“Caravaggio: A Life”

A gripping biography of the painter turns up one living, kicking corpse.

Topics: Books,

Some time ago, not long after a party at which I’d heard the Old Masters declared dead and painting deemed irrelevant, I stumbled upon Caravaggio’s “The Taking of Christ” in Dublin, at the National Gallery of Ireland. I shivered: the downcast eyes; the ominous, reflective gleam of the Roman armor; the foreboding darkness. Here was the flesh-and-blood man, being driven to Calvary — tableau vivant indeed.

The subject of Helen Langdon’s “Caravaggio: A Life” is certainly one living, kicking corpse. This isn’t the Right on! chicken-delight Caravaggio of Derek Jarman’s 1986 film (odd that Pasolini didn’t see him as a subject) but the hustling, provincial Caravaggio of the 16th century, lusting after fame and fortune in Rome. At that time, all roads still led to the Eternal City, the center of the Western world and of muscular Catholicism — and a fleshpot spilling over with vulgar life, bucks and blades whoring around, rich and poor cheek by jowl. When the dauntless youth arrived in 1592, experienced beyond his years and proud as Lucifer, he was ready to make his mark.

He did so quickly. Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, a wit and bon vivant, a brilliant intriguer allied to the Medici and a most magnanimous patron, swept Caravaggio up and settled him in his palace. There the painter flourished in a cellar that he converted into a boisterous all-hours studio. Working with a limited light source, he shed the restraints of chiaroscuro for tenebroso — a stark effect that soon became standard for the likes of Zurbaran, Ribera and La Tour. His models came off the streets — beggars, vagabonds, itinerant musicians, wanton women — though he deigned to portray the more interesting-looking among an effete clientele.

While Caravaggio’s overripe style was a slap in the face of conventional taste, it was also the expression of a sincere and humble faith. Depicting martyrs and saints in a bold, naturalistic fashion verged on blasphemy — though it’s typical that only middle management complained. (The pope dug his stuff.) Langdon does a bang-up job of re-creating the Counter-Reformation, the Jubilee Year celebrations, the exhilaration over the defeat of the Turks at Lepanto and that fin de sihcle feeling that induces ecstasy as well as agony.

Unfortunately, while you can take the painter out of the street, you can’t take the street out of the painter. Caravaggio was chased by the Furies. He made enemies easily, mostly in low places; in a city of literally cutthroat competition, he was constantly having to cover his own. He fled Rome after killing a man — first to Naples, where he repeated his triumphs, then to Malta, where he repeated his mistakes. Friends in high places finally secured him a papal pardon, but he died, miserably, in transit after another run-in with the law.

If Langdon doesn’t quite convey why Caravaggio is “one of the hinges of art history” (in Robert Hughes’ telling phrase), her book is nonetheless a gripping, Caravaggio-esque read.

George Rafael, an arts journalist, writes for Cineaste, the First Post and The London Magazine.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>