By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
Caravaggio is one of art’s bad boys. Born in 1571, Caravaggio arrives in the midst of religious turmoil between European Catholic nations and the Ottoman Empire.
Caravaggio comes to life in Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography. Graham-Dixon explores the light and dark of Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio’s short life.
Graham-Dixon suggests Caravaggio’s life is self-formed by history’s circumstance, political family connection, and the rebellious nature of a boy who loses his father at the age of six.
A self-formed life is a description of Caravaggio’s growth to manhood because it suggests Caravaggio’s artistic ability is from innate inner drive more than formal education. Though Caravaggio is apprenticed to painters in his youth, his teachers’ contribution to artistic ability is obscured by differences in what Caravaggio paints and what his teacher teaches.
Use of light and shade (chiaroscuro) reflects an early break with what teachers taught and what Caravaggio could do. In his early work, Caravaggio’s beginnings of genius are shown. Even though the subject “Boy Peeling Fruit” shows immature dimensional perspective, Caravaggio’s use of light and dark dramatically highlights his subject. As time passes, Caravaggio skillfully improves chiaroscuro to further dramatize his work.
Graham-Dixon recounts Martin Scorsese’s 1960s comments about Caravaggio’s cinematic sense. Caravaggio’s paintings tell stories of the bible known by the public, but known more symbolically than literally. Caravaggio’s work dramatizes biblical stories.
The dramatic finger probe of Jesus by Thomas cinematically illustrates Jesus Christ’s rise from the dead. From the frown on doubting Thomas’s face–to Thomas’s dirty fingers, the biblical story becomes graphically real.
At times, Caravaggio went too far and displeased his benefactor with biblical interpretations that offended social propriety. In St. Matthew and the Angel, the intimacy of the angel and St. Mathew offended his client. A second version had to be painted before Caravaggio would be paid.
Jesus walks among the poor, the bereft, and sinners of society. Caravaggio’s characters are workers, prostitutes (courtesans), and gamblers like “The Cardsharps…” Caravaggio paints from models of working people of his time to make stories of the bible more true to Jesus’s time.
But, as Graham-Dixon observes, his sexualized “Cupid as Victor” challenges morality with a lascivious suggestion of Cupid’s sensuality. Graham-Dixon also points to “V” shaped patterning in Caravaggio’s rendering; suggesting it symbolizes the juncture between women’s thighs.
Caravaggio paints people as they are. He shows the dirty feet of a visitor in “Madonna of Loreto”.
Graham-Dixon’s reports that Caravaggio is a profligate sinner himself. Caravaggio is described as a person who wears black to obscure his visage at night when he is raising hell with his friends and enemies. Caravaggio violates the law by carrying a sword without a license; by brawling in local brothels, and practicing illegal-sexual acts. Graham-Dixon goes so far as to suggest Caravaggio may have been a pimp to subsidize his income. Graham-Dixon suggests pimping may have provided ready-availability of models for his art. Finally, Caravaggio commits the most heinous of sins; he murders a man without just cause. He is sentenced to death.
Caravaggio is reported by victims and witnesses to have a volatile temper. Though the biographer mentions painters were sometimes behaviorally affected by lead and other paint contaminants, Graham-Dixon does not conclude Caravaggio’s behavior is caused by a painter’s poison. Interestingly, in 2010, lead poisoning is found in what is believed to have been Caravaggio’s remains. However, Graham-Dixon is skeptical. He reports no one really knows exactly where Caravaggio is buried.
Graham-Dixon concludes the biography with an explanation of Caravaggio’s mysterious death. Caravaggio made many enemies but no one knows for sure what caused his death. Graham-Dixon believes a vendetta, by a member of Knights of Malta ( a select group of Christian warriors in the middle ages), is the proximate cause of Caravaggio’s death.
Caravaggio, when he tries to become a Knight of Malta (one who becomes a Knight of Malta may be pardoned by the Pope), insults one of the Knights. The insult goes unsatisfied and is compounded by Caravaggio’s abandonment of the Knights of Malta when he believes he will get a pardon for his crimes without the Knights’ commission. Before pardon, Graham-Dixon suggests the insulted Knight catches up with Caravaggio to severely cut his face. (A face-cut in 17th century Italy is to not-kill but injure a person who insults another.) Several months later, Caravaggio is still recovering from wounds when notice comes to him that upon arrival in Rome, in return for all paintings in his possession, he will receive a pardon.
Caravaggio packs his bags, and his last three paintings, and heads for Rome.
The trip is by ship. The voyage includes a stop before arriving in Rome. At the stop, for an unknown reason, Caravaggio is retained by a local sheriff. The boat sails without him. When Caravaggio is released, he buys a horse to meet the departed vessel at its next port before Rome.
Caravaggio is still recovering from his wounds. When he arrives at the port, he is sick unto death with fever and exhaustion. Some days later, he dies at the age of 38.
Art history moves on after Caravaggio, but Caravaggio marked a pivot point in the history of art. Painting became more than symbolic representation; i.e. it became a cinematic representation of the real world. The imperfection of humankind, both physically and spiritually became a part of the Bible’s story about life. Caravaggio’s art reflects on the violence of life, the imperfection of humankind, doubts of belief, and the true nature of human beings.