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Caravaggio show to draw on the rebel's restless travels

The first exhibition in the world devoted to the lesser-known later paintings of the passionate and unconventional painter Caravaggio will be the biggest show ever staged on the Italian master in Britain, its organisers said yesterday.

While fans of the artist can see most of his earlier masterpieces in a day-long tour of the churches and galleries of Rome, next spring's exhibition at the National Gallery will bring together most of the works from the final four years of his career for the first time.

The show will star two of the National Gallery's own Caravaggios with around 13 others borrowed from galleries in America, Spain, France and Italy. This is nearly three-quarters of the painter's known output from the years when he became a restless traveller around the Mediterranean after killing a man in a fight in Rome.

Dawson Carr, the exhibition's curator, said yesterday it had been an eye-opener even for a specialist like him to see some of the works because they did not reproduce well.

"Caravaggio engages us in a way that no other painter really does because he was one of the first great realists. He was one of the greatest storytellers in the history of the visual arts," he said. "The intensity and drama of Caravaggio's art is mirrored in his life. He was a sociopath who truly lived the life of the streets and the common people he painted."

Yet he had been largely forgotten within a few decades of his death in 1610 at the age of 39. He became a "superstar" only after a major exhibition of his works in Milan in 1951, coinciding with a trend for realism in films such as The Bicycle Thief .

Today he appears the prototype of the rebellious, tormented artistic genius. He had a violent streak which got him into repeated trouble and he scandalised society by shunning its notions of ideal beauty in favour of realism.

Yet Dr Carr said the more sober mood of the later works suggested his departure from Rome under the threat of capital punishment had been a turning point in his life and career.

A strong theme of guilt runs through the later works, in paintings such as David with the head of Goliath which the National Gallery is still negotiating to borrow. In it, Goliath is thought to be a self-portrait, suggesting that Caravaggio was identifying himself with evil and the need for punishment.

The National Gallery has worked with the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples on the show. The Metropolitan Museum in New York was originally going to be a third partner but generously pulled out when it became clear that lending institutions were unwilling to part with the stars of their collection for so long.

Caravaggio: The Final Years is at the National Gallery from 23 February to 22 May next year.