Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio:A Life Sacred and Profane is essential reading for anyone interested in this mercurial late 16th, early 17th century Italian artist, whose brilliant, often disquieting work challenged the conventions of the Mannerist style that preceded him and opened up the path of gritty realism for artists in the centuries that followed.  The book creates a more subtle, complex, and persuasively human portrait of a man too often reduced in the past to the caricature of the bad boy artist—violent, promiscuous, rebellious and anti-social.  Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio is all this, and at the same time deeply empathetic with the social outcast and the needy, and a serious, intentional student of the art and literature of the past as well as of his contemporaries.  While much of his brief time on earth was mired in the darkness that pervades almost all his painting, he is here portrayed as sincere in the spiritual aspiration characterized by the sharply contrasting light.  He was an ardent practitioner of “chiaroscuro”--and not only in his canvases : “Caravaggio’s life,” writes Graham-Dixon, “is, like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights.”

Michelangelo Merisi, named Caravaggio after the town of his origin, was born into the very real darkness of the plague-ridden city of Milan in 1671.  In his earliest years he lost almost every male member of his family, including his father, and was brought up in the a=shadow of poverty, sickness and death.  It's hardly surprising, then, that he was much influenced by the new wave of socially-conscious Catholicism that followed in the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi.  In a pattern that was to be repeated at intervals throughout his life, he was forced as a young man to flee Milan as a fugitive from the law, and took up residence in Rome where he soon found patronage and established a reputation for creative genius as well as for his scandalous, even criminal personal behavior.  His apprenticeship as an artist had been so inferior and conventional, in Graham-Dixon’s telling, that much of his pioneering talent was self-taught, acquired in the studio and by the challenge he found in masters like his namesake Michelangelo.  He never learned the traditional art of fresco, nor did he plot out his canvases with preparatory drawing, preferring instead to work spontaneously with paint.  

In Rome, the artist’s life narrative goes, he was regularly seen in the unsavory company of whores, pimps, drunkards and petty criminals.  (This book disputes earlier presumptions of Caravaggio’s homosexuality; more than likely, it suggests, he was equally promiscuous with both sexes.)  Triggered easily to violent response by presumed affronts to his dignity as a man or artist, he prowled the seedier districts of the city at night armed with sword and dagger, dressed all in black, always ready for a brawl.  Lacking other written historical records, Graham-Dixon diligently trolls contemporaneous court records for details of an unruly lifestyle that led to the artist’s renewed flight from justice, following an illegal duel that resulted in the death of his opponent.  Next stop, the teeming, iniquitous backstreets of Naples; then, after more troubles, the island fortress of Malta, where he managed to parlay his talent as a painter into a hospitaller knighthood, only to be stripped of the honor weeks later for having defied the rules of the ancient Order of St. John.  Disgraced, and pursued by insulted fellow knights bent on revenge, he fled to Sicily, where the last of his great paintings were made.  He died, still not yet forty and still on the lam, in a last attempt to secure a pardon and return to Rome.  His death was caused in part as a result of wounds received in a revenge attack by unknown assailants.  (Studies of more recent bone fragment discoveries, claimed to be those of Caravaggio, suggest that lead poisoning from oil-based paints could have been a contributing factor; and could also have been the cause, as with Van Gogh, of a debilitating mental instability at the root of his eccentric behavior.)  

Caravaggio's bones?
It’s an extraordinary story, filled with intrigue and dramatic twists and turns.  I'll admit that I found myself bogged down, at times, by the sheer amount of meticulous research into the competing families and clans in early 17th century Italy, but Graham-Dixon’s evocations of the palaces and churches, the taverns and the often dangerous city streets proved compelling enough to keep me thoroughly engaged, informed and entertained.  He’s at once inventive and persuasive, too, in his portrayal of the characters involved, from courtesans to countesses, from church dignitaries to noble patrons of the arts and denizens of those treacherous back alleys.  He paints a colorful and lively picture of an eventful historical period, when Inquisition Spain ruled Italy and Catholicism struggled to preserve its temporal and spiritual power against the spread of Protestant theology to the north.

I’m personally less convinced by some aspects of Graham-Dixon's interpretation of the paintings, almost all of which he examines with an expert eye and with fine attention to the detail of both style and narrative content.  But he projects into them a great deal more religious fervor and significance that I think is warranted.  I tend to agree with his assessment that “Whatever [Caravaggio] set out to paint—the death of a martyr, the infancy of Christ or his resurrection—he always ended up painting himself.”  The earthiness, the explicit, often sultry, ultimately fleshly sexuality, the bloody violence, the reality of poverty and degradation—down to the grubby feet and dirt under the fingernails—all these seem to me very much an expression of the “profane” reality of the artist’s lived experience.  The paintings’ sometimes thuggish, sometimes cutthroat melodrama echoes the recurrent melodrama of his life.  And that “sacred” glow, those “lightning flashes” that highlight moments of ecstatic revelation read, to this one viewer, more like aspiration than belief, more hope than faith.

These disagreements aside, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane remains a first class read.  I could have wished for larger reproductions than the ones squeezed in between the text--but then there is always the Internet, a click away, with ready access to fine images and detail.   You'll find an excellent slideshow here.

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