- - 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.

And he did this, as Mr. Graham-Dixon explains, by using common people - the poor, criminals, even prostitutes, as models for his saints, including the Virgin Mary.

And he painted them in scenes without clouds and cherubs and hosts of winged angels, but in everyday life where feet were often dirty, clothing threadbare and people worn by the cares of life and poverty.

To this day, as Mr. Graham-Dixon points out, Caravaggio’s greatest religious works - “The Seven Acts of Mercy,” for example, or “The Supper at Emmaus” - have lost none of their power to startle and fill with awe.

Mr. Graham-Dixon is first-rate on Caravaggio’s religious side. Where he fails is in dealing with the bad-boy side. For Caravaggio’s great works include not only deeply religious works, but also very secular ones, “Self-Portrait as Bacchus” and “The Cardsharps,” to name but two, which offer a vivid look at the other side of his life.

Thirteen years ago, Peter Robb, an Australian biographer of Caravaggio emphasized the artist’s bad-boy qualities. In Mr. Robb’s portrait - “M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio” (1998) - the painter is violent, ambitious, primarily homosexual and dissolute.

It is a no-warts-barred look at a man of genius that must have left some readers wondering how a man bent on self-destruction would have had the time or inclination to do the great work he did, whether religious or secular.

It’s Caravaggio’s wild side that Mr. Graham-Dixon seeks to play down in this new biography. This is a tamer man, and an artist devoted to his art.

Yet out of the mold Mr. Graham-Dixon puts him in, Caravaggio keeps breaking out, wild and ungovernable. Perhaps no book can explain this extraordinary painter, and his admirers will have to be satisfied with his two natures, neither of which seems in happy balance with the other.

• Stephen Goode wrote on art for Insight magazine from 1987 to 2004.

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