Giuseppe Cesari was born in 1568 in Arpino. He was named "Cavalier d’Arpino", after his birthplace. In 1582 he travelled to Rome with his mother, where he worked as an assistant to Nicolò Circignani (1517–96) on the decoration of the loggias in the third floor of the Vatican.
Legend has it that Cesari’s talent was first recognised on the discovery of some figures he had secretly painted. In 1583, Giuseppe Cesari painted "Samson carries the gates of Gaza" in the Sala degli Svizzeri and "Judas Thaddeus", "Marcus" and "Constantine" in the Sala dei Palafrenieri. He was a member of the Accademia S. Luca, and painted a facade in the Piazza Navona.
In 1585, he executed the (now lost) frescoes in the Palazzo del Quirinale for Gregor XIII. (1572–85), and the "Crucifixion" and "Ascension" in S. Atanasio dei Greci, for Cardinal Giulio Antonio Santori (1532–1602). In 1586, Cesari became a member of the Congregazione dei Virtuosi al Pantheon.
Between 1588 and 1589, he painted two giant frescoes of the Legend of Lorenz in S. Lorenzo in Damaso for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520–89). Cesari was commissioned to paint the first choir vault in Certosa di S. Martino in Naples, although his brother, Bernardino Cesari, completed the work.
Under Clemens VIII., Cesari became the most popular artist in Rome. He was inundated with commissions and requests for large room decorations. Between 1591 and 1593, he painted the vaults of the Contarelli Chapel in S.Luigi dei Francesi. The commission for the wall decoration was given to Caravaggio, who worked in Cersari’s workshop in 1593.
The artist completed further representative commissions, including the work in the Capella Aldobrandini in the church of S. Maria in Via. In 1595, the Cavalier d’Arpino was commissioned to paint the second choir vault in Certosa in Naples. He then executed frescoes of the founding of Rome in the Conservatory Palace.
Back in Naples, he decorated the Sakristei der Certosa with Old Testament scenes. In 1598, the artist accompanied Clemens VIII. (1592-1605) to Ferrara, and in the same year, he travelled to Venice to work for Pietro Aldobrandini (1571–1621).
In 1599, he became head of the Accademia S.Luca. In 1603, Cesari executed 70 boards for the mosaics in the cupola of St. Peter’s church. The work was completed in 1612. By now, Giuseppe Cesari had reached the zenith of his career, and had become the most famous painter in Rome. His patrons included the Emperor and Kings of Spain and England. During the following years, he decorated Paul V’s (1605–21) mausoleum in S.Maria Maggiore and Cardinal Montalto’s (1571–1623) casino in Bagnaia.
In his later years, after becoming accustomed to his earlier fame and success, the Cavalier d’Arpino became increasingly unproductive. His talent faded as he reached old age.
Giueseppe Cesari died in his home city of Rome on 3rd July 1670. His grave is located in the ambulatory of S.Giovanni in Laterano.
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