Dark Knight of the Soul

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane BY Andrew Graham-Dixon. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 514 pages. $39.

The cover of Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1604.
Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1604.

Toward the end of his life, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) entered a Sicilian church and was offered holy water. Caravaggio asked what good the blessing would do, and was told it would cancel his venial sins. “Then it is no use,” he replied, “because mine are all mortal.” Like most information about Caravaggio, this account may be a half-truth, if not an outright myth. But it captures a sense of the painter’s defiant character and resigned fatalism, and hints at the source of his intransigent aesthetic vision. In a portrait of Saint John the Baptist (painted soon before Caravaggio committed a murder in Rome), the artist portrays not a beatific figure but the glowering face of a solitary man. In his new biography of Caravaggio, journalist and critic Andrew Graham-Dixon describes the saint in terms that fit the painter well: St John is moodily withdrawn, lost in his own world-despising thoughts.”

If Caravaggio indeed despised the world, the feeling was often mutual. According to one of his earliest biographers, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, this other Michelangelo (born seven years after his more famous namesake had died) “lacked invenzione, decorum, disegno [draughtsmanship], or any knowledge of the science of painting.” Published in 1672, this assessment is typical of the negative reception of Caravaggio’s work until his reputation was revived in the mid-twentieth century. Caravaggio was always admired for his captivating realism, but, as Bellori wrote, “the moment the model was taken from him, his hand and his mind became empty.” Graham-Dixon writes that this emphasis on Caravaggio’s lack of underlying drawing skills furthered the painter’s reputation as “a kind of human camera” who merely copied nature.

But many artists knew better. Caravaggio quickly gained a following of painters throughout Europe known as Caravaggisti, and he would later influence masters such as Delacroix, Manet, Rubens, Velázquez, and Vermeer, to name only a few. Despite the profound impact of his visual style, his lifestyle and treatment of religious subjects caused so much controversy that most of his work vanished from public view for nearly four centuries, until a 1951 exhibition organized by the art historian Roberto Longhi. Since then, scholars have praised Caravaggio’s importance as a precursor to modernity, a pioneering painter whose unflinching realism captures the conflicts, emotions, and sexual energies of earthly life while dealing with the most sublimated spiritual themes. And several recent collections of Caravaggio’s complete works, alongside illuminating close examinations of the paintings (such as Michael Fried’s absorbing 2010 study The Moment of Caravaggio), add to the depth of scholarship on the artist.

Though few today would doubt Caravaggio’s eminence, for a long time even those convinced of his genius found his work troubling. The pioneering art historian Bernard Berenson considered Caravaggio second only to Michelangelo in terms of his influence on later artists, but he could not bear what he called in a 1953 study the “incongruity” between Caravaggio’s religious themes and his secular forms. And, as E. H. Gombrich wrote in a review of Berenson’s book, the painter had long been considered a “bogeyman” of “sinister reputation,” in large part to due to his early biographers, “who presented this violent genius as a dangerous subversive.”

The number of modern Caravaggio studies is impressive when one realizes how little testimony the artist left behind, and the unreliability of the contemporaneous biographical sources, which contain, as biographer Peter Robb wrote in 2000, “hardly a word untainted by fear, ignorance, malice or self interest.” Graham-Dixon seconds Robb’s observation, noting that most of what we know about Caravaggio comes from his criminal record and court transcripts. Graham-Dixon’s decade-in-the-making life of the artist distinguishes itself from its predecessors in a few important ways, making his new biography a major event in Caravaggio studies. He incorporates recently discovered archival material to write the most plausible account yet of hazy events, including the homicide Caravaggio committed, his exile, and his death. The strength of the book lies not just in its new discoveries, but in its deft synthesis of existing sources. For example, in reconstructing a mysterious assault on Caravaggio in Naples the year before he died, Graham-Dixon reviews all the documentation, rumors, and conspiracy theories, and establishes the accuracy of an early account by the artist’s contemporary Giovanni Baglione. Graham-Dixon pain-stakingly covers an extraordinary amount of critical terrain, and offers a much-needed remapping of the artist’s life.

