Thursday, September 19, 2013

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

There are probably more rumors and tall tales about Michelangelo Merisi or Amerighi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) than any other pre-modern artist.  Stories of his being everything from a highwayman and freebooter, to gay renegade and street fighter have made the rounds, and, really, after all this time, who can say for sure what story of his life is the truth?

Well … Andrew Graham-Dixon (born 1960) can.  In a book that took more than 10 years to write, Graham-Dixon was able to access criminal and city-records that had not been referenced before, and provide a more complete picture of this complex and brilliant painter than ever published before.

It is not an exaggeration to say in an age when brilliance was commonplace, Caravaggio changed the way people think of genius.  Born some 50 years after his namesake Michelangelo, Caravaggio came of age when the high ideals and artistic techniques of the High Renaissance had become stilted and ossified.  Bucking a near 100-year trend, Caravaggio sought not to move art forward, but to move it back to a more medieval ideal.  His goal was the meld the simple piety and poverty so closely aligned with the Middle Ages to the artistic techniques of chiaroscuro and perspective achieved in the Renaissance. 

Caravaggio painted not for the collector, but for the peasant.  His holy figures were visibly poor: weighted down by life and care, often barefoot and dirty, experiencing religious transcendence in usually grungy environments.  Paradoxically, the public by-and-large did not know what to make of his work, and it seemed to appeal best to such cultured aesthetes as Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577 – 1633), nephew of the Pope and noted art collector.

What kind of man was Caravaggio?  Well, as an artist, no one could touch him.  As a human being, no one wanted to touch him.  Though roughly born, he had pretentions to the purple – this left him so prideful that he resorted to fists, knives or swords if he thought his pride was insulted.  His adolescent studio-aide was probably his lover, and Caravaggio seems to have abandoned the moment it was convenient for him; finally he murdered a man in a duel, probably involving prostitutes.  He fawned before the great and powerful, and often repaid them with bad behavior, and he spent enough time in prison to qualify as a rock star.

But… well, yes… but.  Caravaggio’s pictures are unlike any other painted in his era.  His figures are often in dramatic close-up, the light source unknown.  And where most Baroque painters reveled in brilliant coloration and fantastic scenes of heavenly beauty, Caravaggio’s palette consisted mostly of earth-tones and his saints were very earth-bound indeed.  What Caravaggio had that many artists of his era did not have was a true sense of Catholic suffering and an almost primal religious ecstasy.  That this ecstasy was so closely associated, in his mind and in his work, with pain is one of the many things that make his work touch the mystery of religion.

In short, Caravaggio’s sensibility was both “sacred and profane.”  As chronicled by Grahman-Dixon, Caravaggio’s life was always balanced between acts of brutality and ugliness and the creation of deeply felt art.  Critic and historian Robert Hughes (1938-2012) has called Graham-Dixon “the most gifted art critic of his generation,” and this book alone would be enough to cement that reputation.

The historical research on view here is remarkable; but not more so than Graham-Dixon’s work in making it accessible and sensible to the modern reader.  Moreover, he parts company with contemporary critics who seek to align Caravaggio to more modern sensibilities by underscoring how completely alien to our frame of reference Caravaggio’s historical moment actually was.  Finally, he is not afraid to use deductive reasoning to connect recently unearthed facts to make a case for the most probable sequence of events of several of the most significant moments in the artist’s life, including the murderous duel that marked his downfall.

More importantly, few writers look at, and understand, pictures better than Graham-Dixon.  His explanations and explications of Caravaggio’s oeuvre are masterful.  If you are to read only one book about this fascinating, divisive and strangely contemporary painter, make is Andrew Grahman-Dixon’s Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.

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