Caravaggio, the All-Purpose Modern


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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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