The baroque painter from the Renaissance, Caravaggio left a great mark on Rome. The Italian capital has an abundance of his work on display in museums and churches. I found a Caravaggio tour to see as many of his paintings as possible. If you like art and are interested in an off the beaten track tour of this great painter, read more about Caravaggio in Rome and the Caravaggio painting in Rome you can see on the tour.
Why I like Caravaggio so much
When I followed an art history class, I decided to visit one of the prime art museums in the Netherlands, the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Now one of my favorite museum as it has many Rembrandt paintings and the famous girl with the pearl ear ring from Vermeer. But it also had a huge painting of the Doubting Thomas on loan from Potsdam (Germany).
In the painting, we see the Apostle Thomas stick his finger in a wound in the abdomen of Jesus. It is quite an obscure and gritty painting. Jesus is opening up the wound and guides the hand of Thomas to be able to stick his finger in him. It sucks the viewer right in and you almost want to stick out your finger and cope a feel yourself.
The painting was made by Caravaggio in 1602. It was my first Caravaggio that I recognized as such. I didn’t like the painting very much (I wouldn’t want it on my wall!), but I couldn’t stop looking at it. Ever since, I feel the need to see as many Caravaggio paintings as possible.
When I planned my recent visit to Lazio, I learned about the Caravaggio tour in Rome and I knew I wanted to add a few Caravaggio paintings to see. I reached out to Roma Experience Tours and they invited me to join their tour and write about it!
Who is Caravaggio?
Caravaggio was born in 1571 as Michelangelo Merisi. He was born in the town of Caravaggio near Milan. Maybe because of that other famous Michelangelo, he was renamed into Caravaggio. At the age of 11, he became an orphan and started as a student with an art painter.
In 1593 he moved to Rome and started with still paintings. He soon was noted by an important Cardinal (Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte) who commissioned a number of religious paintings and some Bacchus Figures who were much more sensual in nature.
Caravaggio was a gifted painter but a troubled person. He lived among prostitutes and beggars. He was looking for fights and drank and gambled his money away. After killing a man, Caravaggio was expelled from Rome and jailed many times afterward. He died at the age of 39 when he wanted to return to Rome for his pardon.
Why are the Caravaggio paintings in Rome different?
Caravaggio broke away from the highly dramatic Baroque art movement of that time in Rome. He did use dramatic figures and tried to convince his viewers to follow the Roman Catholic faith, but he did so with more realistic saints and apostles. He did not over-idolize the religious figures in his paintings but made them dirty, wrinkly and with torn clothes. Almost like common people.
Another strong feature of his paintings is the use of chiaroscuro. The overdramatic use of light and darkness in one painting. We often see the subjects of the paintings in a beam of light against a very dark and sinister background.
Caravaggio influenced many painters after him. They were called the Caravaggisti and even a great painter like Rembrandt van Rijn was influenced by his Italian colleague.
What makes the Caravaggio paintings in Rome so unique, is that they are actually still in Rome. There are many paintings of Caravaggio to be found in museums across Europe, but there are also quite a few that you can still find in the exact same spot as they were commissioned for.
This means you can see the paintings where they were supposed to be. Where they are located for over 400 years now! So a Caravaggio tour in Rome is not only a great art lesson but also touches on history as you follow the footsteps of the famous painter Caravaggio in Rome.
Caravaggio Tour in Rome
I met Francesca of Roma Experience Tours at the Piazza del Popolo. The ‘square of the people’ was the gateway to Rome for many travelers arriving in Rome by foot from the North, West and East. The first church the Catholics would visit when they entered Rome, was the Santa Maria del Popolo. With 2 works of Caravaggio in the back of the church. this was a good start of the tour.
I already knew quite a bit about Caravaggio and the baroque art of Rome around the 1600 but Francesca was able to dish out more details, dates, figures and remarkable facts about the church, Rome and Caravaggio than I could ever have imagined.
She literally shed some light on the paintings of Caravaggio in Rome. No seriously guys, she had a whole purse full of 1 euro coins to illuminate the paintings of Caravaggio in the churches!
Most of the churches we visited, were among the darkest I’ve ever seen. You can visit the churches for free but they have small machines installed. For 1 euro, you can turn on the light for 2 to 5 minutes to really admire the paintings of Caravaggio (and many others).
Cerasi Chapel and Caravaggio
At the Cerasi Chapel, we saw 2 Caravaggio paintings. Shockingly dark, sinister and real. That is what my first impressions were. We see the crucifixion of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. Both not really light and bubbly topics, Caravaggio transports us to horrible actions in ancient times.
We see despair.
Outrage. A cry for help.
No hallows and chubby angels in Caravaggio’s paintings. We see dirty hands, the sole of a man’s feet and the bum of a horse. Back in 1601 unheard of, but a real testament of who Caravaggio was and what makes his work so unique and influential.
