“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.

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