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Book Review: Caravaggio

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

Andrew Graham-Dixon

Norton, 2011

Any life of Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), the “Caravaggio” who gave us some of the most arresting paintings in the world, is clamped straight away between the pincers of redundancy and irrelevance. The painter, the playwright, the poet leaves behind enough verifiable factual evidence to fill two sheets of yellow legal paper on both sides – all of it is readily researchable, and none of it is edifying. The composer, the novelist, the singer also leaves behind a body of work – the best of which will move its recipients every bit as powerfully and personally whether they know anything at all about the artist’s life or not. A theater-goer who’s never heard of the second best bed will stagger out of “King Lear” a changed person regardless; a reader of Bright Lights, Big City may testify to its electricity without knowing any reason why he shouldn’t still hate self-important ponces. Artists can be any kind of bastard; their works are always orphans anyway.

The man we call Caravaggio was all kinds of bastard, and that’s completely irrelevant to his incredible paintings, those weird inky darknesses from which sleepy, succulent figures are always emerging into bright and unforgiving light. And the story of what kind of bastard he was – the street-brawls, the prostitutes of both genders, the arrests, the flights from the law, the hair-trigger temper and omnipresent brutality – has been told in great detail a great many times – a redundancy fully matching the irrelevance.

The irrelevance can’t worsen; Caravaggio was by all accounts an odious person, a brainless, belligerent nincompoop whose steadily rising fame happened in spite of himself – there’s nothing in the life that can shed any light on the paintings (there never is, but in this case especially). The redundancy is underscored a bit more deeply, however, because in 2003 Peter Robb revised his 1998 study of Caravaggio, M, and the resulting volume is a biography great enough to need no successor so soon as this latest, Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.

Graham-Dixon must think otherwise (indeed, perhaps a great deal otherwise; he thanks Robb in his Acknowledgements, but in his end-notes, he calls Helen Langdon’s 1998 Caravaggio: A Life “much the best twentieth century biography,” which quite simply left me gaping): here we have his own biography of the artist, at nearly 500 pages, covering exactly the same ground.We get flat-out categoricals floated as justifications, including the charming, “The simple truth is that he was a far greater painter than any of his contemporaries.” And we get true appreciations like “…. his dramatic sense of composition, his striking handling of light and dark and his sheer rawness of feeling worked themselves into the DNA of Western art.” We get the scanty facts (those two sheets of paper), and then to fill out the book we get the two regular attendants to the facts: historical overview and art appreciation.

Graham-Dixon is quite good at both, which is all the justification this book is ever going to have for its existence and maybe all it needs. He downplays the importance of Caravaggio’s apparent bisexuality, noting that it’s played a central role in many previous biographies and choosing to weigh the evidence a bit differently. He follows the tangled web of friendships, rivalries, family connections, and work commissions that overlaid the artistic life of Caravaggio’s time while noting what an anomalous element the artist himself often was. Since his book is long and Caravaggio’s life was short and mostly lived in shadows, Graham-Dixon must indulge in a veritable bacchanalia of supposition, and his book is full of “must have”s and “probably”s. There’s no way to avoid that in writing a life like this, so the question isn’t whether or not a writer does it but how well he does it. Graham-Dixon is lively throughout:

It was probably in the summer of 1604, between fights, that Caravaggio painted the hauntingly intense St. John the Baptist now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.The picture was almost certainly painted for the Genoese banker Ottavio Costa… The picture is very different to [sic] 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 looks as though lit by a flash of lightning. This dark but glowing painting is one of Caravaggio’s most spectacular creations. It is also a reticent and introverted work – a vision of a saint who looks away, to one side, rather than meeting the beholder’s eye. This second St John picture might almost be a portrait of Caravaggio’s own dark state of mind, his gloomy hostility and growing sense of isolation during this period of his life.

The pop-psychology in this and innumerable similar passages (Caravaggio could easily have been laughing while he painted this St John, but how awkward would that be for everybody involved?) is a hazard of the trade: it’s the price readers pay in order to read a sensitive, intelligent, eloquent writer’s thoughts on the artwork. Graham-Dixon himself admits right at the beginning of his book that the artwork is the only reason to be interested in the man. As long as the artwork continues to generate that interest, we’ll continue to get full-dress ‘life & times’ biographies that can’t help but be less illuminating than standing in front of one of the paintings for half an hour and then having a quiet meal to think about it.

Langdon’s book has certain dogged qualities that must have appealed to Graham-Dixon, and Robb’s book has been renowned from here to Andromeda for its brilliance – and there are, of course, many others.Despite the readily obvious enormous amount of work that went into it, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane can only really hope to be the Caravaggio life of a season or two, before somebody else re-shuffles those two sheets of paper, re-examines the paintings, and tells the story again. But this book is heartfelt and boisterous and consistently engrossing about the artwork itself – it deserves those brief seasons. And if you’re a Caravaggio idolator – or know somebody who is, or should be – this book deserves your money too. Unlike his subject, Graham-Dixon probably won’t extort it at sword-point and spend it in dodgy precincts – although with an Oxford man, you can never be 100% certain.