Caravaggio: Rogue, Murderer, Brilliant Painter

And a versatile pain in the ass

Michelangelo da Caravaggio was not, technically, a Renaissance man—that era was over by the time he was born, in 1571—but he was, by all accounts, a versatile pain in the ass. The painter was a punk. He bragged. He went for broke. He beat people up, and people beat him up. To the same acute degree that he lacked a neighborly disposition, Caravaggio also lacked a fine business sense, a noble decency, a funnybone, and an inclination to pick up the tab. He welshed on everyone. When his Roman landlady seized his effects for nonpayment of rent, in 1605, “the said Michelangelo came and threw so many stones at the shutters of my windows that he broke them all down one side,” as she claimed in court. But he was too precious for his patrons to part with; the said Michelangelo was rescued from his snafu. Such snafus seem to have been the status quo. We do not know exactly how Caravaggio died; we do know that “fucked-over cuckold” was an epithet he used “fairly frequently.”

Because he was a genius, Caravaggio kept catching breaks. Because he could not truckle, he kept screwing them up. The inability to tone it down was not a pose; the artist lacked an off switch. In the winter of 1605, Caravaggio was engaged to produce an altarpiece for Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the Park Avenue of painterly real estate. It was the loftiest commission he had ever received. The result, The Madonna of the Serpent, was exquisite. It was also a nonstarter. “He had stressed [the Madonna’s] tenderness,” writes Andrew Graham-Dixon in Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, “leaning down over the child with gentle solicitude, but in the process he had revealed quite a lot of her cleavage.” The commissioners balked. The zaftig Virgin would not cut it. Caravaggio was turned away, his Madonna spurned.

In retrospect, the most surprising thing about the episode is that anyone was surprised. All the artist had done was live up to the reputation that got him the gig. Caravaggio is the father of Tenebrism, a method of painting that combines photorealistic granularity with Gothic dinginess. “He composed by staging scenes, or fragments of scenes, that he knitted together, collage-like, on his canvas, using shadow to mask the joints,” writes Mr. Graham Dixon. The technique behind it is known as chiaroscuro. Its effect on painting was comparable to that of grunge on music, or Hemingway on prose—at once a roughing-up and a paring-down, enacted in the name of cutting out the crap. It was a reaction to the conceits of an earlier age.

The Renaissance had been a time of aesthetic idealism; it erected a cult to ideal images. An ugly subject (a rape, a murder, a martyrdom) was merely a more complex opportunity for beauty. Human bodies, especially, had to look good. They had to be tuned, proportioned, poised. Caravaggio’s innovation was to revert to what he saw right in front of him. Michelangelo Buanarotti had mined Attic Greece for his models; Michelangelo da Caravaggio discovered his muse somewhere between the barroom and the back alley. “To animate the old stories of Christianity, to make them seem as though taking place in the present day, he had developed his own unique method,” Mr. Graham-Dixon writes, “he would systematically restage the sacred dramas, using real, flesh-and-blood people, and paint the results.” He painted whores, crones, wayfarers, the proles and perps of contemporary Rome. He adapted the Good Book to the idiom of the guttersnipe.

It was an exacting aesthetic. It left out landscape, sunlight, heavenly choirs, healthy cuticles. It put in grime; Caravaggio is the great painter of toejam. “Caravaggio was also becoming famous as the great painter of feet.” The result altered the DNA of Biblical imagery. Gone was the grandeur of a Raphael, the pure blues and unblemished pastures: “There is very little landscape in Caravaggio, very little feel of the open air.” In its place, stooped figures grappled in the gloom. Many of Caravaggio’s women have more in common with mollusks than they do with Botticelli’s maidens.

“In life as in art he hid what he wanted to hide in the shadows,” Mr. Graham-Dixon notes. The fragmentary paper trail of Caravaggio’s life oddly simulates the aesthetic that made it famous. The rap sheet shadows the oeuvre; the rumors inflect the facts. And indeed, a Dutch contemporary “described [Caravaggio] as a piece of living chiaroscuro.” The test for biographers of Caravaggio has therefore been to mimic the artist’s signature move—to make the murk eloquent. It requires style as well as research. Mr. Graham-Dixon pulls it off.

Michelangelo da Caravaggio grew up in Lombardy, splitting time between Milan and the exurb of his surname. He was lowborn, provincial, unlikely. Although previous biographers have made much of Caravaggio’s apprenticeship to Simone Peterzano, a mediocre local artist, Mr. Graham-Dixon argues, persuasively, that it meant little. “There was no reason to believe he was anything but an unruly teenager.” Caravaggio left Lombardy in his early 20s. He had the touchiness of the upstart; the orneriness of the autodidact. He may, according to some accounts, already have committed a murder. His destination was Rome.

The city flowed with testosterone. “Rome was not just an overwhelmingly male city; it was a city full of young and unattached men competing desperately with one another for favours.” There were 10,000 artists in a population of 100,000. The odds were bad, and they were compounded by Caravaggio’s temperament. But Caravaggio made it anyway, ascending from the streets into the retinue of an enlightened churchman, Cardinal Guidobaldo Del Monte. (The Cardinal looked “a little bit like a chess piece come to life,” as Mr. Graham-Dixon wonderfully describes him.) Under his aegis, Caravaggio grew famous. The fame had a tinge of infamy.

“There is no sign that success mellowed him,” Mr. Graham Dixon observes. Caravaggio’s rise augured his fall. His paintings were tense with violence. “The picture’s subject is a yearning for death so strong that it resembles sexual desire,” as the author writes of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Everywhere he went, Caravaggio wore a sword. He slurred rivals and irked the law. He brawled over women, artichokes, art criticism. Such was his entwinement with prostitutes that Mr. Graham-Dixon concludes, convincingly, that he was a pimp. A feud with a competitor reached the boiling point, and Caravaggio killed him in a tennis court. A bando capitale was imposed: “This meant that anyone in the papal stats had the right to kill him with impunity,” He skipped town, never to return.

From there he went to Naples—and then onto the isle of Malta, where he labored to become a knight, a rank that would annul the bando capitale. It took a year. A month after knighthood was granted to him, Caravaggio was stripped of it for assaulting a peer. Before Caravaggio died, in 1610, awaiting a pardon on the outskirts of Rome, that same peer would hunt him down and slash his face—“perhaps partially blind[ing]” him. His comeuppance had caught up with him. Caravaggio’s art did not recover.

Mr. Graham Dixon is an able tracker of his elusive subject. He tells a good story; he updates the factual record; he upends old hypotheses, and proposes others. Caravaggio was bisexual. He committed homicide in a duel, not a spontaneous ruckus. He painted his David in Rome. Where Mr. Graham-Dixon excels, however, is in the indication of irony. Caravaggio was a populist, yet his audience, while he lived, was elite; his paintings were too candid about the lives of the masses for mass consumption. Status obsessed the man, but scum mesmerized his art. The pious Catholic killer pimp “opened a Pandora’s Box of vulgarity.” Mr. Graham-Dixon is paraphrasing the observation of an enemy of Caravaggio’s here, but there may be something to it. The biographer gives Martin Scorsese, an avowed Caravaggiste, the last word in his book. Still, Caravaggio’s true cinematic heir may lie elsewhere. Blood and guts, rags and gloom, the literal-minded depiction of illiteracy—this sounds like a movie by Mel Gibson.

Caravaggio: Rogue, Murderer, Brilliant Painter