Shelves: biography This is a biography of a gifted artist who unfortunately also possessed a proud and difficult personality that got him into frequent trouble with the law. Ironically, much of what is known about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio comes to us from the criminal archives that document his frequent arrests and various depositions in legal interrogations. Ironically, much of what is known about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio — comes to us from the criminal archives that document his frequent arrests and various depositions in legal interrogations. His early career was influenced by the resurgent Counter Reformation Catholic church that sought a style of art to counter the threat of Protestantism. Caravaggio is generally credited with being part of the early Baroque movement.

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The more flesh-and-blood the imaginings, the better. Just as on television, your friendly expert will not only tell you what the paintings mean, but his impassioned commentary will also make you feel as though you are there, in the presence of the original.

Done well, this is no mean feat. The problem is that in print, Graham-Dixon clearly feels the need to foreground his expertise. When the evidence gets thin — for the peculiar theory that Caravaggio worked as a heterosexual pimp, for instance — the fatal words "probably", "maybe" and "perhaps" begin to litter the text. Some of the key evasions in the narrative are disappointing. At the heart of this account there is a confusion: is the description of the paintings to be a personal, emotive evocation, or is it to be something more solidly scholarly?

For instance, when Caravaggio arrives in Rome to launch his career in , and the only historical evidence that really matters is the paintings themselves, the biographical narrative runs smack into serious trouble.

This leaves him stranded high and dry when it comes to evoking the true force of these sometimes camp and clumsy, but always unforgettable, pictures. Sometimes this fundamental lack of erotic sympathy with his subject makes him come unstuck completely. Only in the second half of the book does the writing about the paintings begin to rise to the occasion. The tone is personal, even confessional.

He reads the painting as an expression of long-harboured grief over the male relatives that Caravaggio lost to the plagues of his childhood. This is an eccentric, over-egged reading of a great picture, but it is probably the most convincing piece of writing in the book. If Graham-Dixon had published his scholarly research as a weighty tome for fellow historians, and then made his revisionist case for an un-gay Caravaggio straight to camera, revealing his personal investment in these marvellously dark and moving paintings in a TV travelogue, then we might have had something very special indeed.

As it is, the confusion of the two genres left this reader unsure whether he was being invited to be a witness, or simply to be preached at.


Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

The combination of ecclesiastical splendour and bodily decay might have pleased Caravaggio, in whose altarpieces the tableaux of Catholic faith are restaged as if they were taking place in abattoirs or low, greasy dives. The brawny thugs who execute meek Christian martyrs look like butchers wading through blood, and the supper at Emmaus is eaten in the kind of sordid Roman tavern where Caravaggio kept company with hookers and hoodlums. His problem is that Caravaggio keeps on disappearing into the kind of murky darkness that he himself painted. He made a speciality of what Graham-Dixon calls "tenebrism", and fully nine-tenths of his Resurrection of Lazarus is as black as pitch or perdition. A night prowler, he dressed in dark colours to dramatise his saturnine temperament and to camouflage himself in the urban shadows when he went out to carouse and copulate.


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




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