Sunday, February 05, 2006

Book Review: Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles by Francine Prose

Author: Francine Prose
ISBN: 0060575603
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 2005-10

Caravaggio bio
Publisher's Note: review
WNYC: interview
Other books on Caravaggio:"The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece" by Jonathan Harr


Author Francine Prose on the life and paintings of Caravaggio.


I am besotted with HarperCollins' "Eminent Lives" series. It is such a pleasure to hold one of these beautifully-bound biographies in my hands knowing that in a sweet 150 pages or so, I will be acquainted with someone who made his/her mark on history, either as a world leader, musician, painter, historian or someone equally noble. The series prides itself on its brevity, serving more as an appetizer, rather than the meal itself, but, truth be told, when there are so many books to be read and so little time, books like these are so very useful!

A couple of months ago I read Edmund Morris' Beethoven (also from the Eminent Lives collection), and today I finished reading Francine Prose's "Caravaggio". Caravaggio has always been an enigma to me - how could a man bearing such a dark, surly and quarrelsome temperament paint such exquisite pictures of the Nativity and other religious pictures - surely that makes his life an oxymoron? Prose theorizes that the reason for Caravaggio's frustration and general cantankerousness is that he was so ahead of his time and was quite unappreciated by his patrons and contemporaries.

Caravaggio was born Michaelangelo Merisi in 1570 somewhere near Milano, Italy, but he was known as Caravaggio because that is the name of the town where he was born. Two things about Caravaggio that were made absolutely apparent from the time he was a young painter was his violent temper and his realistic paintings. Caravaggio hated "classicism" the accepted style of his day and painted things as he saw them, warts and all; he would never "pretty" his paintings just so that they could be aesthetically pleasing. For instance, if he was drawing a bowl of fruits that happened to be overripe to rotting, he would paint them as is. Infact, Prose points out that if you look closely enough at some of Caravaggio's canvasses you will see the odd worm-infested apple, the mottled pears or the angel with dirt in his nails...

But often these uncomfortably realistic paintings got Caravaggio into trouble; many a time, his religious paintings of martyred saints were rejected by the very same people who had commisioned them because they were scandalized by their brutal realism. Take for instance the painting titled "Death of a Virgin": they were so upset at him for projecting the Virgin Mary as a bloated dead body with naked feet instead of showing her ascending into heaven on a cloud of angels as Church dogma would dictate appropriate, that for a long, long time it went unsold. As Ms. Prose recounts , Caravaggio quite probably used the corpse of a drowned prostitute as model for the Virgin Mary, offending the Carmelites who commissioned his work for the Church of Santa Maria della Scala. They much preferred Cesari's (Caravaggio's rival) neatly coiffed, brightly robed, sqeaky-clean saints to Caravaggio's barefoot laborers and dirty whores masquerading as dignified apostles and virginal Madonnas.

And then there was the matter of his series of paintings of Cupid and Bacchus for which he had young boy models posing with very seductive expressions, add to that his lifelong lack of interest in naked female flesh (compared, for example, with artists like Titian, his contemporary) and historians are fairly able to conclude that Caravaggio was bisexual.

Francine Prose's biography on Caravaggio takes us into this painter's tumultuous life where, owing to the kind of people he hung out with, getting into fights or duels was even more common than bathing! He supposedly killed a man at one of these many duels and had to run away from Rome where it happened until he was pardoned many years later. Reading this book is also like taking a trip through a museum exclusively devoted to Caravaggio's paintings with the author describing each painting to us through our own special headphones. Her observations are just marvellous and presented to us in such beautiful prose.

Caravaggio today:

There are no more than about 80 known paintings by Caravaggio in existence and each one today is worth nearly tens of millions of dollars if they ever come to be sold on the open market. Go to a museum today and you will be challenged to have an "alone" moment with a Caravaggio because there are always huge crowds of people infront of his paintings. I think the reason why Caravaggio appeals to us so much today is because we have come to understand and appreciate that while the saints and Jesus may have had extraordinarily divine experiences on earth, they were still human beings and experienced human suffering and other human emotions which Caravaggio captured. Also, we like how he straddled the middle ground between "the sacred and the profane". After all, it must have taken some nerve to be known as the creator of both, "The Crucifixion of St. Peter" and "Victorious Cupid", but that was Caravaggio - a man of extremes.

Hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.