Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

  • Andrew Graham-Dixon
  • W.W. Norton
  • 514 pp.

This scholarly but spirited biography explores the life of Caravaggio, the brilliant, brooding, bad boy of the 16th-century art world.

Reviewed by Brian Jay Jones

Being a tortured rock star is tough in any century. Case in point: Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the brilliant, brooding, bad boy of the 16th-century art world, whose rise to fame in his early 20s seemed propelled as much by sheer force of will as it was talent, and whose fall before the age of 40 makes for a spectacularly self-destructive tragedy worthy of Shakespeare — or at least of Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon and countless other hard-living rock-and-rollers.

In his scholarly but surprisingly spunky biography, Graham-Dixon follows Caravaggio on the roller coaster ride that was the artist’s life, starting with his rise from obscurity in Milan, to his early success in Rome, where his eye for stark realism and creative use of light and shadows brought him admiration and fame, though he would still, to his annoyance, be regarded as something of a novelty act. From those heights, it’s an equally rapid race through the downward spiral of the murder rap that sends the painter on the run through Malta (where he’s arrested and jailed), then Naples (where an ambush leaves him severely wounded) and finally to Porto Ercole, where he dies under mysterious circumstances. These are the basics — but given that the paper trail left by the painter as he slouched and swashbuckled his way across Italy is either nonexistent or invisible, Graham-Dixon, at times, has to adopt the tones of a detective novelist as he scours one obscure document after another, uncovering criminal depositions, buried letters and coroner reports to bring the painter and his world to vivid life.

Graham-Dixon carefully lays down Caravaggio’s upbringing and background, placing the painter in the context of late 16th-century Milan where the humorless, stridently devout archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, was determined to enforce good and pious behavior. Borromeo believed in a Christ incarnate, insisting that his subjects visualize a living, breathing Christ in the hope that doing so would make his suffering and sacrifices that much more graphic and glorious. Further, the archbishop was also a fan of the sacro monte — literally the “sacred mountain,” a string of small chapels featuring three-dimensional scenes from the Bible that visitors strolled through and gawked at like a Disney attraction. These displays were often intentionally shocking — the floor of one chapel appeared to have dismembered babies strewn across it — but such religious showcases were unavoidable in Caravaggio’s formative years, which goes a long way toward explaining how the almost defiantly non-religious Caravaggio could be so familiar with religious imagery and Biblical allusions.

As a young man, Caravaggio was apprenticed to the “dull and cautious” painter Simone Peterzano, who provided the artist not so much with instruction on how to paint, but more of an example of how not to do it. In 1592, Caravaggio headed for Rome where he began producing increasingly sophisticated and highly realistic paintings, even as he continued to behave badly, falling in with a crowd of shady young men who encouraged his fighting, whoring and skulking about. Yet, his undeniable talent ensured him admirers, benefactors and protectors happy to look the other way — or bribe an official or two — to keep the young man painting.

Even in his earliest works, Caravaggio had a showman’s knack for storytelling. His paintings of coy fortune tellers stealing rings off the finger of a mark, or of crooked card players fleecing unsuspecting well-to-do young men are almost like snapshots of singular moments in time, telling a complete story in a single image and catching the particular event at its most dramatic moment. The buzz generated from these slice-of-life paintings led to commissions for chamber pieces and, eventually, altarpieces and other religious paintings — a genre at which the swaggering, profane Caravaggio would excel.

For Caravaggio — raised on Borreomeo’s steady diet of a visualized Christ and the vivid sacro monte — Christ, his disciples and the Virgin Mary had weight and heft. There would be no Christ or Mary ascending to heaven on feathery clouds; instead, Christ plods along on dirty, bare feet, gesturing for St. Matthew as he leans over a counting table. A real prostitute poses for a dying Virgin Mary as balding disciples sob around her. The dead Christ in “The Entombment of Christ” lolls heavily in the arms of St. John, whose fingers inadvertently tear open the savior’s wounds. And in each, Caravaggio lights his figures dramatically against nearly pitch black backgrounds, almost literally highlighting the moment and forcing the viewer to pause and reflect — and, perhaps, move them to penance, as Borromeo might have hoped of viewers of the sacro monte.

And yet, the realism and sophistication of Caravaggio’s paintings proved too much for many tastes at the time. Like a painterly Mozart surrounded by a sea of dabbling Salieris, Caravaggio saw many of the more prestigious commissions go to lesser artists who worked in the safer, more traditional styles. Graham-Dixon, an art critic and historian, is dexterous in his discussion of Caravaggio’s art, reading neither too much nor too little into the paintings. While he studies their dramatic composition, he won’t usually bother you with heavy-handed symbolism — apart from explaining how he thinks the loutish Caravaggio may have been aware of such highbrow symbolism in the first place.

Graham-Dixon also puts Caravaggio’s art in context of other paintings at the time, showing how other artists interpreted similar themes — and when you see Caravaggio’s version of “The Death of the Virgin” jammed up against the mundane altarpiece that replaced it, you’ll understand why its rejection may have ignited Caravaggio’s already notorious temper (and prompted him to aim a horse’s ass in one of his own pieces directly at the replacement painting). Seething, Caravaggio eventually ends up taking part in a duel in which a hotheaded pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni is critically wounded — and Graham-Dixon has uncovered new evidence which he believes suggests a far more salacious motivation for the fight, which prior biographers have attributed to a spontaneous dust-up over a tennis match. Graham-Dixon argues convincingly that the fight was likely provoked by a slur aimed at Tomassoni’s wife, who may or may not have been one of Tomassoni’s prostitutes.

From here, it’s all sadly and inescapably downhill for Caravaggio for the last four years of his life — though he continues, miraculously, to keep right on painting. With a price on his head, he hustles to Malta, where he becomes one of the favored Knights of Malta and tries to sweet talk his way into forgiveness by producing portraits of some of the leading members of the court. Later, he sends a potential benefactor a painting of David with the head of Goliath, substituting his own head for the slain giant — a final plea for a clemency that never arrives. Sadly, his temper again gets the best of him: Caravaggio kills another man, lands in prison, then, tantalizingly, somehow pulls off a daring escape of which no details are known. Hiding out in Naples in 1609, he’s ambushed, perhaps in revenge for his most recent murder, yet shakily completes two more paintings before dying under mysterious — or at least confusing — circumstances at the age of 38. And here again, Graham-Dixon carefully dissects conflicting stories of the painter’s death, assessing motivations, weather and the speed of messengers to determine what may have really happened.

In his perhaps too-brief aftermath and epilogue, Graham-Dixon traces the inevitable rise of Caravaggio’s reputation, finding his influence in remarkable places — including the films of Martin Scorsese, who admits he aspired “to do Jesus like Caravaggio” in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Not a bad legacy for the hard-living, self-destructive genius who did so much more than just live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.

Brian Jay Jones is the author of the award-winning 2008 biography Washington Irving: An American Original. He is presently at work on the first authorized biography of Muppet creator Jim Henson. He lives in Maryland with his wife and daughter and a very excitable dog. Read more at

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