Monday, December 12th, 2011

Caravaggio: James Dean of Baroque Painters

Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

Caravaggio, The Crowning with Thorns, c1602-07. Oil on canvas, 50 x 65.2 inches.  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Caravaggio, The Crowning with Thorns, c1602-07. Oil on canvas, 50 x 65.2 inches. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Caravaggio is the old master artist who today inspires large personal public interest. Piero della Francesca and Vermeer are also much loved, but very little is known about their lives. Caravaggio is different—we know that he was seriously rebellious, murdered a man, fled his enemies, died young; and he is thought to have been homosexual. The history of Caravaggio’s fame during his lifetime, the long eclipse of his reputation, and then his rediscovery in the mid-twentieth century is part of this story. Because he thus is the James Dean of baroque artists, there is a tendency to interpret his art in highly autobiographical terms. And so there are many novels and films about him. The best novel Christopher Peachment’s Caravaggio (London: Picador, 2002) offers a highly imaginative albeit entirely fictionalized version of his death.

Bernini and Pietro da Cortona were at least as influential in their time; Borromini had as strange a personal life; and Artemesia Gentileschi legitimately fascinates feminists. But none of them are remotely as famous today. Andrew Graham-Dixon presents Caravaggio’s life with close scrutiny of the paintings, lively curiosity about the background of the social history and careful attention to recent archival discoveries. A Life Sacred and Profane has useful accounts of Caravaggio’s early life and career in Milan; a plausibly skeptical reconstruction of attempts to identify him as a homosexual; and nicely constructive discussions of what exactly happened during his tumultuous years in Rome, and his flights to Naples, Malta and Sicily. Graham-Dixon is good at explaining why Caravaggio is so popular today. He has suggestive comments about the painter’s sources from Northern and, at the end of his career Southern Italian art. And he offers a good explanation of how exactly his hero was perceived in Rome and Naples as an artistic revolutionary. The iPad edition has good full color illustrations of Caravaggio’s paintings, and maps charting his career.

Myself, what I would most like is an idiomatic translation of Longhi’s Caravaggio, but until that happens, this book provides good accounts of the individual paintings, and up to date discussion of the attributions and archival research. What I found most instructive was considering the implications of Graham-Dixon’s common sense research. Probably Caravaggio had male lovers, but he also might have been a pimp for his female models. By providing nicely detailed reconstructions of Caravaggio’s swordsmanship, Graham-Dixon nicely explains one important feature of his art. Nowadays punks typically employ guns, but in Rome circa 1606 you needed to get in close to win a duel. And so the violence of Caravaggio’s late paintings is based, one would naturally conclude, upon the artist’s own direct experience. Without anachronistically treating Caravaggio as a Romantic hero, Graham-Dixon offers a plausible reconstruction of the artist’s early death.

Caravaggio speaks to our time as, a century ago Botticelli spoke to early modern aesthetes. But now when, it would seem, most of the lost paintings have been recovered and the archives and picture galleries have been ransacked, what’s next? Once an artist has been so thoroughly discussed, then it’s natural for commentary to move on. What other old master now speaks to our present concerns in the way that   Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi, organized by Longhi, Caravaggio spoke to very many people in 1951?

Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011). ISBN-10: 0393081494. 514 pages. $39.95.

This review draws on my “The Transfiguration of the commonplace: Caravaggio and his interpreters, “Word & Image, III, l (l987): 41-73. The best account remains Roberto Longhi, Caravaggio (Rome: Editiori Riuniti, 1977), not yet translated, which written in very difficult Italian; my thinking was most influenced by André Berne- Joffroy, Le dossier Caravage (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1959), recently translated with a new introduction as Il dossier Caravage: Psiologia della attribuzioni e psicologia dell’arte, trans. Arturo Galansino (Milan: 5 Continents, 2005).

cover of the book under review
click to enlarge