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A Life
By Blanche Wiesen Cook
Farrar Straus Giroux. 436 pp. $30
Reviewed by Richard E. Spear, whose most recent book is "The 'Divine' Guido: Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni," and who organized and wrote the catalogue for "Caravaggio and His Followers" at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1972.

Sunday, July 11, 1999

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"Caravaggio never showed any of his figures in open daylight, but instead found a way to place them in the darkness of a closed room, putting a lamp high so that the light would fall straight down, revealing the principal part of the body and leaving the rest in shadow so as to produce a powerful contrast of light and dark. The painters in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature, and looked on his work as miracles." So wrote the learned biographer Bellori in 1672, looking back on the short, stormy life of Caravaggio, who was born in 1571 in Milan (or maybe in the nearby town of Caravaggio, from which he took his nickname), settled in Rome in 1592-93, achieved great fame by 1606, but then, because he killed a man, was on the run in southern Italy and Malta until he died in 1610, not yet 39 years old.

Like doubting Thomas, who pokes into Jesus's wound in Caravaggio's striking image in Potsdam, Bellori put his finger right on the matter: Caravaggio's innovative fusion of amazing naturalism and dramatic lighting. Many young painters, including those from Northern Europe disposed to realistic transcription of nature rather than its idealization, emulated Caravaggio's forthright way of picturing gypsies, card sharps and baskets of fruit, and of making the saints and even Jesus and Mary look like ordinary people. The few who dared emulate his work while he was alive discovered how defensive and belligerent he could be. On one occasion he is said to have threatened to knock Guido Reni's head off if he didn't stop "stealing his style." Patrons, too, of the highest social standing "gathered around" Caravaggio to acquire his pictures and, as necessary – which proved to be often – to shield him from the law.

Fascination with Caravaggio's art and life is at an historic high, to judge from the quantity of writings about him, not just exhibition catalogues and scholarly studies but plays, mystery stories, novels and Derek Jarman's boldly homoerotic film, "Caravaggio." For the past year alone I count at least 25 new titles, including a thesis on "The Life and Legend of Caravaggio Interpreted through Fiction and Film."

Helen Langdon's "Caravaggio: A Life" stands out in this flood of publications. It is a detailed, reliable and eminently lucid account of the artist's career, the best biography of him ever written, even if the author is no great stylist and the color plates are too small and murky to characterize the originals. Drawing on 17th-century "lives" of the artist and recent archival discoveries, Langdon vividly evokes Caravaggio's world. Her concern is with biography, not with Renaissance theory and the implications of Caravaggio's disdain for drawing, not with how his paintings relate to those by earlier and contemporary artists, and not with the thorny problems of connoisseurship that plague understanding of the artist's widely imitated oeuvre. Some disputed paintings therefore are discussed as authentic, without reference to their problematic status (a "David" in Madrid, a "Crowning With Thorns" in Prato, a privately owned "Mary Magdalene," among various others), which at times is only a secondary concern, but not when significant interpretation hinges on authenticity, as is the case with the doubtful "Narcissus." Arguing for its consonance with the work of Italy's most celebrated contemporaneous poet, Marino, Langdon reads it as exemplary of the Horatian notion of ut pictura poesis, of how, for Caravaggio, a "picture is like a poem" and his art resonates with "Golden Age" Latin meanings.

The strength of this biography lies elsewhere, notably in the way it portrays San Carlo Borromeo's religious, plague-stricken Milan, where Caravaggio grew up (how much education the painter had is unknown – later in Rome he owned only 12 books); in its rich evocation of San Filippo Neri's Counter-Reformation Rome, where Caravaggio's startling religious imagery complemented the humility and spirit of poverty of the "low" church of Neri's Oratorian movement; and in its graphic account of the seamy, violent street life of beggars, prostitutes and sword-wielding youths, in which Caravaggio dangerously participated. The entwined circle of Caravaggio's patrons is especially animated as Langdon puts together the interests of the old aristocratic Colonna family, of Cardinal Del Monte, Caravaggio's most important early supporter, of the wealthy Genoese bankers Vincenzo Giustiniani and Ottavio Costa, and of the Mattei brothers, all of whom, unlike certain tradition-bound clerics who rejected Caravaggio's art, recognized extraordinary artistic quality.

Caravaggio painted for Del Monte and Giustiniani some of his sexiest images, those that modern scholars have interpreted as homoerotic because of the way pubescent boys display their bodies, occasionally their genitals, and seem to beckon the viewer with languorous gazes and sensuous lips. Langdon will have nothing of this, dismissing the scant 17th-century evidence as malicious hearsay. A strong case can be made that Caravaggio had relationships with women (he attacked a notary over one), but Langdon falls into the trap of dichotomizing sexual behavior as being either/or, hetero- or homosexual, whereas in early modern Italy many men, as I suspect was the case with Caravaggio, found pleasure with both sexes.

Much of what we know about Caravaggio comes from the "sources," meaning the early biographers, but their writings need to be used with circumspection. Bellori, for instance, was writing long after Caravaggio died, and his antiquarian's taste was antithetical to naturalism. Moreover, he had a very different notion from ours of what constitutes biography. For him as for all of the sources, commonplace stories (topoi) as well as "plausible" rather than "true" accounts were legitimate in writing history. Langdon tends to use the sources uncritically, taking their accounts as fact, including the story that Caravaggio's model for Mary in the "Death of the Virgin" was, in her words, not only "a whore, but his own lover." She makes very good use of another category of documents concerning life in papal Rome, the avvisi, or occasional dispatches about all sorts of events, but it gives a wrong, too-modern impression to refer to them as "the newspapers."

In addition to illuminating discussions of Caravaggio's world – not only his wealthy patrons but also the poor of Rome, tavern life, gypsies, card cheating, music in the Del Monte household, artistic rivalries, and the circumstances of the fateful killing – Langdon provides some sensitive passages on individual paintings. For example, with regard to the old man who is suckled by his daughter in "The Seven Acts of Mercy," she writes: "He becomes an infant again, and is reborn, and the scene suggests the metaphor of earthly life as a prison, where the soul is confined by the chains of the body." Generally Langdon shies away from psychoanalytic interpretation of the paintings (but not of Caravaggio's driven, paranoid, jealous behavior), however tempting that might be in light of his odd personality and unusual imagery. Already in the earliest published account of his conduct (1604), he was said to swagger about Rome with a rapier at his side, "always ready to argue or fight, so that he is impossible to get along with." What is remarkable, as Langdon and all critics recognize, is that as the tempo of Caravaggio's insolvent, criminal behavior increased, culminating in his killing a rival, his art became more profoundly religious.

Langdon misunderstands the unique report we have concerning what the common people thought of Caravaggio's art. The "great fuss" they made (schiamazzo in Italian) over his "Madonna di Loreto," which depicts threadbare, devout pilgrims adoring Mary and Jesus, was not a negative reaction but an indication that the ordinary folk responded enthusiastically to Caravaggio's vernacular style.

The final chapters of the book do less justice to Caravaggio's deeply moving altarpieces in Malta and Sicily, for which the reader might turn to Catherine Puglisi's new monograph, "Caravaggio" (Phaidon, 1998), which has excellent color plates. Although in lionizing her subject Langdon gives the misleading impression that Caravaggio dominated early 17th-century painting in Rome (Annibale Carracci and his students in fact won the day), this is a book for anyone interested in understanding Caravaggio's complex life and art.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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