instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Un cervello stravagantissimo

Q. What do Muhammad, Caravaggio, George Balanchine, and Francis Crick have in common?

A. None of them has ever been in my kitchen.

No, they're all subjects of current or forthcoming volumes in HarperCollins's Eminent Lives Series of "brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures."

I knew basically nothing about the painter when I received a review copy of Francine Prose's book, Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. Some of his paintings have been commented on in St. Blog's; The Incredulity of St. Thomas and The Calling of St. Matthew are two I remember. "A moving Caravaggio" was the expression used to describe Mel Gibson's vision for The Passion of the Christ. And I just learned Steven Riddle is a fan. But basically Caravaggio was just the name of some Italian painter.

Having now read his Eminent Life, I have learned that Caravaggio was... well, let me quote from the second paragraph of the book:
He was wanted for murder in Rome, for stabbing a man in a duel that was said to have begun over a bet on a tennis game.... He had been sued for libel, arrested for carrying a weapon without a license, prosecuted for tossing a plate of artichokes in a waiter's face, jailed repeatedly. He was [formally] accused of throwing stones at police, insulting two women, harassing a former landlady, and wounding a prison guard.
That may paint too rosy a picture of his character, though. He was basically a nasty piece of work as a human being, however great a genius as a painter.

There isn't all that much known about his life (he died in 1610 at the age of 39), apart from a general idea of which city he lived in when and rumors about which crime may have made it prudent for him to move on. Not much in the way of personal letters or contemporaneous accounts; at least one of his early biographers was also a bitter rival who skewed the already black facts. According to Prose, the transcript of his libel trial is the best source (other than his paintings, of course) of his own opinions about art.

A life of Caravaggio, then, is not going to be very nice and it's not going to be very detailed. Recognizing this, Prose finds her story in his paintings, a subject which can well sustain the 146 pages of the book. Reproductions of 11 paintings are included with the text, and she discusses in some detail several others. (Most or all of them can be found here; you may want to have Google handy if you read the book.)

Prose could be a bit less interested in the pretty and often underdressed boys Caravaggio so often painted, a bit more sympathetic to the Church (granted that the Church figures Caravaggio encountered were not heroically virtuous), a bit less post-everythingly broadminded:
The world needed to mature, to evolve past eighteenth-century decorum and Victorian prudery in order to accept the sexuality of Caravaggio's paintings, a sexuality that is at once bravely unapologetic and furiously private. It's worth noting that the spike in Caravaggio's popularity took place during an era in which our sensitivities were being simultaneously sharpened and dulled by artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, whose passion for formal beauty and stillness... made him as emblematic of his time as Caravaggio was of his. In order to love Caravaggio, we ourselves had to learn to accept the premise that the angelic and the diabolic, that sex and violence and God, could easily if not tranquilly coexist in the same dramatic scene, the same camera, the same painter.
...until very recently, critics were still making a strenuous effort to distinguish the living devil from the angelic, immortal artist.
Only now can we admit that we require both at once. The life of Caravaggio is the closest thing we have to the myth of the sinner-saint... the myth that, in these jaded and secular times, we are almost ashamed to admit that we still long for, and need.
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Caravaggio's popularity among Catholic bloggers is not due to the effect of Robert Mapplethorpe on their sensitivities. And I'm not sure that the story of his life ought to move people to love him, nor that we require him to have been a living devil. There are lessons to be learned from Caravaggio's life and work; that genius redeems immorality is not one of them.