Caravaggio’s life in Rome
After this, Francesca took me around a part of Rome I’ve never been to before. Only a few steps away from the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, we navigated through the back streets of Rome. We carefully maneuvered away from the crowds and the hordes of tourists, but Francesca of Roma Experience Tours slowly unfolded the life of Caravaggio in Rome for me.
We visited the house he lived in. Now, to be honest my first thought was: yea right!
Anyone can claim that! But then she pointed out some unique features of the building and explained the why and the how and I thought: yea… that totally makes sense!
We continued through the streets that had a huge impact on the life and work of Caravaggio as we visited the church that was built right in the center of the prostitute area of Rome. The church houses the Madonna of Loreto but unfortunately, it was loaned out and we saw a replica. Obviously not as good as the original, but it still showed the key features of Caravaggio’s work. The beggars at the doorstep of a Madonna with child who has the wardrobe of a prostitute of that period. Say what!? Unheard of, but the people who visited the church could relate to the painting of Caravaggio.
After the visit to the church, we walked past the square that became the downfall of Caravaggio in Rome as it was the place of the murder that leads to his exile from the city. Whenever you’re in Rome, you’re constantly reminded of the great historic significance of the streets but it is sometimes hard to imagine also quite ordinary things happened. Thanks to the stories of Francesca, it all come to life!
Caravaggio at the Contarelli Chapel
After this, we arrived at the San Luigi dei Francesi Church in Rome. This French church was previously on my list to visit in Rome, but when I arrived last time, it was closed. So I was happy to be able to enter it with Francesca who turned on the lights for me.
At the Contarelli Chapel you’ll find 3 paintings by Caravaggio. All three around the theme of Saint Matthew. You’ll see the calling of Matthew, an amazing play of light and dark. It has a funny reference to that other Michelangelo who was a contemporary of Caravaggio and painted the Sixteenth Chapel at that time. Can you see what it is?
The altarpiece is the Inspiration of Matthew. For me a first to see some pop of color in Caravaggio’s paintings. Again we see the stark contrast between light and dark but we also see a real man. With wrinkles and bare feet.
More offbeat Rome: Via Appia Bike Tour
Martyrdom of Matthew by Caravaggio
Flanked on the right, we see the Martyrdom of Matthew. Again, we see figures seen on the back and a lot of agony and despair coming through. Francesca challenged me to take a good hard look at the painting and asked me what was wrong with it? As I couldn’t find anything, she luckily told me the secret that really blew me away.
The reason I couldn’t find anything wrong with the painting; was that it was actually intended to hang in that exact same spot at the Contarelli Chapel. The chapel is at a small niche at the back of the church. But you’re not able to enter into the chapel. So you’ll see the painting from the side, exactly as it was meant to be.
If you’d have seen the painting in a museum, the figures would have seemed disproportional and odd. But from the spot where I was standing, it looked perfect. Maybe Caravaggio was like a blogger avant la lettre. Always optimizing for the intended viewer device. I loved this quirky little detail and it made me appreciate the Caravaggio tour of Rome even more. To see the paintings in the exact located as they were intended for when they were created is amazing!
Pantheon and Raphael in Rome
After all those Caravaggio’s, it was time for some different art. In the different churches, we visited to see the Caravaggio paintings, we also stumbled across some Raphael masterpieces. At the end of the tour, we queued up to visit the Pantheon of Rome.
It was my 4th visit to the Pantheon but just like the first, the second and the third time, I was totally in awe of the building, the history and the sheer magnitude. Francesca pulled out her iPad again to show me some details of the architecture and the dome. Although you see it with your own eye’s, it is hard to believe it has stood there for over 2 thousand years!
The true nerd came out when she showed me the amazing picture of a cross-section of the Pantheon on her iPad with an orb in it. Looking up at the oculus (the eye- a.k.a. the hole in the roof) and back at the cross section, my mind had a hard time processing it.
Caravaggio in Rome
After three hours walking around Rome with Francesca I saw 6 new Caravaggio’s, 3 Raphael’s and a whole piece of Rome I’ve never seen before. Francesca showed me some amazing history that is basically hidden in plain sight. She managed to unravel it for me and make it come to life in front of me.
Although it was my 4th visit in Rome and I already knew quite a bit about Rome and Caravaggio and the baroque art movement, thanks to the Caravaggio tour in Rome I learned a ton more. We went all nerdy and geeky but I loved it. The Caravaggio tour in Rome is not for everyone, but if you’re remotely interested in Caravaggio, art or really want some geeky art stuff off the beaten track, then I’d absolutely recommend this Caravaggio art tour!
Are you anything like me? Want to get your nerd out?
More Caravaggio in Rome
Can’t get enough of Caravaggio? Want to get your geek on ever more, than Rome has an overdose of Caravaggio stuff for you. I visited some and seen some myself, but not all, so I’m just going to quickly make a list of all the other Caravaggio paintings in Rome you can see. Mind you, all of these are located in museums that charge an entrance fee (but are totally worth it!)
