Francine Prose ' s life of Caravaggio evokes the genius of this great artist through a brilliant reading of his paintings. Caravaggio defied the aesthetic conventions of his time; his use of ordinary people, realistically portrayed ' street boys, prostitutes, the poor, the aged ' was a profound and revolutionary innovation that left its mark on generations of artists. His insistence on painting from nature, on rendering the emotional truth of experience, whether religious or secular, makes him an artist who speaks across the centuries to our own time.
Born in 1571 near Milan, Michelangelo Merisi (da Caravaggio) moved to Rome when he was twenty ' one years old. He became a brilliant and successful artist, protected by the influential Cardinal del Monte and other patrons. But he was also a man of the streets who couldn ' t seem to free himself from its brawls and vendettas. In 1606 he fled Rome, apparently after killing another man in a dispute. He spent his last years in exile, in Naples, Malta, and Sicily, at once celebrated for his art and tormented by his enemies. Through it all, he produced masterpieces of astonishing complexity and power. Eventually he received a pardon from the Pope, only to die, in mysterious circumstances, on the way back to Rome in 1610.
Francine Prose presents the brief but tumultuous life of one of the greatest of all painters with passion and acute sensitivity.
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October 03, 2005
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Excerpt from Caravaggio by Francine Prose
Eminent Lives, brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures, joins a long tradition in this lively form, from Plutarch's Lives to Vasari's Lives of the Painters to Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets to Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. Pairing great subjects with writers known for their strong sensibilities and sharp, lively points of view, the Eminent Lives are ideal introductions designed to appeal to the general reader, the student, and the scholar. "To preserve a becoming brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant," wrote Strachey: "That, surely, is the first duty of the biographer."
HE WAS THIRTY-NINE when he died, in the summer of 610. He had been in exile, on the run, for the last four years of his life. He slept fully clothed, with his dagger by his side. He believed that his enemies were closing in on him and that they intended to kill him.
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. It was not the first time that he had been in trouble with the law. 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 accused of throwing stones at the police, insulting two women, harassing a former landlady, and wounding a prison guard. His contemporaries described him as mercurial, hot-tempered, violent.
Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, was among the most celebrated, sought after, and highly paid painters in Rome. But not even his influential patrons could arrange for the murder charge to be dismissed. After the crime, he fled to the hills outside the city, and then to a village near Palestrina, where he could have lived safely under the protection of the Colonna family, who were among his patrons, and beyond the range of papal jurisdiction. But the bucolic small town must have seemed dull compared to the chaotic street life of the Campo Marzio, to the taverns, the whorehouses, the gang fights, and ' most important for Caravaggio ' the fierce, energizing competition with his fellow artists, most of whom he despised.
In Rome, he had seized every opportunity, however impolitic or inappropriate, to criticize his contemporaries and to advance his own ideas about the true purpose of art ' ideas he held with the force of a fanatical conviction and that fueled his erratic behavior, his vertiginous descent from wealth into vagrancy, and his ultimate self-destruction. In retrospect, his contempt and impatience seem more understandable: the frustration of a genius surrounded by a great deal of very bad, very popular, very lucrative and respected art.
During the years he spent in flight, he painted almost constantly. And despite or because of the impossible pressures and makeshift working conditions, his art became even more ambitious, darker and more deeply shadowed. Months after the murder, he turned up in Naples, where he completed two major altarpieces and a number of smaller canvases. But once again he grew restless. Perhaps he was being followed, or perhaps he just thought so. In any case, he felt that he had no choice but to leave the city.