The 17th Century paintings that led to Goodfellas

For Caravaggio this meant pursuing a very earthy, direct realism that was ground-breaking. “For centuries, it was the artist’s role to classicise and make the world around them more beautiful, especially when telling Biblical stories. Then suddenly you have someone who famously gets a celebrated local prostitute to model as the Virgin Mary, and people from the streets to model as saints,” she says.

For the general population who simply weren’t used to seeing people like themselves on canvas, the effect was “enormously powerful”, says Whitlum-Cooper, who likens it to issues around representation today. “We’re used to seeing people of all strata represented but that wasn’t really the case before.

“From the moment his work was first seen in public, his fame and influence began to spread. We have 17th-Century biographies of Caravaggio that talk about all the young artists flocking to look at these paintings,” says Whitlum-Cooper.

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A whole generation of artists in Rome were directly influenced by him, while subsequent generations travelled to the city to see his work. The political situation at the time, with Spain governing Naples, another city in which he was active, also helped spread his influence. Artemisia Gentileschi put a feminist spin on his style in her early works, while Rubens helped bring his approach to the Netherlands where a whole school of Northern Caravaggisti sprang up. The dramatic chiaroscuro of the Spanish painters Ribera and Zurbarán would have been unthinkable without him. 

After his death a classicising faction of critics tried to denigrate Caravaggio’s visceral style, with limited success. “French artists were told for centuries to keep away from Caravaggio,” Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio’s biographer, tells the BBC, but that had little effect. “Jacques Louis David, [Jean-Auguste-Dominique] Ingres – all of them are hypnotised by Caravaggio. They’re told they shouldn’t be, but they are.” 

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