by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Penguin. 2011. 444 pages. Colour illustrations. footnotes, index, notes on further readings. Paperback.
Caravaggio’s life appears to confirm that maxim attributed to Heraclitus: “Character is Destiny”.
There are few artists in history who had such brilliant abilities, strong vision and great opportunities to make their mark on the world as had this man, yet Caravaggio could not contain his destructive passions and they eventually overtook him.
Graham-Dixon has a keen and sympathetic approach to the artist and his works. The book contains fulsome and thoughtful discussions about what was being painted, and why it had the effect it did on his viewers ( and on the subsequent the history of Western Art ). He brings to life the dangerous milieu of Rome with brawling gangs, a fierce judicial system and all manner of vice and criminality.
He helps us understand the importance of the Counter-Reformation and the Pauperist strain of Catholicism which helped feed Caravaggio’s imaginative and explosive approach to his themes . Caravaggio showed the stories of Christianity as dramatic scenes played out not in palaces or with throngs of angels, but in the gritty world of the poor people of his time and place. In his remarkable paintings he transformed prostitutes into saints and ruffians into apostles. It caused him much bitterness when early his career, some major works were initially rejected or taken down by his church patrons as just too shocking or not conventional enough for their buildings. ( Although not wanted by some churches for public consumption, these paintings were typically snapped up by wealthy ecclesiastics or aristocrats for their private collections.)
When not painting, he was wont to prowl the streets of Rome at night whoring and getting into fights, so there were ruffians seeking revenge on the streets. He was protected by the powerful Colonna family and by Cardinal del Monte. He knew how to draw support from various powers in the Borghese papacy, through gifts of paintings to the right people. He knew he could count on them to support him and pushed the limits of that support when apprehended by the law.
Through much of his later period Caravaggio was a man on the run. Graham-Dixon has gone the extra mile to ferret out what he most likely did to create enemies and cause himself anguish. The whole amazing story of his exploits on and after Malta is one I leave the future reader to discover for themselves.
This was a moving book to read for its expositions on Roman society of the time, on the magnificent paintings of Caravaggio and finally as a truly tragic study of human folly.