- - Friday, December 23, 2011

By Andrew Graham-Dixon
Norton, $39.95 514 pages, illustrated

His real name was Michelangelo Merisi. But the world knows him as Caravaggio, after the name of the Lombard town where he was born in 1571. He is one of Europe’s great painters, ranked among Titian, Goya, Degas and Picasso, and certainly one of the most influential, both in his own time and in our own.

But Caravaggio was also one of the art world’s bad boys. Quick of temper, he loved nothing better than roaming the night streets of Rome or Naples armed with a sword to pick fights. His best friends were prostitutes and men like himself, violent and sexually very active. His last years - he died in 1610, just short of his 39th birthday - were spent running from a death penalty earned in Rome when he killed a man in a duel.

A great painter and a vigorous, even scandalous life provide excellent material for an exciting book. Yet Caravaggio’s biographers have always faced a major problem. Most of what survives from the artist’s life and times are court records following his several arrests, and those records don’t offer much.

The two earliest biographies on him were written after his death, and one of them was by a fellow artist who did not like Caravaggio, and who was deeply envious of his great talent.

But this relative dearth of material has not stopped the biographers, of which there have been several in the past 30 years, a period in which Caravaggio studies have thrived, while the controversies over his character and achievements grow ever more intense.

The most recent biography is British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon's “Caravaggio,” which he subtitles “A Life Sacred and Profane,” a major clue to the book’s contents and to the author’s approach to his subject.

Mr. Graham-Dixon’s aim, though he doesn’t state this outright, is to present a balanced portrait of Caravaggio, one that stresses his significance as an artist whose greatest works were profoundly religious and which doesn’t get caught up in the very often sordid details of the artist’s life.

It’s a difficult task, but one in which Mr. Graham-Dixon mostly - but not invariably - succeeds.

The Lombardy of Caravaggio’s childhood was a violent place, rent by war and plague. By the time he was 6, the future artist was bereft of his father and all other male family members, a loss Mr. Graham-Dixon believes left Caravaggio with a permanent sense of homelessness.

This sense of homelessness led to Caravaggio’s wandering life - he lived in Rome and Naples, and in Malta and Sicily - the security he sought always eluding him.

But Mr. Graham-Dixon also shows that Lombardy endowed the young artist with a rich visual heritage and a desire to render his art as visually powerful as his talent might allow, a desire that likewise never left him and which deepened as time passed.

In the Italy of Caravaggio’s youth, the influence of such Counter-Reformation figures as Ignatius Loyola and Carlo Borromeo was enormous. Both men were prominent saints who preached that the faithful should visualize as directly and clearly as they could the sufferings of Christ on the cross and the other stories central to Christianity, as a way to make their faith as real as possible.

As Mr. Graham-Dixon shows (and these are the best parts of his book) this is precisely what Caravaggio did.

At a time when most Italian artists chose to paint religious themes in a way that made them ethereal and exceedingly otherworldly, Caravaggio chose to follow a realism so revolutionary that it shocked most viewers of his art, and forced a re-evaluation of art’s goals and an artist’s duties.

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