In Caravagio, A Life Scared and Profane, cover

In Caravagio, A Life Scared and Profane, Andrew Graham-Dixon has written a masterful new biography of Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and casts new light on the mystery of his life and death.

Andrew Graham-Dixon is a leading art critic, writer, author and regular presenter on art for the BBC radio and television including a recent programme “Who Killed Caravaggio” based on his work for this book. Caravaggio, A Life Scared and Profane is based on a decade of research piecing together the evidence of Caravaggio’s life and work in Counter-Reformation Italy..

Detailed Analysis of Caravaggio’s Work as an Artist and Historic Importance

Andrew Graham-Dixon brings his knowledge and experience of art to this book and provides a detailed analysis of each of Caravaggio’s works. He places them in the context of the history of art in Italy of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Indeed echoes of Caravaggio’s dramatic use of shadows and light can be seen in modern films and photography; Martin Scorsese acknowledges the influence of Caravaggio in much of his own work for the cinema.

Graham-Dixon also explains that although Caravaggio’s approach was being overtaken even before his death it still had major influence on artists such as Rubens and Rembrandt in northern Europe. Caravaggio only had a short career as one of the top painters of his day; his style had soon fallen out of favour.

However in Caravaggio Graham-Dixon goes further and provides details of the people involved. It goes beyond being academic art criticism and becomes a human story. Obviously the patrons who commissioned the works are identified but so are the models and other ordinary people around Caravaggio.

Cultural History of Counter-Reformation Italy

Although much of Caravaggio’s behaviour seems unusually unruly and violent Andrew Graham-Dixon puts in to the context of an Italy where honour and status was all-important and to be defended at almost all costs. In that respect Caravaggio’s arrogance and violence was not unusual. However Caravaggio took the normally accepted aggression to more extreme levels to the extent that it got in the way of his work and ultimately led to his early death.

It is suggested that Caravaggio may have suffered in not having good male role models during his childhood as they had died during his early years. Caravaggio had a view that he was of higher status than perhaps was realistic. The protection and establishment of that heightened view of his nobility led to greater aggression and violence.

Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane gives a good sense of the religious, political and social milieu in which Caravaggio worked and fought. If it had not been for the protection and support of powerful patrons Caravaggio would almost certainly have merely been a footnote in art history.

The Self-Destructive Life and Eventual Death of Caravaggio

Throughout his life Caravaggio was involved in violent incidents; often it would seem in protecting his status, his honour. This was not unusual in Italy of that time but it dogged him as he moved from Milan to Rome, Naples, Malta back to Rome and his eventual death at the age of just thirty-eight in the small port of Porto Ercole north of Naples.

Indeed his departure from Rome at the height of his standing as an artist was due to conviction for murdering Ranuccio Tomassoni in a swordfight. There had long been bad blood between the two men, apparently over a woman and possibly turf wars as pimps.

After a period in Naples he went to Malta and was able to get himself made a Knight of Saint John as a means of seeking a pardon in Rome and to formally gain the nobility he had long claimed. However soon after achieving Knighthood his self-destructive and violent behaviour meant he was imprisoned on Malta; he escaped but lost his knighthood. Whilst on the run he suffered serious injuries and died whilst returning to Rome to seek a papal pardon for the murder of Tomassonni.

Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane – A Masterful and Detailed Work

Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane provides a surprising amount of detail based on documentary evidence. This level of documentation feels surprising for the 16th century but his violent and criminal conduct means there are many court records. Also most of his work was with the church and aristocracy so there was a comprehensive bureaucracy recording their transactions. As a controversial figure at the time he also figures in contemporary biographies and other writing.

Andrew Graham-Dixon has produced a masterly biography backed up by strong references. Of particular interest to those with an enthusiasm for art history it will also appeal to readers who are drawn to a larger than life but flawed genius that was Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane (2010, ISBN:978-0-713-99674-6) by Andrew Graham-Dixon is published in hardback by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin, at £30.

First appeared on Suite101

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