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Fire in the belly

Caravaggio Painter of Miracles Francine Prose Atlas Books/HarperCollins: 150 pp., $21.95

November 20, 2005|William C. Carter | William C. Carter is the author of "Marcel Proust: A Life" and the forthcoming "Proust in Love."

CARAVAGGIO'S undeniable genius, combined with his fiery temperament and penchant for getting into serious trouble, make the Italian painter a biographer's dream. The few facts about the Baroque-era artist come mainly from court documents related to his encounters with the law. In "Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles," Francine Prose makes good contrapuntal use of his double life as a member of "an exquisitely refined social and artistic milieu" in Rome and "a street gangster drinking in the taverns and dueling in the back alleys."

Caravaggio was in his early 20s when he completed his apprenticeship in Milan and moved to Rome, where the many new palaces and churches were in need of artists to decorate them. As often happens when a powerful, original artist arrives on the scene, Caravaggio scandalized his patrons with paintings they immediately rejected. He outraged clients time and again with his realistic depictions of biblical figures modeled on the toughs and whores roaming the streets. To depict the resurrection of Lazarus, Caravaggio is said to have forced laborers to lug around a corpse he used as the model for the dead man.

"A good painter," Caravaggio said at one of his trials, "is one who knows how to imitate nature." He meant, of course, nature as he found it in Rome's teeming, dangerous alleyways. Prose explains that Caravaggio's "portrayals of whores, criminals, and laborers with rough hands and dirty feet threatened what influential French painter Nicolas Poussin later argued was the most essential principle of art -- that the artist should represent ideal beauty; perfect proportion, and classical decorum."

Prose professes shock that this judgment prevailed until the mid-20th century, when a major Caravaggio exhibition in Milan made it clear that a great artist had long been neglected. This lack of recognition, she decides, was due to his extraordinary nature and talent -- that while he was "very much a creature of his era, he was also ... a painter who simultaneously disregarded and redefined the conventions of his age, who borrowed from antiquity and from the masters who preceded him while stubbornly insisting that he had no interest in the past or in anything but nature, the street life of his neighborhood, and the harsh realities around him." Caravaggio, then, is the "preternaturally modern artist who was obliged to wait for the world to become as modern as he was."

Another cause for scandal was Caravaggio's predilection for androgynous-looking young men. Mario Minniti, a young Sicilian artist with whom the artist lived in Rome, served as the model for several of the voluptuous prepubescent boys in the early paintings. This homoeroticism is found not only in his early works, such as "Boy With a Basket of Fruit" and "The Musicians," but also in later depictions of religious figures, such as John the Baptist, thus combining the sacred and the profane.

Caravaggio ultimately had to flee Rome because he had killed a man, apparently over a wager. Even on the run, he never stopped painting. As he moved from town to town, he found new patrons and commissions in Naples, Malta and Sicily. One such painting of a great spiritual moment, "The Death of the Virgin," caused critics to complain that the "dead Madonna looked too much like the bloated corpse of a real woman" and to condemn the "indecorousness of showing the Virgin swollen and bare legged," as though she were merely "some dirty whore from the Ortaccio."

Yet Prose sees in this work one of Caravaggio's greatest achievements: "Grief has never been rendered more accurately, or more movingly, or more faithfully to that moment when grief persuades us that there is nothing and never will be anything in the world but all-consuming and unending grief." The painting expresses "the essence of everything that Caravaggio believed about art." It is one of his last masterpieces.

In the summer of 1610, Caravaggio received word that he had been pardoned for the murder. He set sail for Rome, bringing along several paintings as presents for those patrons and friends who had secured his pardon. At Palo, Prose says, his ship was detained and he was held for questioning, perhaps because he was mistaken for another man. The ship and his possessions sailed on without him. Released two days later, an enraged and probably delirious Caravaggio set out on foot in the blistering heat to pursue the ship, which he hoped to board farther up the coast. He is believed to have collapsed and died of fever at Port 'Ercole at the age of 39.

In this engaging and informative short biography of the man now considered to be an early master of realism and the greatest Italian artist of the 17th century, Prose vividly brings his paintings to life. And she holds our attention by dramatically contrasting Caravaggio's brilliance and tenacity with his bellicose nature and self-destructive actions. *

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