoire. Zelioli gave his contribution to the Liturgical Reform of the Catholic Church, because he was driven by the idea of music as the highest form of divine adoration.