Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane Andrew Graham-Dixon

Allen Lane, pp.514, 30

On the night of 18 October 1969, thieves broke into the Oratory of San Lorenzo, Palermo, and removed Caravaggio’s Nativity.

On the night of 18 October 1969, thieves broke into the Oratory of San Lorenzo, Palermo, and removed Caravaggio’s Nativity. The altarpiece has not been seen since. Three decades later, in 1996, Italians were aghast when the Mafia claimed responsibility. Somewhere in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, it seemed, a gangland capo sat in awed admiration of the stolen Christmas canvas. Far from submerging rivals in wet concrete, now the Cosa Nostra were enthusiasts of 17th century religious art.

Born in 1571 near Milan, Caravaggio was a flammable individual. Contemporaries remarked on his appetite for vendetta — what the Mafia would call the ‘balancing of accounts’. Everywhere he went he was preceded by an armed servant boy to fend off aggrieved card sharps, pimps and other low lifes. Yet, with magical veracity, Caravaggio transmuted this rough humanity into a revolutionary re-telling of the scriptures. Where the Renaissance saw the apostles draped in dignified folds and sandals, Caravaggio used tavern boys and barefoot prostitutes as his models. His astounding sensory realism was an assault on more or less everything that had gone before. The grubby saints of Caravaggio’s art glowed with such a photographic sharpness, indeed, that a sinister illusion was suspected.

Yet by the 19th century, Caravaggio’s name was dirt. John Ruskin put the painter among the ‘worshippers of the depraved’ for his sado-erotic distortions (as he saw them) of the Christian life. Even with their taste for brooding darkness, the Romantics were repelled by Caravaggio’s vengeful personality. In 1606, dreadfully, the artist murdered an opponent on a Rome tennis court. Allegedly there had been some quarrel over a foul call. In the light of this episode, Caravaggio and his work were dismissed as unwholesome.

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Caravaggio’s reappraisal was set when Roger Fry, the Bloomsbury critic, proclaimed him ‘the first modern artist’. Fry seized on Caravaggio’s journalistic verismo and, half jokingly, said he would make a superb ‘cinema impresario’. In fact, with his dramatic use of light and dark, Caravaggio could be said to have invented cinematic lighting. Thom Gunn, the poet, was so moved by the naturalistic intensity of Caravaggio’s Conversion of St Paul that he hailed a rebel artist who ‘saw what was’. (Dramatically, Paul lies prone beneath his horse on a dirt road to Damascus, his arms outstretched in mute supplication.) There are no heavenly visions in Caravaggio, only humans on the long pilgrimage of life.

In Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, Andrew Graham-Dixon provides a highly readable, if occasionally long drawn-out, account of the firebrand artist and his times. He drawn heavily on Helen Langdon’s 1998 biography of Caravaggio, as well as Howard Hibbard’s earlier study of the painter published in 1983. Another influence is Caravaggio’s great Italian exegete, Roberto Longhi. It was Longhi who first brought the painter international renown with his ground-breaking exhibition of his work at Milan in 1951. Effectively the exhibition reshaped postwar Italian cinema: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poetic transfigurations of Rome were directly prompted by it. Indeed, as Graham-Dixon points out, Pasolini’s Roman films burn with Caravaggio’s fierce ‘pauperist’ Catholicism: in Mamma Roma the working-class hero lies dead on a prison bed like a Baroque Christ crucified. After centuries of oblivion and opprobrium, in post-Fascist Italy at least Caravaggio attained canonical status.

He began his career in his native Lombardy as an apprentice painter producing rather humdrum still-life and allegory; it was Rome that swept his art to violent grandeur. The city was the centre of Counter-Reformation Catholic spirituality, as well as a sinkhole of vice, and Caravaggio flung himself into brawls and duels with an almost unbalanced zest. His tennis opponent was no sooner murdered — in a duel, Graham-Dixon convincingly argues — than Caravaggio fled to Naples, before spending his last days wandering Malta and Sicily. He died in a port near Naples, at the age of 38, of a fever. Cardinal del Monte, the artist’s Roman patron, spoke of a man ‘with a very odd brain’.

Caravaggio’s Roman milieu, with its poets, ambassadors and podgy prelates, is vividly rendered here. In the teeming, violent city, ‘honour’ was respected on pain of death and the trigger for death sprung tight. But if Caravaggio was by nature violent, says Graham-Dixon, he lived in exceptionally violent times. Several of his altarpieces were rejected on grounds of impropriety. In The Death of the Virgin, offensively, Mary had been given bare feet and a swollen belly; in The Supper at Emmaus, one of most electrifying scenes of recognition ever committed to canvas, a dumbstruck disciple wears a ripped doublet like a keepsake from a tavern punch-up. Caravaggio painted the scriptures as if they were unfolding in his neighbour’s house; this was his genius.

With narrative verve, Graham-Dixon charts the artist’s intensifyingly ‘tenebrist’ vision of the scriptures. In the great Maltese canvas, The Beheading of St John, Caravaggio’s proto-cinematic shafts of light have been replaced by a still, brooding darkness. The painting, which shows an old woman covering her ears as the Baptist’s partially severed head holds the viewer’s gaze, stands as the climactic work of Caravaggio’s brief career. (Samuel Beckett’s late play Not I, where a disembodied mouth spews out a torrent of words in the pitch black, was reportedly inspired by this 17th century masterwork.)

What of Caravaggio’s presumed homosexuality? It hinges on flimsy evidence, argues Graham-Dixon. True, the erotically charged Roman urchins of the early paintings do suggest a glamorous androgyny, but love between men and boys was an accepted part of Classical culture. Leonardo da Vinci had painted Juno-esque youths with ringlets and softly-rounded bodies. Caravaggio’s courtly ideal of male beauty, not necessarily homoerotic, was probably just that — an ideal.

Graham-Dixon’s expert discussion of the paintings is cheapened at times by an over-use of the adjective ‘sexy’ (as in ‘daringly sexy’, ‘disconcertingly sexy’). Notwithstanding the odd clunking sentence (‘The dark wings of Caravaggio’s Cupid certainly fanned the flames of Giovanni Baglione’s envy’), this detailed account is otherwise thorough and elegant. The sumptuous colour plates moreover bring the drama of Caravaggio magnificently to life, as they ravish the eye. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane has done the artist proud. q

Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica won the Ondaatje Prize 2010.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Art, Artists, Biography, History, Non-fiction