Caravaggio, the All-Purpose Modern

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


We have,

as the age demands, Caravaggios for every tribe and taste. There is the genius
Caravaggio, following in the line of great painters like Michelangelo and Giorgione;
Caravaggio the vanguardist, age-old prototype for Picasso and Pollock; a Marxist
Caravaggio, faithful recorder of the dirty fingernails of the people;
the fashionably queer Caravaggio, a gender-bending revolutionary with a gimlet
eye for ruby-lipped ragazzi and rough trade; and finally Caravaggio as
Marlon Brando, the original rebel without a cause, a lovable bad-boy character
serving as a template for every dramatic potboiler from Young Man With a
Horn
to Titanic.


But in his
own time one account described Caravaggio this way: “He was a large young
man, around twenty or twenty-five years, with a thin black beard, black eyes
with bushy eyebrows, dressed in black, in a state of disarray, with threadbare
black hose, and a mass of black hair, long over his forehead.” This account,
given by a certain Luca il barbiere in a deposition for a criminal trial,
is one of the few solid records we have of Caravaggio’s life. Fact is,
very few others exist. In spite of radically changing the history of art through
his relentlessly naturalistic pictures, Caravaggio’s words and deeds were
mostly noted either by Italian courts or by less reliable, often antagonistic
contemporary biographers.


Caravaggio
himself wrote nothing. The skeleton outline we have of his life, it turns out,
is not enough to fill a child’s ruled notebook. On the face of it, terrain
such as this would appear tough for a modern biographer to venture into. Helen
Langdon, though, is up to the task in her new book, Caravaggio: A Life
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 436 pages, $30). Taking the oft-told but thin story
of the tearaway painter and the solid, lasting evidence of his art, Langdon
succeeds in capturing, if not the man per se, then the rocky, voluble, dangerous
milieu in which Caravaggio painted, fought and frigged. Having established her
colorful ground, Langdon then moves the artist’s brilliant career through
its seemingly inexorable stages, from poverty through success to final notoriety,
with all the pace of a Greek drama.


The man
who would come to be called Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi in 1571
in the tiny town of Caravaggio, a few miles east of Milan. Having learned his
craft in practical, more realistic-eyed Lombardy, Caravaggio set out for fattened
Rome at the age of 20, arriving there an artistic hick among a sophisticated
yet self-referential, decadent culturati. A swiftly declining Late Mannerism
was the order of the day in Rome, a common, idealized style that matched the
homogenizing moral and religious order set down by Pope Sixtus V. After lean
times not unlike those recorded by struggling artists in our own day, Langdon
tells us, Caravaggio rose quickly in rank. He acquired first a patron, Cardinal
Del Monte (an indispensable step to achieving success in the art world at the
time, like having a gallery today), then quickly set out to place his own brushmarks,
in the manner of a personal vini, vidi, vici, on the city’s
most magnificent churches and the richest noble households.


Success,
though, proved at least as difficult to manage as failure for Caravaggio. From
all accounts a man of saturnine, frequently violent temperament, he fought duels
at the drop of a hat, romped with puttanas in the brothels, gamed with
ruffians at illegal gambling houses and drank like a fish whenever his wallet
gave him half a chance. Most prominent among accounts of Caravaggio’s life
are tales of his abuses, mostly told by his victims or near victims to the police.
He once cut a waiter’s face over a plate of artichokes. Another time, the
court records declare, he struck a man in the back of the head with his sword,
then fled.


Amazingly,
Caravaggio was wont to put some of his experiences of the seedy street and lowlife
into his painting, especially when his commissioned canvases involved religious
subjects. His realistic, nearly tactile early paintings are the best proof of
this. One youthful masterpiece, The Cardsharps, a painting of a card
scam played on a rich, unsuspecting boy, reads like a cynical warning (given
Caravaggio’s own habits) to youth: It doesn’t pay to play. In another
painting, of St. Catherine, executed for a priestly patron, Caravaggio posed
a well-known courtesan holding his own personal sword. A third painting, the
Uffizi Bacchus, is less directly earthy but is still streetwise in that
signally louche way. Where there should be a god of antiquity, there is a model’s
experienced, chubby mouth, mirrored by a plate of bruised apples, pomegranates
and pears, the fruits nearly disgorging themselves from overripeness.


Caravaggio,
in fact, came to perfect a uniquely urbane vernacular for Baroque painting,
a naturalism as divorced from mere verisimilitude for its own sake as it was
from the regurgitated, circumscribed and prettified formulas of celebrated painters
like the Cavaliere d’Arpino, one of Caravaggio’s academic contemporaries.
Like much Northern still life and landscape painting, Caravaggio was after the
powerful, immediate appeal that only the real could then impart. Though an innovator
to the very end, he wanted naturalism to cover everything, even divine illumination.
Imitar bene le cose naturali, he was said to have put it imperatively.
Regarding the depiction of the cities of God and man, Caravaggio demanded, above
all: imitate natural things well.


Helen Langdon’s
A Life is tremendously informative on matters where the elusive Caravaggio
is impossible to trace. She turns out to be particularly skilled at investigating
the murky environment in which Caravaggio swam and often thrashed about, getting
down a scholarly view of his artistic and extracurricular surrounds. Discussion
of subjects like papal successions and the noble lineages of minor characters,
though, sometimes veers more to the exhaustive than to the engaging, a good
researcher’s bad habit capable of watering down even a juicy story like
this. There are also long, circumstantial passages throughout A Life,
made up of paragraphs that begin or end with sentences like, “It seems
highly likely that,” or “Caravaggio may have,” making for evidently
unconvincing reading. One wishes in places like this in Langdon’s book
that she would, stylistically speaking, let her hair down a bit and with it
some of her scholar’s reserve.


What Langdon
does make clear about her subject, though, is that Caravaggio, perhaps as a
result of having lost his grandfather and father as a child to the plague, made
few if any lasting friendships. A classic loner, he was described by his contemporaries
as “proud and quick to anger,” a man who shunned close ties. One story
tells of his refusal to publicly recognize his own brother, a priest. Another,
apocryphal, suggests that he exiled himself from Rome because of a minor, painful
insult to his honor.


What we
do know about Caravaggio from this point forward describes a parachutist’s
view of a rapid descent. Fleeing from Rome for stabbing a man in the gut, Caravaggio
undertook a series of ill-advised trips to Naples, Sicily and Malta, staying
one step ahead of the law. On the lam and in fear for his life, he left altarpieces
in Mediterranean seaports, basking in the celebration the work earned him just
long enough to anger his hosts and flee again. Finally, back in Naples after
four years’ peregrination, Caravaggio painted David With the Head of
Goliath
, a macabre bit of business into which he introduced his own features
where Goliath’s should be.


Packed off
to a Cardinal in Rome, Caravaggio hoped the painting would grease the wheels
of his rehabilitation. The ploy worked. But on his way back, he was arrested,
wrongly this time, in Palo, a piece of wet, malarial hinterland, as far as possible
from the grandeur and glory of Rome. Caravaggio died there of a fever in nearby
Port’Ercole at the age of 39, alone, despairing and dispossessed of any
money or recognition. His story, a classic if ever there was one, survives him,
as do the dark, voluptuous pictures we embraced this century like contemporary
portraits of the famous. Kenneth Clark once said of Caravaggio that he was like
the hero of a modern play, except that he happened to paint very well. Certainly,
the light and darkness of his life and gift prefigure some of our most modern
views of self-admiration and heroism. Anyone for Caravaggio on the Biography
Channel?


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