- Vatican Museum in Vatican City. Here you’ll find a Caravaggio’s painting of the Entombment of Jesus. In typical Caravaggio style, the Virgin Mary is not depicted as a forever-young virgin but as an old woman, grieving over her adult son.
- Galleria Borghese. My favorite museum in Rome (if not in the world) holds the once private collection of the rich Borghese family. Here you’ll find early works of Caravaggio, like the young Bacchus and boy with fruit and a still life with flowers and fruit. But also later works like the Saint Jerome writing, a still life with fruit and Madonna and Child with St. Anne.
Works from 1610 include the work of John the Baptist and the David with the head of Goliath which is basically a self-portrait of the painter. Can you guess which one of the figures is Caravaggio?
- Doria Pamphilj Gallery. Another great Roman museum, which is still on my list to visit, houses earlier works of Caravaggio, like the Penitent Magdalene and Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The Pamphilj also has a painting of John the Baptist, a copy of Caravaggio’s own work at the Capitoline museum.
Read more: How to maximize your time in Rome
- Capitoline Museum. Halls and halls of historic Rome, the Capitoline museum is a great place to get lost and release your inner art nerd. It has the John the Baptist painting by Caravaggio on display which isn’t so much a painting of a saint as it is a copy of Michelangelo’s work with a sub-erotic homosexual undertone. Great read if you’re curious what that all means. At the Capitoline Museum, you’ll find another Caravaggio: the Fortune Teller.
- At the Palazzo Barberini you can see the Judith Beheading Holofernes. This work is typical Caravaggio as we see the scene at the most dramatic moment. No reflection afterward or contemplation before the act. No, we see Judith slaying Holofernes with the blood gushing from his head and Judith looking down on her act with determination and repulsion.
Another unique Caravaggio painting in Rome is also located at the Palazzo Barberini. The Narcissus is one of two classic works, depicting the demi-god Narcissus from Greek mythology.
- The Palazzo Corsini has another John the Baptist from Caravaggio. This male nude shows almost a real man, with sunburn and a rough look. Although other painters at that time also depicted John the Baptist as a male nude, Caravaggio makes him more real and come to life.
- You can visit the Villa Aurora on request. Here you can find Caravaggio’s Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. This is not a traditional fresco or oil painting on canvas, but Caravaggio painted this in fresco with oil. A 3-way self-portrait that shows some great perspective skills, this is a unique Caravaggio.
More Caravaggio around the world
Ok, sorry, that wasn’t as short as I intended to but it seems all these work of Caravaggio have different interesting layers of significance and importance to understanding the Baroque era in Rome. Anyways, keeping things short. If you’re totally hooked on Caravaggio now and intent to fly across the world immediately to see even more Caravaggio paintings, then go to:
- Florence. The Uffizi has another Bacchus by Caravaggio. It also shows the famous Medusa head (the other classic painting). You’ll also find the Sacrifice of Isaac here.
- Florence. The Pitti Palace has 3 Caravaggio’s. Check out their Portrait of Fra Antonio Martelli and the sleeping Cupid or the Tooth Puller.
- New York (USA). At the Metropolitan Museum of Art you can find the Musicians, the Lute Player and the Denial of Saint Peter.
- Saint Petersburg (Russia). You can visit the Hermitage Museum and see the Lute Player.
- At the Louvre in Paris, you can find another version of the Fortune Teller. They also own the Death of the Virgin and a Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page.
Wow, the list goes on and on and on. You can also find more Caravaggio paintings in Milan, Naples, Genoa, Malta, Madrid, Montserrat, London, Dublin, Austria, Berlin and Potsdam (Germany), the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth Texas, Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Connecticut, Detroit Institute of Arts (Michigan), Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (Missouri), Cleveland Museum of Art (Ohio). I used this extensive list on Wikipedia with his works of art in chronological order.
Off the beaten path tour in Rome
Wow, you made it to the bottom of the list! You must be an even bigger geek or art lover than I am. Once you dive into a painter like Caravaggio, there is no limit to the amount of information you want to absorb. I hope I helped a bit with that.
But this Caravaggio tour in Rome is not just for art lover’s or people totally obsessed with Caravaggio. Yes, you’ll learn a lot about the Baroque master, but you’ll also see Rome in a different light. You’ll be transported to the 1600s and learn about how people experienced life and religion in Rome at that time. The tour in Rome is a truly off the beaten path experience but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.
Would you be interested in this tour? Do you like Caravaggio? Want to learn more and be guided around Rome to get to know Caravaggio?
Feel free to check prices and availability for this tour on the website of Roma Experience.
Drop me a comment if you found this article interesting. Or you have any questions or want to have more places where you can find Caravaggio’s (in Rome and around the world!).
I was invited by Roma Experience Tours to join their Caravaggio tour in Rome. As always, all opinions and experiences are my own. This post contains affiliate links if you decide to make a booking via one of my links I receive a small percentage as commission. This will come at no extra cost to you.