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Of all Italian painters, Caravaggio (c. 1565-1609) speaks most intensely to the modern world. His early works suggest a fascination with his own youth and sexuality and the trancience of love and beauty his later religious art speaks of violence, passion, solitude and death. Ugly, almost brutal-looking, Caravaggio was constantly embroiled in fights and entangled with the law; the prototype anti-social artist, he moved between the worlds of powerful patrons and the street life of boys and prostitutes. Helen Langdon uncovers his progress from childhood in plague-ridden Milan to wild success in Rome, and eventual exile and persecution in the South, and sets his work against the political, intellectual and spiritual movements of the day. Fully illustrated, her dramatic portrait shows Carravigio's life to be as sensational and enigmatic as his powerful and enduring art.
At once more scholarly and less polemical than Desmond Seward's 1998 Caravaggio: A Passionate Life, Langdon's study of the Renaissance painter conveys a picture of Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1573-1610) as an artist amid rivals and intrigues without losing sight of his work and its significance. Not that Langdon downplays the juicy bits: she offers documented details on the scandals and rivalries, but does so without sensationalism or dependence on conjecture. While Seward railed against homoerotic interpretations of Caravaggio's works, and seemed particularly hostile to Derek Jarman's highly speculative 1987 film, Caravaggio, Langdon is unfailingly even-handed. In keeping with her focus on Caravaggio the artist (as opposed to Seward's man of faith), Langdon presents the relationship with Cardinal Francesco del Monte, for whom he served as artist-in-residence, in terms of career significance rather than personal relationships. Through del Monte, Caravaggio made contacts with church officials and patrons, and also with other painters, many of whom became rivals or detractors. The last section of the book is a balanced account of Caravaggio's induction into the Catholic order of the Knights of Malta (an honor seemingly requiring him to have lied about his family's lineage), his imprisonment in a Maltese dungeon for dueling with a Knight of higher rank and his legendary escape. Without downplaying Caravaggio's personal oddity and violent tendencies, Langdon approaches her subject with a sympathetic yet almost clinical eye. She scours the archives, examining police documents and bringing court records to light. In the end, she produces a finished view of an artist who helped redefine realism in art, even as his increasingly humbling depictions of people alienated him from painters and patrons, and fed his public image as a scoundrel and madman. 56 b&w illustrations, 42 color plates.