Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane
By Andrew Graham-Dixon, review from The Economist
Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, died in Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast on July 18th or 19th 1610. No one knows for sure because he died alone. Even so, we know more about him now than any of his contemporaries did. Persistent research has found much fresh evidence in Italian and Maltese archives. The most recent discovery, announced in Rome last month and based on a postmortem of bones that were probably Caravaggio’s, suggests he died of sunstroke and syphilis, aggravated by lead poisoning from the paints he mixed. This news came too late for Andrew Graham-Dixon’s absorbing biography, which otherwise leaves no stone unturned.
Caravaggio was a violent man living in violent times, but, says the author, he was not “the freak, the misfit, the absolute outsider that he has often been painted to be”. Mr Graham-Dixon’s case is not proven. For instance, he recounts in detail one example of Caravaggio’s wilful self-destructiveness. Having killed a man in a duel in Rome, he travelled to Malta, hoping to join the Order of the Knights of St John, with whom he might find freedom and forgiveness. The Order’s Grand Master thought highly of Caravaggio’s work, and commissioned him to paint a large altarpiece, “The Beheading of St John” (detail, above right), for a new oratory in Valetta, and he bent the rules to have Caravaggio admitted to the Order. However, Caravaggio was one of a gang that viciously attacked a fellow Knight. The day before the unveiling he was jailed. He escaped, and fled again, but was caught in Naples and badly wounded by men from Malta, bent on revenge. Nine months later he was dead, aged 38.
That he was so mad, bad and dangerous to know makes his life a compelling story. But the reason why art historians are so fascinated is the conviction that Caravaggio was one of the most original and influential of all painters. He had a fine opinion of his work, placing himself in the same league as Michelangelo. Rubens and Velásquez freely acknowledged his influence. Most of his work was sacred. His taste for the profane was exhibited in a few libidinous portraits of young boys, and it is generally assumed that he was a homosexual. Mr Graham-Dixon suggests his sexuality was ambiguous, or “omnisexual”. He might even have pimped for some prostitutes who were friends.
Caravaggio’s artistic style, self-taught and hugely inventive, is instantly recognisable—stark, vivid and naturalistic, with emphasis on light and shadow, or chiaroscuro. His religious paintings are like theatrical set pieces in confined spaces with subjects modelled on people he had picked up on the streets of Rome. The fact that the Virgin could be recognised as a whore of his acquaintance did not help his cause with the establishment, and he inspired dislike among academic painters who preferred to depict not the poor but the majesty of God in heaven. Neither was the papacy impressed. Caravaggio received only one commission to paint for St Peter’s and the work was rejected.
Mr Graham-Dixon concentrates on the drama of the paintings. He avoids jargon in his writing and is an entertaining art historian, as is shown by his popular television series on Spanish and Russian art, and by his weekly art criticism. He took ten years to come to terms with a very obdurate and highly original painter. Time well spent.