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Caravaggio's life, out from obscurity


"M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio," by Peter Robb. Henry Holt and Co. 570 pages. $30.

The history of art has had its share of recalcitrant bad boys, but probably none was ever so violently unrepentant as Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), the 17th-century Italian Baroque master also known as Caravaggio.

In "M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio," author Peter Robb sets out to trace the arc of the career of a painter whose work scaled the highest pinnacle of achievement, yet whose personal life was so eccentric, disorderly and violent that even his contemporaries marveled at how such contradictory impulses could co-exist within one man.

As a painter, Caravaggio brought to the stylized decorum of his great Renaissance predecessors a vivid and uncompromising realism that shocked his contemporaries, scandalized his patrons and set a new standard for transforming the mundane facts of the world -- which in his case invariably seemed to mean the tawdry milieu of petty criminals, hustlers, prostitutes and other low-lifes -- into an art that generations of those who followed would seek to emulate.

As a man, Caravaggio was an incorrigible carouser and street brawler who barely kept one step ahead of the law and who relied on the influence of aristocratic patrons -- for years he was a favorite of one of Rome's most powerful cardinals -- to get him out of various jams.

His contemporaries described him as ill-tempered, unkempt in his dress and given to such violent personal and professional animosities that hardly anyone seemed surprised when he eventually killed another man in an argument over a tennis match and became a miserable fugitive in the final years of his tragically brief life.

Caravaggio left behind only a handful of works that can be definitively attributed to him. Moreover, he lived during an era -- the Catholic Counter Reformation -- when the private lives of artists, like most other public figures, had been driven underground by the threat of religious and ideological persecution.

He was a literate man and more learned than he let on, but like other citizens of the police state that was Rome at the turn of the 17th century, he was careful of what he said and who he said it to. The few surviving documents in his own hand contain nothing more incriminating than the occasional bill or receipt for services rendered.

Thus the known facts of Caravaggio's life -- including the police records in which he figured with increasing frequency after 1600 -- were amazingly few even in his own time. They do not add up to a comprehensible narrative. The earliest biographies of him were little more than sketches written years after his death by men who mostly knew him only by reputation.

Yet out of this tenuous tissue of rumor, speculation and the odd documentable fact, Robb has woven a bravura narrative that firmly situates the artist in his time and persuasively relates the events of the artist's life to the great religious paintings on which his reputation rests.

Robb's passionate, perceptive readings of such works as Caravaggio's "The Calling of Saint Matthew," the "Conversion of Saint Paul" and the "Death of the Virgin" -- whose barefoot central figure so shocked the artist's clerical patrons that they refused to honor the commission -- are breathtaking in their empathy with the artist's struggle to execute his dazzlingly original vision.

Robb's "M," like many a modern day celebrity, was a man who was always reinventing himself yet whose basic character was set early on and thereafter remained remarkably constant.

The unfolding of that character forms the core narrative of this magical book, and, given the paucity of the historical record, its author succeeds brilliantly in bringing to life one of the handful of figures in art history whose genius blazed so brightly that it illuminated an entire age and changed forever the course of European art.

Glenn McNatt is art critic for The Sun. He was previously an editorial writer for 10 years for The Sun and began his career as a college English teacher.

Pub Date: 02/27/00

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