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. In between court appearances, he seems to vanish.

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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. The author pieces together circumstantial evidence to suggest that Caravaggio may have had a second avocation of pimping. If so it helps to explain why he repeatedly is apprehended in the middle of the night prowling the streets curfew violation and armed with sword and dagger unlawful without a license. Caravaggio was NOT involved in the notorious trial regarding the rape of Artemisia; however an excerpt from the trial records is included in this book in order to provide background information and an example of the dangers found in Rome in those days.

The artist community in the city of Rome of that era was filled with rivalries and jealousies that tended to lead to situations of slander and insult. Caravaggio killed a man and fled the city to escape prosecution. The story at the time was that it resulted from an argument about a tennis game. The author sites evidence which indicates that it was actually a duel with swords involving two combatants, two seconds who became involved in the fighting , and four witnesses two on each side.

The cover story of a tennis game was used to avoid the laws against dueling. As an exile from Rome Caravaggio traveled to Naples and then Malta. He was imprisoned in Malta for rowdy behavior and made a miraculous escape, the details of which are unknown. He escaped as a fugitive back to Sicily and then back to Naples where a gang, probably sent from Malta, attacked him, held in down, and carved cuts on his face to create scars. The author, who seems quite sure of himself, provides the name of the person who had Caravaggio tracked down.

Caravaggio painted two paintings after being attacked, and they show signs of being physically compromised. He died, reportedly due to a fever, in during a trip back to Rome where he expected to receive a pardon arranged by powerful Roman friends. It was from this later part of his life that he reportedly refused holy water at a church "on the grounds that it was only good for washing away venial sins.

Bones in the grave contained high lead levels which is probably related to the paints used at the time which contained high amounts of lead salts. This is a big book pages including Notes, Further Reading, and Index that thoroughly covers the subject.

Insightful commentary is provided in the book for almost all of the surviving works of Caravaggio. I believe these descriptions would be constructive reading for anyone who anticipates visiting a museum where the paintings are on display. The rest of this review is focused on specific paintings by Caravaggio that I found to be of special interest: One reason for my interest in this book is the fact that the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, located in Kansas City near where I live, contains within its collection the painting St John the Baptist by Caravaggio.

I have included it here so I can review it prior to my next visit to the museum. It was probably in the summer of , between fights, that Caravaggio painted the hauntingly intense St John the Baptist now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Kansas City. The picture was almost certainly painted for the Genoese banker Ottavio Costa. There is an early copy in the church of the Oratory of the Confraternity of Conscente, in Liguria, which was a fief of the Costa dynasty.

Perhaps Ottavio Costa was so impressed by the work when he saw it that he decided to keep it for his art collection in Rome. The picture is very different to the St John the Baptist painted for Ciriaco Mattei a couple of years before.

As in the earlier painting, the saint occupies an unusually lush desert wilderness. Dock leaves grow in profusion at his feet. But he is no longer an ecstatic, laughing boy. He has become a melancholy adolescent, glowering in his solitude. Clothed in animal furs and swathed in folds of blood-red drapery, he clutches a simple reed cross for solace as he broods on the errors and miseries of mankind. The chiaroscuro is eerily extreme: there is a pale cast to the light, which is possibly intended to evoke moonbeams, but the contrasts are so strong and the shadows so deep that the boy looks as though lit by a flash of lightning.

This second St John is moodily withdrawn, lost in his own world-despising thoughts. The St Matthew was rejected as soon as it was delivered. After he had finished the central picture of St Matthew and installed it on the altar, the priests took it down, saying that the figure with its legs grossed and its feet rudely exposed to the public had neither decorum nor the appearance of a saint.

Giustiniani also prevailed on the congregation of San Luigi dei Francesi to allow the painter to try again. The resulting picture, his second version of St Matthew and the Angel, was accepted without demur.

As far as they were concerned, it was merely his taste, and the tenor of his piety, that was suspect: if he was given the right instruction, these could easily be amended. In one case Mary is shown with cleavage , and in another painting titled " Death of the Virgin " she is shown too dead. An ascension scene was preferred.


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

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?


Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane






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