Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) came from humble origins, the son of a stonecutter. He moved from Milan to Rome while in his twenties, looking for painting commissions in the newly built churches and palazzi that were springing up there.
Caravaggio became known as a master of realism—populating his paintings with contemporary, ordinary people—many of them rogues and ruffians from the mean streets of Rome. People were shocked by his realistic paintings. They were used to looking at devotional paintings showing choirs of angels and golden shafts of light beaming down from heaven.
A big part of Caravaggio’s problem is that he felt (correctly) that he was underappreciated as a painter. He was hot-headed and quick to pick a fight, and kept getting into trouble. In 1594 he was arrested for hurling a plate of artichokes at a waiter, and he was forever getting involved in Roman street brawls.
In 1606 he really messed up. While he was playing an early version of tennis, palla a corda, with a close friend, a wealthy acquaintance named Ranuccio Tomassoni walked by with a couple of his relatives and challenged Caravaggio to a game. They played. Each thought he’d won. They drew swords. They chased each other around, hacking away. Caravaggio was slashed twice, but then buried his blade in his enemy’s stomach. Ranuccio died shortly thereafter, and Caravaggio’s friends dragged Caravaggio away to a nearby house to bandage him up.
The police came after him, and Caravaggio fled for the hills outside of Rome. He became a fugitive from the law. He was convicted of murder in absentia, and sentenced to death.
For the next few years, he continued to paint while on the run. His reputation as an artist was growing. Still pursued by the law, he fled to Malta in 1607, got in trouble there, and fled to Sicily. By 1609, he was widely known as a master painter, and he traveled to Naples to await word from the Pope that his petition to be pardoned might be approved. While there, he was ambushed by four assassins, who stabbed him around the face and neck. He managed to survive the attack, but was left disfigured.
When his papal pardon finally arrived, in 1610, he set sail for Rome but fell ill on the way with a fever—probably malaria. He died in 1610.
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MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Renaissance Bad Boy." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 5 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Renaissance-Bad-Boy.
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was a famous Spanish painter. He had a slave named Juan de Pareja (1606 – 1670). Call him an indentured servant if you want, but it’s more accurate to say he was Velazquez's slave, as he was not at liberty to leave. For years, Pareja prepared brushes, ground pigments, and stretched canvasses for the artist. While he was at it, Pareja observed his master carefully, and secretly taught himself how to use the materials, and how to paint.
Pareja was referred to as a Morisco in Spanish. One way to translate the word is that he had mixed parentage (the offspring of a European Spaniard and a person of African descent). Another way to translate the word is that he was a Moor—someone descended from Muslims who had remained in Spain after its conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella.
In 1650, Velazquez was preparing to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X. As practice, he painted Pareja, who had accompanied the artist to Italy. Here is the portrait.
It's a pretty amazing picture, isn't it?
Velazquez got all sorts of praise for it from the artists in Rome—he was even elected into the Academy of St. Luke.
According to some sources, Velazquez would not allow Pareja to pick up a paintbrush. But one day, when King Philip IV was due to visit Velazquez, Pareja placed one of his own paintings where the king would see it. When the king admired it, believing it to be by Velazquez, Pareja threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for the King to intercede for him. Whether or not that story is true, Pareja did become an accomplished painter, and impressed the king so much that he ordered Pareja freed.
Pareja remained with the Velazquez family until his death.
It was hard to find examples of his paintings, but here are two that are attributed to him.
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "The Painter Was a Slave." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-painter-was-a-slave.
celebrates the arts
(with Sandra Jordan)
In 1888, Vincent moved to Arles in the south of France. He planned to establish an artists’ commune where his friends could live together to create a new direction in painting. Vincent persuaded the artist Paul Gauguin, who was desperate for money, to move to Arles to help him. Vincent also was lonely.
For two months Gauguin lived in the Yellow House Vincent had lovingly filled with paintings hoping to impress his friend. Gauguin bossed Vincent around and criticized his artwork. Eventually, when Gauguin sold a few paintings, he threatened to abandon Vincent.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, after a quarrel at dinner, Gauguin stalked off into the streets. Vincent followed him. What happened next is unclear, but Vincent returned to the Yellow House alone and cut off his earlobe (not the whole ear) with a razor. Vincent couldn’t remember the details of this terrible night. But when he was discharged from the hospital a few weeks later, he went right back to work.
There have been many theories about Vincent’s condition. The theory most generally accepted is that he suffered from epilepsy, a disease that could have caused his seizures and hallucinations and for which there was no medication. In Vincent’s case, another reason for his “attacks” might have been his habit of drinking absinthe, an alcoholic drink popular in 19th century France. It contains a strong nerve poison, now illegal in most countries.
Today many popular performers advertise how dangerous and extreme their lives are by writing shocking lyrics and acted outrageously on stage. They are mimicking the lives of artists such as Van Gogh. But he was not advertising or pretending. He just wanted to be useful—to make art that would last. His glorious paintings are the result of his discipline and dedication, despite the turmoil of his life.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. This is the house at 2 Place Lamartine, Arles, France, where, on May 1, 1888, Vincent van Gogh rented four rooms and where Paul Gauguin lived for nine weeks from late October, 1888. The left wing housed a grocery (French: Comestibles, inscribed on the signboard over the marque). Van Gogh indicated that the restaurant, where he used to have his meals, was in the building painted pink close to the left edge of the painting.
If you are interested in finding out more about Vincent Van Gogh, Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have written an award-winning book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Greenberg, Jan. "Vincent Van Gogh and the Case of the Missing Ear." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/vincent-van-gogh-and-the-case-of-the-missing-ear.
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