In the preface to this enthralling life of Caravaggio (1571-1610), the greatest Italian painter of his time, Andrew Graham-Dixon invokes as one of his touchstones Charles Nicholl’s “The Reckoning,” a prizewinning biography of Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). It’s easy to see why. Both the Italian painter and the English playwright were shadowy, prickly characters, with a liking for lowlife and street violence; both appear to have been sexually adventurous (prostitutes, boys); and both were often in trouble with the law. Marlowe was finally murdered in a quarrel over a tavern bill (i.e., the reckoning), while Caravaggio killed a man in a sword fight, eventually dying himself at the age of 38, at least in part from the aftereffects of a vendetta-like ambush.

Not much is known about Caravaggio’s personal life, and so Graham-Dixon — taking his cue from Nicholl, who faced the same problem with the secretive Marlowe — makes up for the biographical scarcity through an intense use of archival information about the people the painter knew, a close attention to contemporary events and social currents, and, not least, probing analyses of the artist’s major works. Insights are also drawn from Caravaggio’s near contemporaries, among them the essayist Montaigne and the painters Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter Artemisia (Graham- Dixon transcribes her account of being raped).

As a result, “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane” reads like a historical-swashbuckler-cum-detective-story while also providing an up-to-date introduction to some of the most admired paintings in Western art. Early on, ­Graham-Dixon acknowledges the excellence of Helen Langdon’s 1998 life of the artist (and reveals that Langdon put some of her own research at his service) but points out that new archival discoveries have affected her account of the painter’s later years. Throughout, he takes pains to counter any reductionist views of Caravaggio’s art as fundamentally homosexual in character. Most important of all, though, Graham-Dixon writes with verve and clarity about the work as well as the man and his times. When describing Christ and an angel descending from heaven in a rather weak painting, for example, he notes that they “lean awkwardly across a snapped branch of a laurel, like a pair of parachutists stuck in a tree.”

The son of a stonemason, Michelangelo Merisi grew up near Milan in the town of Caravaggio; hence his later name. It was an era of the deepest religious fervor. Carlo Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, was promoting a return to an extreme Christian piety. Between 1576 and 1578, the bubonic plague wiped out a fifth of the population of the diocese of Milan. Popular religious tableaux of the time emphasized a stark, even gruesome realism in contrast to the ethereal and metaphysical art favored by Florentine aristocrats. Caravaggio — “the first self-conscious primitivist in the entire history of post-classical Western art” — pushed an intense naturalist aesthetic to its limits.

Despite a brief apprenticeship to the “eclectic and mediocre” ­Simone Peterzano, Caravaggio seems to have been largely self-taught and to have found his style early on. He played up the contrast of darkness and light; he worked directly on the canvas without the use of preliminary sketches, and he painted directly from life, posing a local prostitute as the Madonna, a fleshy fellow artist as a sexually ambiguous Bacchus, and his own apprentice as a come-hither Cupid and a pubescent John the Baptist. The resulting paintings — emphasizing the Venetian tradition of rich color over the Tuscan-Roman preference for clarity and design — are astonishingly involving and psychologi­cally troubling.

When Caravaggio portrays the dead, whether Christ, Lazarus or Mary, they look really dead. There’s nothing even faintly idealized about them. “For Caravaggio, making images is a way of focusing the mind. To paint something is to isolate it for the purposes of contemplation.” He would invariably transform sacred story into living drama: You are there at the martyrdom of Saint Peter as the executioners strain to lift up the heavy cross; you are there when the persecutor Saul is struck down while on the road to Damascus. This latter painting — “The Conversion of Saint Paul” — is boldly dominated by a close-up of the hindquarters of a huge, frightened horse, near which the future saint lies on the ground, blinded by the light of God, his arms outstretched like those of a baby reaching for his mother.

While Caravaggio’s work presents a “theater of Christianity,” the artist himself was hardly a conventional believer. According to one story, when the painter was offered holy water in a church, he asked what it was for and was told that it would cancel venial sins. “Then it is no use,” he replied. “Because mine are all mortal.” Graham-Dixon speculates that Caravaggio may actually have earned money as a pimp. He certainly seems to have been bisexual. When Caravaggio’s Judith cuts off the head of Holofernes, the diaphanous fabric of her bodice quite noticeably reveals that she is sexually excited. Another of his paintings depicts the Virgin Mary bending over the Christ child — and displaying the cleavage of a Sophia Loren. As Graham-Dixon sums him up, “Caravaggio lived his life as if there were only Carnival and Lent, with nothing in between.”

Periodically, Caravaggio’s own tormented face appears among the figures in his paintings, thus suggesting a subtly confessional and even self-accusatory aspect to his work. His “emphatic chiaroscuro” is deftly used to reveal spiritual blindness or insight, as in “The Supper at Emmaus,” when the illuminated Christ is finally recognized by his two astonished disciples, but not by the shadowed innkeeper. Caravaggio’s thoroughly popular, indeed pauperist realism, combined with his use of color and tenebrist effects, changed the course of art history. “The painting of such seventeenth-century masters as Rembrandt in Holland, Georges de La Tour in France, Ribera in Spain, even the work of much later Romantic artists such as Gericault and Delacroix, all are inconceivable without the pictorial revolution first unleashed by Caravaggio,” Graham-Dixon writes.

In his later years, guilty of murder and on the run from the Roman authorities, Caravaggio made his way to Malta, trading his artwork — portraits and altarpieces — for the protection of the Knights of Saint John. But eventually he got into a fight there, was imprisoned, somehow escaped and furtively made his way to Sicily. Again, he was welcomed because of his art, but one night he was viciously attacked just outside a tavern known to be a brothel for gays. His face was slashed, his wounds severe. When he recovered enough to travel, he cut a deal for a pardon — more paintings, this time for a cardinal — and was returning to Rome when he died suddenly en route. The cause of his death is unknown.

For a period in the 19th and early 20th century, Caravaggio’s art was out of fashion, even thought to be slightly vulgar in the eyes of some collectors: There are no paintings by him in Washington’s National Gallery of Art. But over the past half-century, his reputation has continued to grow immensely, and it is not too much to say that we are all Caravaggisti now.

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A Life Sacred and Profane

By Andrew Graham-Dixon

Norton. 514 pp. $39.95