He also creates a cogent context for understanding Caravaggio through a richly researched reconstruction of the painter’s milieu—this, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of the artist’s work, allows Graham-Dixon to offer compelling hypotheses on the more inscrutable aspects of Caravaggio’s career and crimes. There is scant record of the artist’s youth in Lombardy and its capital, Milan, but Graham-Dixon portrays the fervid atmosphere of northern Italy’s Counter-Reformation—a background that shaped Caravaggio’s aesthetic. The Catholic revival led by the archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, left its mark everywhere in Caravaggio’s home region. In Alessandro Manzoni’s monumental 1827 Italian novel, The Betrothed, Borromeo is portrayed as a virtuous combination of piety and managerial acumen. Graham-Dixon adds texture to the hagiographic image by showing Borromeo’s zeal:

Carlo Borromeo . . . saw [Milan] as the world itself in microcosm, a place teetering on the brink of damnation, teeming with sinners to be converted and souls to be saved. . . . Borromeo galvanized the Milan of Caravaggio’s childhood into regular paroxysms of mass repentance.

Caravaggio never painted this “gaunt, hollow-cheeked, charismatically severe” man, but, according to Graham-Dixon, the prelate was an important influence on Caravaggio’s art. Borromeo created lavish spectacles that translated biblical principles into theatrical reenactments, and brilliantly manipulated Catholicism’s iconography. Caravaggio’s later canvases would do much the same.

Graham-Dixon posits that, along with Borromeo’s “spectacularly visual imagination,” the local tradition of the sacro monte (sacred mountain), a set of mountainside chapels filled with folk-art depictions of Christian pageantry, likely nurtured Caravaggio’s dark aesthetic:

Caravaggio’s fondness for going into gruesome, visceral detail—his depiction, for example, of the gouts of blood that spurt from the decapitated tyrant’s head in Judith and Holofernes . . . vividly testifies to the affinity between his art and the rowdy, bloody, popular spectacle of much sacro monte imagery.

Graham-Dixon writes that Caravaggio, because he had the courage to look past Italy’s glorious Renaissance heritage and draw on popular art forms such as the sacro monte, may have been the “first self-conscious primitivist in the entire history of post-classical Western art,” a vision that he believes was forged in the raw and humble imagery of the Lombard Counter-Reformation.

Though Borromeo inspired the young artist, he would surely not have approved of Caravaggio’s later paintings, such as The Madonna of the Palafrenieri (1606), originally commissioned for St. Peter’s in Rome. The model for the Madonna with the plunging neckline was Lena Antognetti, one of the many courtesans with whom Caravaggio kept company. She was not the only one Caravaggio painted: Fillide Melandroni, a prostitute and friend who may also have been Caravaggio’s lover, modeled for such celebrated works as Martha and Mary Magdalene (1598), St. Catherine (1598), and Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1598–99). The three paintings reveal the “incongruity” Berenson described: Each conveys the spiritual resonance and gripping realism of its respective scene, while pulsing with a forbidden sensuality. We glimpse the carnal humanity of the models suffusing their images as holy figures of worship.

In 1606, Caravaggio fled Rome after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni. The murder was the culmination of an increasingly frustrating and quarrelsome time for Caravaggio, whose personal setbacks moved in lockstep with his artistic ones. Graham-Dixon writes that Caravaggio became “increasingly isolated . . . an artist whose work would be tolerated, even admired, in private, or at the provincial margins of the Catholic world, but not at its centre.” During the late 1500s and early 1600s, the Catholic Church’s authorities, intent on fighting the Protestant Reformation’s allegations of corruption (especially for the selling of indulgences), embraced Caravaggio’s work as a suitably theatrical call to faith. But by the time of his exile from the Eternal City, the public—and clerical—taste for his visceral style had waned. A more celebratory vision of Christendom gained purchase, and he was ill equipped, temperamentally and aesthetically, to provide it. In the lurid street life of Rome’s bohemia, Caravaggio, a proud swordsman, found abundant outlets to vent his anger. Graham-Dixon digs into the scant evidence about the Tomassoni killing and helps refute the long-standing theory that it resulted from a spontaneous argument:

The fight between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni was no chance row. It was a prearranged duel. The stories about a tennis match, a bet, a disputed call—they were all fabrications, tall tales put about by the participants themselves to hide what had really happened. It was an expedient pretence: duelling was illegal in papal Rome, and punishable by death.

