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Bristling With Life

National Post, 26 February 2000

Book Review
M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, by Peter Robb
Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 568 pages

M : The Man Who Became Caravaggio“M? M was a painter. This is a book about him.”

M? M is a book. This is a review of it.

It wouldn’t be difficult to mock Peter Robb’s new biography of the great Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio (1571-1610). Start with its title, which Robb never quite gets around to explaining after these opening sentences. For all the relevance that the letter “M” played in Caravaggio’s life – the artist certainly never used the initial – Robb might just as well have called his book “Mike”.

Then there’s his prose. Colloquialisms, anachronisms and profanity abound: Rome is filled with “arselickers and time-servers,” frescoes “took forever and were a drag,” Pope Clement VIII is a “touchy feely pontiff,” Caravaggio’s testimony before a court smacks of “Clintonian casuistry.” This is not the usual language of biography.

It is, however, damn fun to read. This is biography à la Raymond Chandler, with Robb as private detective Philip Marlowe. Nothing escapes his jaundiced gaze, nothing shocks him. Robb walks the mean streets of counter-Reformation Rome, while leering gangs of street toughs exchange blows, whores shriek insults from darkened doorways, and priests preside over the whole dirty business. “As two of the very few working communities in Rome,” writes Robb, in a line that comes straight out of film noir, “artists and prostitutes had a lot in common, not least their common intimacy with men of the cloth.”

Caravaggio probably invites such overheated prose. In both life and art he blended the slatternly and the saintly in a manner that has been much imitated, though never equalled. With his first major commission – the altarpiece and side murals for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi – he would become one of the most famous artists in Europe. All the trademarks of his later style are present in The Calling of Saint Matthew: the overwhelming darkness of his canvasses, the high raking light, the gritty realism, the cinematic narrative. Sometimes he took things too far for his patrons. His first attempt at depicting Saint Matthew and the Angel for the Chapel’s altarpiece was rejected. As Robb describes the painting, Matthew looks like a “puzzled barefoot peasant taking an adult literacy lesson from God’s smirking pubescent messenger,” while his “black nailed big toe” juts prominently out from the bottom of the picture. (The original painting was destroyed in Berlin during World War II.)

But what shocked his patrons most of all was not realism per se, but the plebeian realism of the street, the sordidness of everyday life impressed upon the saints. Given his choice of models, this was inescapable. One of the most notorious prostitutes in Rome modelled for Caravaggio as Saint Catherine and, rather more appropriately, Mary Magdalene. Caravaggio’s adolescent apprentice and lover, Francesco Boneri, appeared in several paintings, many overtly homerotic. In one version of Saint John the Baptist, a painting that passed through Toronto last summer, a naked Francesco leans backwards in squirming sensual pleasure as he laughingly embraces a ram. There’s little hint of the sacred here, much less anything traditionally associated with John the Baptist.

Nor, it must be said, was there anything particularly virtuous about Caravaggio’s life. Almost from the day he arrived in Rome, Caravaggio’s name began to appear with disturbing regularity in police blotters and court documents. Robb sprinkles his narrative with generous selections from these hilarious, seamy and often downright crude accounts. “I’m amazed,” shouts one young ruffian to another, “that someone like you should be standing here talking to this whore who’s filled me with diseases, a bugger, fucked up the arse.” Fighting words often led to fighting deeds, and shortly after completing his St. Matthew murals Caravaggio was arrested for wounding a man in a street brawl. Influential patrons managed to spring the artist from jail at least once, but his erratic behaviour continued. In May 1606, after getting into an argument over a tennis match with one Ranuccio Tomassoni, Caravaggio killed him with his sword.

He fled Rome with a death sentence hanging over his head, yet somehow continued to paint. Indeed, one of the strangest self-portraits in the history of art comes from this period, an oil painting of David holding the head of Goliath. Slack-jawed, sightless, blood spurting out of severed arteries, Caravaggio’s own head swings from the hand of a teenaged David, modelled by the ever-faithful Francesco. Three years later, still on the run, he survived a brutal beating only to succumb to malarial fever in a remote coastal town. “He died miserably,” wrote one of Caravaggio’s contemporaries, “as he had lived.”

Robb is true to the texture of Caravaggio’s scabrous life, even if he sometimes misses it significance. He makes far too much of the tension between Catholic dogma and Caravaggio’s art, for instance. Caravaggio was one of the counter-Reformation’s most brilliant propagandists, after all, and the church knew it. But this isn’t really what his book is about anyway – if you’re looking for sober and reliable, then stick with Helen Langdon’s recent critically acclaimed Caravaggio: A Life. Just don’t forget to sneak a copy of M between the covers.