Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610; Darkness and Light

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Norton, 2011

Caravaggio, brawler, pimp, murderer, fugitive from justice.  Basically your wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley kind of man.

He was also (like Kit Marlowe) an artist of startling quality and originality.   A painter of lush paintings of horrific realism and originator of the Mannerist style.

It’s powerful work, Caravaggio’s and not surprisingly as you read his story, it can be a bit queasy making.

Caravaggio fell out of favor with the art establishment until the twentieth century.  (It happens. You couldn’t give away Vermeers until the late nineteenth century.)  What changed? Difficult to say, though Graham-Dixon notes that Caravaggio’s style fits in well with the son et lumiere fashion that movie making exploits (there is a good deal of worthwhile ink spilled on Martin Scorcese). 

Caravaggio was born in Milan of working class stock (his father was a stone mason, not the architect some have claimed) but for obscure reasons, with the eyes of Milan’s powerful Sforza family out for him.  When a certain aptitude for drawing is shown, he gets an apprenticeship.   This is not a story of fully realized genius pouring forth without effort.   Caravaggio’s early works are frankly not that good.  No reason they should be.  Art is a hard business and as with anything, it takes years of practice to be any good, much less world class. In his early years as a painter, he was tasked with painting flowers for his master.

His father died when he was six, his mother when he was thirteen.  If children’s books are anything to go by, this is the perfect setting for a child of any gumption at all.   He proved to be a wild apprentice, and was forced to skip town after striking a police officer.  Anger issues.  And vanity.

He turned up in Rome for the obvious reason that this was where the where the money was.  He found employment with the painter, filling in bits that were beneath the masters dignity. Flowers and such again. It paled quickly enough and he decided to strike out on his own.  He cut an alarming figure in the dark and narrow city streets, all outfitted with a sword, knife, and pistols and having no hesitation to use them.  Renaissance Rome was not as heavily policed as it is today.

He did not neglect the artwork. He decided to paint what he knew, and what he knew was the seamy underside of Rome, the dive bars and bordellos and prostitutes and cut-purses and the adventurous young aristos who try a get a thrill by slumming in their company. He was a personality, and got himself talked about – how could he fail to attract attention?  And with attention, commissions.

The family connection to the Colonnas was another benefit.  This was exciting stuff, entertaining – an entire story comes out in The Cardsharps and the Fortune Teller.   No wonder the stuff sold. But this was still the early stage of secular art and the prices were not quite as high as a high roller might like. He wanted public commissions, that is to say, church commission.  Large canvases that could command real money, and perhaps surprisingly, he got them

His religious scenes introduced an unfamiliar naturalism and dramatic use of light and shadow.  His bible was not pretty.  The lives of his saints were populated by thieves and tax collectors and prostitutes, the same characters  he put into his secular works.  The shock value was increased by genuine emotion and sophistication that Caravaggio brought to his subjects.

Really, it was a bit much for some of his patrons and not every contract he got was fulfilled on the buyer’s side.  The works unnerved his patrons and many were rejected.  Priests did not fully appreciate seeing familiar local streetwalkers posing as saint on canvas, not in their churches at least.

Fighting continued and when 1606 a death resulted over a gambling debt.  Well, that was the story at the time.  The author makes the case that the victim was a pimp, his wife a prostitute, and the fight over Caravaggio’s saying as much in a too public place.

Artists are entrepreneurs and thus allowed some leeway in life, but for someone decorating churches, this was too much.  The pope himself handed down a death sentence.  Even powerful patrons, chiefly Colonnas (related to Sforzas),  could do little but send him on his way, first to Naples, then Malta.

Malta, then the bailiwick of the Knights of St John, a crusading order that had beaten off the full weight of the Ottoman empire in the Great Siege of 1565.  Here Caravaggio plotted how to gain a pardon.  He flattered would be patrons with portraits. He’d have liked to have joined them, but the requirements were a strict four quartering of nobility and he didn’t have even one.   Exceptions were not in the cards.

He thought his commission from the Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt might get him off the murder charge.   The Grand Master did better than that.  He got him into the order and named as the official artist.

The violent streak should not have been a problem given the histories of some of the people in the order, but it did.  Another fight, this one involving another knight, and he was jailed.

He escaped prison and sailed to Sicily where old friend and model Mario Minniti was living, and managed some work here while petitioning Wignacourt for a pardon.  It seems he may have gotten one and was on his way to Rome via Naples to get it when, just short of his destination, he fell ill and died.

Shades of Christopher Marlowe, and easily as interesting.  It’s a brick of a book, but Graham-Dixon has a light touch and narrative drive.  He’s an art historian before all else, but he takes pains to fill in context.  Artists live in the same world as the rest of us and are moved and constrained by many of the same forces, whether political, ecclesiastical, economic, legal.  It is just as well to know what was behind the light and shadows if we are to understand the arc of Caravaggio’s work at all.

And we should understand it if we have any interest in western art at all.  The book makes the case that this one unlikely fellow changed the entire world of western art for good.  Not something to be ignored.  For that reason alone, it is not a books to be ignored.

(NB – there are a copious color illustrations, which are welcome.)


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