20 July 2012

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and ProfaneCaravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Splendid book about a painter whose life was as wrapped in violence as it has been shrouded by conjecture. Some recent discoveries and archive dredging have filled some gaps and Graham-Dixon does a good job at dissecting through document comparison and research. Still, most of Carvaggio's life remains a mystery.
The main idea of the book is how Carvaggio embraced a vision that became so original and counter to norm that his influence was felt all throughout Europe for centuries to come , from Velazquez to Rubens and beyond. Mostly self taught even thought he did try his hand at apprenticing with the Cesari atelier in Rome and others, working in precarious conditions most of his life in different rented and borrowed studios, fleeing from both justice and clients anxious to secure his services, it is astonishing he painted as much as he did considering it was said that "a week in his studio meant a month in the streets".

His paintings are a product of many influences, very few of them "artistic", at least not from his contemporaries. He was in tune with the Counter Reform , specially the brand promoted by Carlo Borromeo, bishop of Milan, with its emphasis on the plight of the poor and the common people. Even when this ideal fell out of style in the Church, Carvaggio never abandoned it and made but few concessions to those that wanted wafts of cherubs in clouds and pretty madonnas. The author also mentions the impact the Sacro Monte di Varallo might have had in his formative years. The Sacro Monte was a set of sculptural groups distributed around some hills. Built to educate the illiterate masses, these scenes contain vivid colors and often gruesome details. The streets of Rome and the underworld provided both the models and settings for his painitngs. And from time to time, Carvaggio would look over the shoulder to the other Michelangelo, Buonarrotti.

His first works done for Cardinal del Monte are charged with a strange sensuality and clumsiness but they prefigure the corporeal weight that would both scandalize and tantalize his contemporaries. His only still life, a basket of fruit, basically contains every element of genius that would launch his career. The fruit is not only masterfully rendered but it is plump, damaged and overripe.

As his work matures, he sets to depict his subjects in daring compositions and a lighting scheme that would become his signature. Flashes of light penetrate the scenes, biblical or saintly , but mostly scenes that could have been plucked out of the strife filled streets of Rome in some cases. The "Calling of Sat Mathew" and the "Conversion of St Paul" in St Luigi dei Francesi in Rome became a sudden sensation on both counts of bringing daily life to biblical subjects and daring almost brutal composition.

The shifty but almost conclusive fact that Caravaggio might have been a pimp and was most likely sexually attracted to adolescent boys explains why some of the models used for his cupids and for his saintly women were indeed prostitutes and catamites. Even the Virgin herself would be modeled after one of the whores that kept him company. He rarely idealized his subjects, they all have their wrinkles, sun burnt skin, dirty feet and torn clothes. It is no wonder he saw much rejection and mockery of his artwork based on this elements. Not to worry, every rejection was accompanied with a race to secure the rejected masterpiece for one or another connoisseur. None other than Rubens lobbied heavily to have "The Death of the Virgin" brought to Antwerp and even had a special container built for the transport. Moreover, the artists that mocked him set to frantically try to imitate his style in droves.

And then there's the many crimes, brawls, wounds, punishments and pardons involving everyone from the street gangs all the way to the Pope. One painting after another were made to pay debts, escape death or obtain grace as if painting was a race for survival. These imbroglios are also well documented in this book. The author minces no words, Caravaggio was a conflicted man, a self-saboteur in many ways. He sought redemption and even the prestige of the Order of Malta just to loose it all shortly after miraculously obtaining it. He had a high concept of himself but debased himself with gusto. That someone as capable of the keenest and most vivid understanding of the miraculous could leave this trail of destruction is may be the most baffling idea, or may be it was the reason for the shunning of conventions all along. His last years in Malta, Naples and his death in Porto Ercole should be made into a movie. The book does a very competent job at following Michel Angelo Merisi di Carvaggio through his 38 short years of life. In any case, it makes this book a very compelling read.

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