A Dangerous Artist to Know

Despite the enigma of Caravaggio’s character and personality, he remains an irresistible topic for biographers. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellent new book is the latest to attempt to come to grips with this brilliant yet violent and bohemian artist. In his lifetime, and in all the early accounts of his career, Caravaggio is described as “strange” and even one of his most loyal patrons, Cardinal del Monte, is quoted as saying that Caravaggio was “un cervello stravagantissimo” (“an extremely odd person”). The complexity of Caravaggio’s character as well as his art is vividly evoked by Graham-Dixon throughout this book.

It is a daunting prospect for any biographer to tackle the life of one of the greatest of all painters but Graham-Dixon, no doubt girded by the success of his Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008), is not one to waste words on the small fry. He succeeds brilliantly here in setting the context of Caravaggio’s 14 turbulent years in Rome, during which he was constantly brought before the courts for a variety of offences, usually involving the kind of violent behaviour that culminated in the May 1606 killing of Ranuccio Tommasoni, which led to his fleeing south into exile at Naples, Malta and finally in Sicily. The circumstances of this well-known episode have been re-examined by Graham-Dixon and he has convincingly concluded that the fight between the artist and Tommasoni was not the result of a brawl following a disputed bet on a game of tennis but was in fact a pre-arranged duel. Similarly, by turning back to the archival documentation, he has been able to offer a convincing solution to the mystery of how Caravaggio met his tragic death in the summer of 1610.

How Caravaggio has achieved the celebrity that he now enjoys is a fascinating tale but it might be said to have begun with the art historian Roberto Longhi’s highly important retrospective 1951 exhibition of his work and that of his followers at Palazzo Reale in Milan. Since that defining moment, Caravaggio has gradually become nothing less than a celebrity cult figure, not just with the habitual exhibition-going public but for a very wide audience, including celebrated film-makers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese who have both seen the artist as a pioneer of modern cinematography. Now in the 400th anniversary year of his death, the exhibition of his work at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome (which closed on June 13) attracted the kind of huge crowds that few Old Master exhibitions can command. 

Caravaggio’s contemporaries would doubtless be amazed by his posthumous fame; yet, remarkably, the exceptional crop of early biographies and responses to his art in the century did much to keep his name alive after his short and brutal life was prematurely ended in his 39th year. The astonishing originality of Caravaggio’s art has always made an assessment of his artistic influences very difficult, yet his rudimentary training in northern Italy exposed him not only to his native Lombard tradition but also to great works of Venetian painting by the likes of Titian. Those could be seen close at hand in Milan (where Caravaggio spent his formative years) as well as in nearby cities, Brescia and Bergamo. 

Caravaggio’s art and artistic personality were forged, as Graham-Dixon demonstrates, by the counter-reformationary climate in Milan fostered by Archbishop Carlo Borromeo. But we should not underestimate the effect of the character of the Lombard people themselves whose passion for realism was somewhat at odds with the cultural traditions of late-16th-century Rome. The intensity of Caravaggio’s early work is doubtless the result of his innovatory practice of painting directly from posed models and objects placed in the studio with the careful play of light, usually directed from a high source. His tendency to exaggerate distinctive details was seen as startlingly at odds with the conventions of southern Renaissance art, although it was not at all out of keeping with either the north Italian or northern European tradition,  which may go some way to explaining why so many of Caravaggio’s numerous followers came from northern cities such as Utrecht in Holland.

The question of Caravaggio’s sexuality has always been intensely debated. Throughout his short life Caravaggio consorted not only with the catamites who flourished in his early patron Cardinal del Monte’s household in Counter-Reformation Rome, but also with the whores who plied their trade on the streets in and around Piazza Navona, although he is now widely seen as a gay icon. It is surely not solely modern attitudes that make the androgynous youths who people many of his early compositions seem so highly homoerotic.

Graham-Dixon’s biography will surely quickly establish itself as the outstanding introduction to Caravaggio’s life and art. Through his many previous books and television broadcasts, he has shown that he has developed a remarkable ability to focus his readers’ and viewers’ attention with highly original close readings of pictures devoid of the kind of intimidating jargon that besets so much modern art history. To read this book will make a visit to those astonishing pictures in the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi and the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome all the more pleasurable an experience.

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