A bold, fresh biography of the world's first modern painter As presented with "blood and bone and sinew" (Times Literary Supplement) by Peter Robb, Caravaggio's wild and tempestuous life was a provocation to a culture in a state of siege. The of the sixteenth century was marked by the Inquisition and Counter-Reformation, a background of ideological cold war against which, despite all odds and at great cost to their creators, brilliant feats of art and science were achieved. No artist captured the dark, violent spirit of the time better than Caravaggio, variously known as Marisi, Moriggia, Merigi, and sometimes, simply M. As art critic Robert Hughes has said, "There was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same."Caravaggio threw out Renaissance dogma to paint with dazzling originality and fierce vitality, qualities that are echoed in Robb's prose. As with Caravaggio's art, M arrests and susps time to reveal what the author calls "the theater of the partly seen." Caravaggio's wild persona leaps through these pages like quicksilver; in Robb's skilled hands, he is an immensely attractive character with an astonishing connection to the glories and brutalities of life.
Recognized now as a peer of 17th-century masters Rembrandt and Vermeer, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) painted notoriously provocative religious and classical tableaux, yet left few traces ("no letters, no table talk, no notebook or treatise") of his life beyond his art. Australian -born Robb, whose ex-pat tour-de-force Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel, & La Cosa Nostra took readers through that fascinating island, has created an idiosyncratic but dazzling biography of Caravaggio by exploiting almost every extant fragment, including a handful of sightings by friends and enemies, and the scanty Italian police files. More audaciously, Robb spreads through the life many pages on every known canvas, leaving appropriately theatrical description in his wake. Robb's Caravaggio--or "M," as he insists on calling the multimonikered and aliased painter--was a violent man of "hairtrigger touchiness," who fueled the passionate intensity of his painting with his professional and emotional frustrations, managing to register raw life in a religious culture that demanded, according to Robb, vapid holiness. Bisexual, he painted and loved pubescent boys, and patronized the female prostitutes he used as models. To great effect, Robb inserts reflections by the painter's contemporaries within his own sentences, offsetting them with italics rather than quotation marks: "M's repeated and humiliating requests for small advances from Masetti confirmed the need. That wasn't his style and he reddens whenever he sees me." He studs his own descriptions with odd words, obscenities and anachronistic, out-of-place contemporary references ("... like Ronald Reagan playing the cowboy"). Yet it all works--Robb's flawed, melodramatic, swollen biography is crammed with more about the dark, driven Caravaggio than any previous life. Just as Caravaggio took art to the edge, Robb takes biography there. 16 pages of illus., 8 in color, not seen by PW.