The great Lombard painter was baptized on 30 September 1571 in the church of Santo Stefano, a few steps from the Duomo, as evidenced by the deed found in the Diocesan Historical Archive. And at the age of 13 he returned to the capital to study with maestro Simone Peterzano, while a “giant” like St. Charles Borromeo was finishing his episcopate …
There is no doubt: the most loved, and probably best known, artist today is Caravaggio. This is demonstrated by the clamor that accompanies every event that bears its name; this is revealed by the success of exhibitions exhibiting even just one of his works; this is evidenced by the continuous announcement of discoveries of new paintings and new documents, true or presumed, related to his figure. It is a fashion, of course: today the style of the Lombard master is liked. But it is not only this, obviously. The fact is that the man of our time recognizes himself in Caravaggio’s painting, in his way of representing reality, for how this artist paints feelings, emotions, fears, hopes. We feel Caravaggio as our contemporary: he “speaks” to us, about us.
Michelangelo Merisi was born exactly 450 years ago, in 1571. But not in Caravaggio, the village of his family, who gave him the stage name with which he is still universally known today. Caravaggio saw the light in Milan, most likely on September 29, the day in which St. Michael the Archangel is celebrated. He was then baptized the following day, the 30th, in the church of Santo Stefano in Brolo (or Maggiore): and of this we are certain, because about ten years ago, thanks to a passionate researcher – an attentive “amateur” who succeeded there where many insiders had failed – the baptismal certificate was found among the documents kept in the Diocesan Historical Archives.
It is a meager personal registration, yet reading those few words is even touching. We learn, in fact, that Michelangelo’s father was called “Fermo”, while his mother was “Lucia” (Aratori): two names with a strong Manzonian suggestion, considering that they are those of the protagonists of the first draft of the Promessi sposi (in that definitive, however, the writer will prefer the name “Renzo”, to avoid linguistic tangles). Of course, it is only a coincidence, because Manzoni had no reason to be inspired by Caravaggio’s parents: yet this coincidence has something truly suggestive in it …
It is also interesting that the newborn Michelangelo was baptized right in the church of Santo Stefano, which is located immediately behind the Duomo, which at the time was a large construction site that attracted workers, artisans and artists from all over Lombardy to Milan ( and from further afield). Who knows if even Fermo Merisi, just married to his Lucia, had sought a job at the cathedral, as a construction expert or as a simple unskilled worker (in “his” Caravaggio, moreover, it is still believed today that he specialized in laying roofs, an activity for which the masons of the area were famous).
Growing up in the lower Bergamo area, Michelangelo Merisi returned to Milan at the age of 13, in the spring of 1584, to enter the workshop of one of the most appreciated painters of the time, Simone Peterzano: a Venetian who boasted of having been a “pupil of Titian” and who after having made himself appreciated in Bergamo he had landed in the Lombard capital, becoming the darling of the local patriciate and receiving important ecclesiastical commissions (among his many Milanese works we must remember, at least, the beautiful “Deposition of Jesus in the sepulcher” in San Fedele and the admirable cycle of frescoes in the Certosa di Garegnano).
Those years, in Milan, and well beyond, were dominated by the personality of a “giant”: Archbishop Borromeo. In fact, St. Charles, in his overwhelming episcopate, left an indelible mark not only in the Ambrosian Church, but also in the whole society of the time, with his teaching, his action, his thought. To the point that even the painting of Michelangelo Merisi, consciously or unconsciously, is strongly impregnated with it.