The artist’s subsequent exile, filled in equal measure with artistic triumph and personal turmoil, proved just as contentious as his previous fourteen years in Rome. At first, Caravaggio hit his stride in the bustling “city of beggars,” as Graham-Dixon describes Naples, whose permissive atmosphere appealed to the painter, and where his style moved toward “simplification, abbreviation, [and] occlusion.” Caravaggio enjoyed public acclaim and choice commissions and frequented the city’s elite cultural and ecclesiastical circles. But then he suddenly left Naples for Malta, where he apparently went to ally himself with the island’s renowned militia of warrior knights. Graham-Dixon advances this likely hypothesis for the artist’s departure: “Caravaggio had always been extremely touchy about status. At his trial for libel [in 1603], he had contemptuously dismissed the rank and file of Rome’s artists by saying that hardly any of them deserved the title of valent’huomo, literally, a ‘worthy man.”

Malta brought more success. Two portraits from 1607—a stunning rendering of Antonio Martelli that anticipates Rembrandt, and a highly staged depiction of Alof de Wignacourt with an enigmatic page boy slyly worked in—did much to curry favor with Malta’s prestigious Order of the Knights of St. John, and Caravaggio was knighted. However, he soon found that this honor meant he was permanently bound to the remote island and subject to its strict laws on public order and morality. As Graham-Dixon writes: “Sexual indiscretions were liable to be tolerated as long as they were committed out of the public eye, but any other disorderly conduct would be ruthlessly dealt with under the knights’ code of law. That meant no shouting or trading of insults, no fighting, no duelling with swords. For a man like Caravaggio, that was never going to be easy.” He soon ended up in jail, but the reason he was arrested remained a mystery for centuries. Drawing on scholarship from the past decade, Graham-Dixon presents a full-fledged account of Caravaggio’s offense: a charge of assault for taking part in a brawl involving senior figures of the Maltese hierarchy. After a month in prison, the artist managed to escape.

Caravaggio’s subsequent sojourn in Sicily and then Naples was extremely trying—he was now a fugitive from both the Roman and nearby Maltese authorities—and in 1610 he embarked on a boat trip back to Rome to seek a pardon. After a series of mishaps, which included his arrest, he died in the Tuscan coastal town of Porto Ercole. Dispelling the rumors and conspiracy theories that have always surrounded the artist’s last days, Graham-Dixon rules out foul play and posits that something as banal as “heat exhaustion, or perhaps a heart attack, may have been what finally killed him.” The nautical language used in an official account of the death, as well as the timing of the report, leads Graham-Dixon to speculate that the likely and hitherto unacknowledged source on the painter’s demise was the ship’s captain. That Caravaggio should end his days alongside the humble boatman Alessandro Caramano seems appropriate to Graham-Dixon:

Caravaggio had lived much of his life close to the margins of society, surrounded by poor and ordinary people. He painted them, staging the stories of the Bible with their bodies and their faces. He painted for them and from their perspective. In the end he died among them and was buried among them, in an unmarked grave. He was thirty-eight years old.

The book also aims for a definitive take on what was once an obsession in Caravaggio studies: the question of whether he was gay. Critic Howard Hibbard emphasized (in Graham-Dixon’s view, unfairly) the painter’s homosexual themes and motifs in his 1983 aesthetic analysis, as did the German scholar Herwarth Röttgen in a 1974 monograph. As Helen Langdon noted in her 1999 biography, the homoerotic elements in Caravaggio’s work inspired the poet Thomas Gunn to describe one of his paintings, The Conversion of St. Paul (1600), as revealing “an alternate / Candour and secrecy inside the skin,” but she warned that reading the painter in the light of his presumed homosexuality had been increasingly discredited by scholars. With comparable skepticism, Graham-Dixon notes that Caravaggio was probably bisexual, but downplays the importance of whom he chose to sleep with, writing, “The idea that [Caravaggio] was an early martyr to the drives of an unconventional sexuality is an anachronistic fiction.”

Overall, Graham-Dixon crafts a captivating portrait of Caravaggio out of the testimonials, police reports, and ambiguous accounts of individuals the artist knew—and, in some cases, harmed. The author’s careful sifting of the evidence and his synthesis of earlier work on the painter judiciously discriminates between rumor and fact, and authoritatively reconstructs Caravaggio’s life. Most important, Graham-Dixon doesn’t lose sight of the artist’s greatest achievement: The paintings assume the starring role they deserve, and the author’s commentary never detracts from the art’s emotional impact. Graham-Dixon’s biography brilliantly illuminates the life of an artist who was no less shadowy than his canvases—a man capable of both committing murder and creating ineffable beauty.

Joseph Luzzi, the associate professor of Italian and the director of the Italian Studies program at Bard College, is the author of Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy (Yale University Press, 2008), which received the MLA’s Scaglione Prize for Italian Studies.