Peter Robb dials M for maverick in his flawed but brilliant account of the life of Caravaggio

“M? M was a painter. This is a book about him.”  So begins Peter Robb’s epic biography of Caravaggio, the enigmatic giant of Italian baroque art, and as the rather self-conscious introduction suggests, it’s a book of its time: ‘M’ is soaked in the influence of the 1990s New Historicists, who regarded the lives of artists as unfinished jigsaw puzzles riddled with contentious spaces.

Of no artist is this more true than the 17th century painter Michelangelo Merisi, better known by the name of his home town Caravaggio, but also by a host of other names beginning with the letter M, a fact Robb seizes on as a device to remind us of the impossibility of fixing the painter with a stable identity.

Documentation on the life is indeed astonishingly scant given the fame, not to say infamy, Caravaggio enjoyed in his day, when he was regarded by many as ‘ the wonder of the age’.  Much of what we do know has been gleaned from police and court records left over from his many brushes with the law. He left no correspondence and even his death at the age of 38 is a mystery. Within a few decades he was all but forgotten, and it took the 20th century to rediscover him. Tantalisingly, given how powerfully his work speaks to us now, Caravaggio the man remains out of reach.

Instead, we must look to the paintings – treasures that demonstrate to modern eyes that Caravaggio was undoubtedly the greatest Italian artist of his day, and among the greatest of all European painters. But perhaps what fascinates most is the incongruity between his status as a great master and his reputation as a street-tough libertine who drew inspiration from life at the margins of his society.

This is the scandalous bisexual celebrity who by day kept company with aristocrats and cardinals and by night mixed it up on the backstreets of Rome; the impetuous, sword-wielding brawler who, when he wasn’t embroiled in back-alley skirmishes, spent his leisure hours carousing with hookers and pimps. It’s hard not to see this wild-man persona mirrored in the waywardness of his genius, his radical approach to technique and his fierce disdain for the contemporary art establishment. Until a spell on the run from his enemies forced him to paint figures from memory, Caravaggio worked from life and life only. He also refused to draw, applying paint directly to the canvas.

caravaggio-thomas

It’s all the more remarkable that this intransigent outsider made his name in Rome at the height of the counter-reformation, when the Catholic church was busy harnessing art as the chief organ of its propaganda machine. This was the time of the Inquisition, when any behavior that didn’t conform to pious religious orthodoxy was regarded as dangerously subversive. As a result, the culture’s vital signs – particularly sex and free thought – went underground.

Much as he purports to deconstruct the Caravaggio myth, Robb ultimately does little to dispel this seductive image of M as a reckless transgressor, whose dark canvasses mirror an inner anguish. The difference is that what conservative critics once viewed with puzzlement, Robb positively celebrates. He is rather in love with this romantic maverick, who he views as a victim of religious totalitarianism and the deadly hypocrisies of the powerful. ‘M’ is very much a portrait of Peter Robb’s Caravaggio, just as Derek Jarman’s 1986 film treated the painter’s life as a canvas on which to project the director’s own fantasies and preoccupations. In fact, ‘M’ often approaches biographical fiction. Having debunked art history as a disingenuous join-the-dots exercise, Robb feels more than justified in indulging his own flights of conjecture.

But it’s precisely when he indulges himself that Robb is at his best. He has lived and breathed this artist, painstakingly subsuming a vast body of learning into a 600-page polemic. Few writers can bring a work of art leaping off the canvas and down the corridors of four centuries as can Robb in full flow.  A fabulous stylist, his best sentences are orgiastic, visionary affairs, plundering his voluminous vocabulary to rain down willfully idiosyncratic insights.

Some of the book’s most fascinating passages are those that unveil the sideshows to the life: context-setting anecdotes detailing the intrigues of 17th century Italian society. Robb skillfully captures the everyday atmosphere of palazzos and tennis courts; their air of indolence and danger; the street corner subcultures of a world in which beauty and brutality, the grotesque and the exquisite, rubbed along cheek to cheek.

