Sep 292015


Today is the birthday (1571) of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, an Italian painter active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily between c.1592 and 1610. Caravaggio’s family name was Merisi (or Merigi or Amerighi) and da Caravaggio means “from Caravaggio.” His given name comes from the fact that his birthday is the Feast of Michael, the archangel, known in English as Michaelmas — Caravaggio was born in Milan where his father, Fermo Merixio, was a household administrator and architect-decorator to the Marchese of Caravaggio, a town not far from the city of Bergamo. His mother, Lucia Aratori (Lutia de Oratoribus), came from a propertied family of the same district. In 1576 the family moved to Caravaggio (Caravaggius) to escape a plague which ravaged Milan, and Caravaggio’s father died there in 1577. It is assumed that the artist grew up in Caravaggio, but his family kept up connections with the Sforzas and with the powerful Colonna family, who were allied by marriage with the Sforzas and destined to play a major role later in Caravaggio’s life.

Caravaggio’s paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, had a profound influence on the development of Baroque painting. It’s perhaps shallow of me to say Caravaggio is my “favorite” painter; I like dozens of painters and works of art. But if for some reason I were forced to make a choice I’d probably place Caravaggio above all others.


Caravaggio trained as a painter in Milan under Simone Peterzano who had himself trained under Titian. In his 20s Caravaggio moved to Rome where there was a demand for paintings to fill the many huge new churches and palazzos being built at the time. It was also a period when the Church was searching for a stylistic alternative to Mannerism in religious art which evolved in the late Renaissance. Caravaggio’s innovation was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro (light-dark) which came to be known as tenebrism (the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value). It is sometimes said that Caravaggio “put the oscuro in chiaroscuro,” that is, his paintings are noted as much for the darkly shadowed passages, which seem to make brighter the illuminated sections.


He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success poorly. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope after killing a young man, possibly unintentionally, on May 29, 1606.

An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, recounts that “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at the age of 38, he died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole in Tuscany, reportedly from a fever while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.

Caravaggio was famous while he lived, but was forgotten almost immediately after his death. It was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. His influence on the new Baroque style that eventually emerged from the ruins of Mannerism was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the “Caravaggisti” or “Caravagesques”, as well as tenebrists or tenebrosi (“shadowists”). I can think of no better tribute to the master than to present a gallery of my favorites.

mc3 mc5 mc7 mc8 mc9 mc10 mc11 mc12 mc16 mc15 mc13

My inspiration for a recipe comes from Caravaggio’s painting The Road to Emmaus. First, here is the tale from Luke 24:

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

19 “What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.


Caravaggio took many of his themes from gospel stories. This one is a great favorite of mine because it underscores the importance of fellowship over a meal in the gospels and in the life of Jesus (for which he was regularly berated by the authorities). Caravaggio’s painting shows bread and a roast fowl along with a basket of assorted fruit. It is at the same time both plain and elegant. Well, today being Michaelmas, you should probably have roast goose (as per my post linked above), but I won’t be a stickler. I can’t readily get goose in China, so I’m going to roast a duck. But go ahead and roast anything you want. I have three rules:

  1. I don’t ever stuff a bird. With very fatty birds, such as goose and duck, the stuffing usually ends up soggy. I make up a “stuffing,” because I like the flavors that contrast with the meat. But I prepare it separately in a skillet, wrap it loosely in foil, and bake it beside the bird for about 30 minutes.
  2. I don’t ever baste a bird. I stick it in the oven and forget about it. I rub most (non-fatty) birds with fat of some sort before I put them in the oven. For fatty birds I use a sharp fork to deeply prick the skin all over so that the fat seeps out as the bird cooks – creating a self basting action.
  3. I roast on the highest heat possible. For me that’s 260°C/500° I think that the high heat is the absolute key. In my (long) experience, slow roasting dries out a bird, while high heat/quick roasting keeps the meat – especially the breast – moist. People always complain about dry tasteless turkey breast because they roast the bird for hour upon hour at low heat. On the rare occasion when I roast a turkey, I do it on high heat, and no one ever complains that the breast meat is dry.

I also always carve at the table and not in the kitchen. I used to be scared of doing this when I was younger, but now carving at the table is an essential part of the meal, to my mind. Have a warmed serving platter beside you to fill and pass around whilst you are carving. Separate the legs from the body by severing the skin around the thigh/body area, then simply snap off the leg, followed by cutting through the joint. For most birds I then snap the thigh and drumstick and then cut through the joint, keeping the pieces whole. Let the diners strip the meat on their plates or just pick the pieces up and gnaw. For a turkey I do strip and slice the meat. For ALL birds, big and small, slice the entire breast off by cutting down the base of the breast from the keel. That way you end up with two large breast pieces. Then cut vertically through the meat in thick slices. This is by far the best and most efficient way to carve a turkey breast.

Caravaggio’s painting is more a symbolic image than a realistic portrayal of a meal in Jesus’ time or his own. The bread is obviously crucial. Jesus “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” and at that point their eyes were opened. That’s how we get the idiom that “breaking bread” means eating together. Breaking bread is an act of communion, literally and figuratively. Break bread with you friends and family today.