“The majority of his recorded acts—apart from those involved in painting—are crimes and misdemeanors,” says biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon about Caravaggio, making an authoritative account of the Old Master’s life a challenge to produce. But Graham-Dixon maximizes the evidence that has survived—mainly his art, as well as Italian criminal records—providing detailed analysis of Caravaggio’s paintings and radically original technique, not to mention lively discussion of the circumstances under which the works were created.
Those familiar with Caravaggio’s pictures won’t be surprised to learn that he lived a rough and tumble life. When he was young he witnessed an outbreak of bubonic plague, which took the life of his father, grandfather and uncle, and set the tone for the remainder of his existence. Born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1571, he grew up to be a violent man (even by the standards of his age), frequently squabbling and fighting with enemies on the streets of Milan, Rome, and Naples.
As for his work, “he was unique among the painters of his time in making no preparatory drawings for his pictures, preferring to block out his compositions directly on the primed canvas,” begins Graham-Dixon. More obviously, he had a “habit of framing and composing scenes as though confined within a single, small, contained, theatrical space,” noting how Caravaggio loved going into gruesome detail, as in Judith and Holofernes.
Though Caravaggio experienced few artistic failures—one exception being his first version of The Conversion of St. Paul, which was rejected by the patron, Tiberio Cerasi—for a century and a half after his death, critics made a concerted effort to denigrate and marginalize his work. Yet his reputation was rehabilitated in the second half of the twentieth century, thanks in large part to Italian art historian Roberto Longhi, who organized an influential retrospective in 1951. “Since then Caravaggio has become perhaps the most widely popular of all the Old Masters,” assesses Graham-Dixon, a fact that no doubt would have shocked his contemporaries, several of whom were more famous in their day.
Fittingly, Caravaggio’s twilight years were punctuated by violence, with the artist going so far as to kill a pimp, for which he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capital (capital sentence). Late in life he himself was the victim of a violent vendetta attack, suffering a cruel slash to the face. “Shortly thereafter, he died while returning to Rome to seek a papal pardon for his crimes,” writes Graham-Dixon. The darkest and most dangerous life of any of the great painters was over at the age of thirty-eight.