Michelangelo da Caravaggio was not, technically, a Renaissance man—that era was over by the time he was born, in 1571—but he was, by all accounts, a versatile pain in the ass. The painter was a punk. He bragged. He went for broke. He beat people up, and people beat him up. To the same degree that he lacked a neighborly disposition, Caravaggio also lacked a business sense, a noble decency, a funnybone and an inclination to pick up the tab. He welshed on everyone. When his Roman landlady seized his effects for nonpayment of rent, in 1605, “the said Michelangelo came and threw so many stones at the shutters of my windows that he broke them all down one side,” as she claimed in court. But he was too precious for his patrons to part with; the said Michelangelo was rescued from his snafu. Such snafus seem to have been the status quo. We do not know exactly how Caravaggio died; we do know that “fucked-over cuckold” was an epithet he used “fairly frequently.”
Because he was a genius, Caravaggio kept catching breaks. Because he could not truckle, he kept screwing them up. The inability to tone it down was not a pose; the artist lacked an off switch. In the winter of 1605, Caravaggio was engaged to produce an altarpiece for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. It was the loftiest commission he had ever received. The result, “The Madonna of the Serpent,” was exquisite. It was also a nonstarter. “He had stressed [the Madonna’s] tenderness,” writes Andrew Graham-Dixon in just-released Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (W.W. Norton & Co., $40), “leaning down over the child with gentle solicitude, but in the process he had revealed quite a lot of her cleavage.” The commissioners balked. The zaftig Virgin would not cut it. Caravaggio was turned away, his Madonna spurned.
In retrospect, the most surprising thing about the episode is that anyone was surprised. The artist had simply lived up to the reputation that got him the gig. Caravaggio is the father of Tenebrism, a method of painting that combines photorealistic granularity with Gothic dinginess. “He composed by staging scenes, or fragments of scenes, that he knitted together, collage-like, on his canvas, using shadow to mask the joints,” Graham-Dixon writes. The technique behind it is known as chiaroscuro. Its effect on painting was comparable to that of grunge on music, or Hemingway on prose—at once a roughing-up and a paring-down, enacted in the name of cutting out the crap. It was a reaction to the conceits of an earlier age.
The Renaissance had been a time of aesthetic idealism; it erected a cult to ideal images. Caravaggio’s innovation was to revert to what he saw right in front of him, and he discovered his muse somewhere between the barroom and the back alley. “To animate the old stories of Christianity, to make them seem as though taking place in the present day, he had developed his own unique method,” Graham-Dixon writes. “He would systematically restage the sacred dramas, using real, flesh-and-blood people and paint the results.” He painted whores, crones, wayfarers, the proles and perps of contemporary Rome. He adapted the Good Book to the idiom of the guttersnipe.
It was an exacting aesthetic. It left out landscape, sunlight, heavenly choirs, healthy cuticles. It put in grime; Caravaggio is the great painter of toejam. “Caravaggio was also becoming famous as the great painter of feet.” The result altered the DNA of Biblical imagery. Gone was the grandeur of a Raphael, the pure blues and unblemished pastures. In its place, stooped figures grappled in the gloom. Many of Caravaggio’s women have more in common with mollusks than they do with Botticelli’s maidens.
“In life as in art he hid what he wanted to hide in the shadows,” Graham-Dixon notes. The fragmentary paper trail of Caravaggio’s life simulates the aesthetic that made it famous. The rap sheet shadows the oeuvre; the rumors inflect the facts. And indeed, a Dutch contemporary “described [Caravaggio] as a piece of living chiaroscuro.” The test for biographers of Caravaggio has been to mimic the artist’s signature move—to make the murk eloquent. It requires style as well as research. Graham-Dixon pulls it off.
In his early 20s, Caravaggio left his hometown of Lombardy for Rome, a city with 10,000 artists in a population of 100,000. The odds were bad, and they were compounded by Caravaggio’s temperament. But he made it anyway, ascending from the streets into the retinue of an enlightened churchman, Cardinal Guidobaldo Del Monte. (The Cardinal looked “a little bit like a chess piece come to life,” as Graham-Dixon wonderfully describes him.) Under his aegis, Caravaggio grew famous.
“There is no sign that success mellowed him,” Graham Dixon observes. Caravaggio’s rise augured his fall. His paintings were tense with violence. “The picture’s subject is a yearning for death so strong that it resembles sexual desire,” as the author writes of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Everywhere he went, Caravaggio wore a sword. He slurred rivals and irked the law. He brawled over women, artichokes, art criticism. Such was his entwinement with prostitutes that Graham-Dixon concludes, convincingly, that he was a pimp. A feud with a competitor reached the boiling point, and Caravaggio killed him in a tennis court. A bando capitale was imposed: “This meant that anyone in the papal stats had the right to kill him with impunity,” He skipped town, never to return.
He went to Malta, where he labored to become a knight, a rank that would annul the bando capitale. It took a year. A month after knighthood was granted to him, Caravaggio was stripped of it for assaulting a peer. Before Caravaggio died, in 1610, awaiting a pardon, that same peer would hunt him down and slash his face—“perhaps partially blind[ing]” him. His comeuppance had caught up with him. Caravaggio’s art did not recover.
Graham-Dixon is an able tracker of his elusive subject. He tells a good story; he updates the factual record; he upends old hypotheses, and proposes others. Caravaggio was bisexual. He committed homicide in a duel. He painted his David in Rome. Where Graham-Dixon excels, however, is in the indication of irony. Caravaggio was a populist, yet his audience was elite; his paintings were too candid about the lives of the masses for mass consumption. Status obsessed the man, but scum mesmerized his art. The pious Catholic killer pimp “opened a Pandora’s Box of vulgarity.” Graham-Dixon is paraphrasing the observation of an enemy of Caravaggio’s here, but there may be something to it.