Robb is also superb at portraying Rome – a Janus-faced society whose economy pivoted on the dual cogs of the Church and the sex industry – as a metaphor for the diseased culture of counter-reformation Europe.  He compares church patronage of artists’ workshops to the Hollywood studio system, and the ideological stand-off between Catholicism and Protestantism as a proto-Cold War.  Robb also persuasively argues that the sensibilities at work in the paintings of Caravaggio – a contemporary of Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Galileo (who he likely knew) – were part of a wider burgeoning humanistic worldview that would eventually lead to the Enlightenment.

Influenced by the naturalism of the Lombard school, Caravaggio soon found himself in revolt against the artificialities of his Mannerist predecessors and the anodyne religious art of his day. He increasingly plunged his subjects into darkness, exquisitely rendering the play of light on surfaces and virtually inventing the tenebrist style that would echo through European painting for decades after his death. Equally fascinating is what the paintings say about Caravaggio’s own story – not least, the power politics of his relationships with boy apprentices and models.

But it was in the shocking physicality of his work that Caravaggio was perhaps most revolutionary, and nowhere more so than in the visceral power he brought to his religious commissions.  ‘The Crucifiction of Peter’ (1601) stunningly captures the obscenity of the spectacle of an old man being hoisted aloft on a cross.  With unflinching clarity, Caravaggio shows us the insane indignity of it all: the glassy look in Peter’s eyes, and the sheer physical effort of the men tasked with getting the job done.

Caravaggio_The_Crucifixion_of_St_Peter_1600

Everything that religious art traditionally sought to hide in its quest for transcendence – the prosaic mechanics of daily life – were the very things Caravaggio was most interested in. He dared to imagine what these Biblical scenes might have actually looked and felt like. Through his works we sense the awe-struck turmoil in Thomas as he pokes a finger between the folds of Christ’s wound; the terror of the mourners as Lazarus’ light-bathed body twitches to life. While many painters used street urchins and prostitutes as cheap modeling fodder, Caravaggio’s paintings did little to disguise the fact.  Even his most religious pictures are littered with unpretty details – the goiter in a crone’s neck; the pinched, blistered texture of a piece of fruit on the turn.

Paradoxically, it was precisely this willingness to drag religious art kicking and screaming into the modern world that gave Caravaggio’s Biblical scenes their unprecedented mystical power.  And much as his naturalism prompted scandal, it also made him sought after.  Even the stiffest counter-reformation ideologue could grasp that Caravaggio was bringing a much-needed immediacy and relevance to the Christian story. Suddenly, in place of tired stylization, the Church had stories that lived and breathed. M did more than paint a tale: he made it so alive you felt that, like Thomas, you could poke your finger in the proof of it.

The greatest weakness of Robb’s book is that, so intent is he on selling us Caravaggio the rebel, he seems reluctant to acknowledge him as a man of his time – a religious painter working in dialogue with tradition. For the author, every canvas is evidence of a secular mindset that would have been bizarre in a 17th century Italian citizen. He does not want to recognise that Caravaggio’s radical re-imaginings of Biblical encounters served to rehabilitate, rather than undermine, the depiction of religious faith in painting. He is willfully blind to the empathy the painter brings to his depictions of troubled spiritual searchers like Saul and Matthew; the way his intense use of chiaroscuro dramatises the struggle between faith and doubt; and of how perfectly Caravaggio’s naturalism suited tales from an age when miracles were regarded as part of the everyday world.

Caravaggio is supposed to have died on a treacherous stretch of malarial coastline, trying on foot to reach Rome, where he’d been promised a pardon for committing homicide in an argument over a tennis match in 1606. Robb spends much of the latter part of the book pulling apart the flimsy official version of events and claiming a cover-up. His theory that Caravaggio was murdered by the Knights of Malta after committing an unforgivable sexual misdemeanor under their roof is intriguing and persuasive – though here, as elsewhere, he over-eggs the pudding.

‘M’ is a book that wears its dissent quite literally on its sleeve: the book jacket relishes the scorn poured on it by the old guard, quoting from critics like Craig Brown and Brain Sewell, who famously declared that it deserved to be pulped. Sewell was wrong. ‘M’ may be guilty of trying too hard, but as an antidote to the dead weight of academic art criticism this book is more than justified – it’s wholly necessary.

 

 

Leave a comment