This review ran in the New York Times on Sunday, October 2, 2005.
By Christopher Benfey
All evidence suggests that Michelangelo Merisi - street brawler, gang member, murderer and the great painter known as Caravaggio - was quick to anger. Consider the episode of the fried artichokes. The whole thing sounds like a joke. Caravaggio had ordered eight artichokes for lunch, four fried in oil and the rest in butter. When the artichokes arrived at his table, Caravaggio asked which ones were fried in oil. The waiter suggested, not unreasonably, that he smell them. Instead, Caravaggio threw the whole plate of artichokes in the waiter's face and reached for a sword. It's one thing to throw artichokes at waiters and quite another to throw rocks at police officers - Caravaggio's next offense, according to the Roman police logs. And then there was the little matter of the tennis game gone awry. We all know that tennis can be frustrating, but Caravaggio's game ended with the murder of his opponent.
The atmosphere of such episodes, as Francine Prose notes in her racy, intensely imagined and highly readable account of Caravaggio's unsurprisingly curtailed life - he died in 1610 at the age of 39 - seems drawn from the plays of the artist's contemporary, Shakespeare, and so does the "theatrical, compassionate, alternately and simultaneously comic and tragic" spirit of Caravaggio's extraordinary paintings.
With his short life and shorter fuse, Caravaggio is a tantalizing subject for a brief biography. He is a major figure - "the best known painter in all of Italy" at the time of his death, whose stature has only increased in our time - with an almost nonexistent paper trail. No letters or preparatory drawings have come to light. What we know of his activities and associates comes, as Prose remarks, largely from "police reports, legal depositions, court transcripts . . . and contracts for commissions," supplemented by malicious gossip and the sniping of rivals. A novelist's tools are as necessary here as a biographer's: an imaginative reconstruction of events, a credible portrayal of Caravaggio himself. And Prose, a superb novelist and occasional art critic, has provided both. Caravaggio's life, she notes, "is the closest thing we have to the myth of the sinner-saint," a myth that, "in these jaded and secular times, we are almost ashamed to admit that we still long for, and need."
And then there are the amazing paintings themselves: the slightly dazed homoerotic evocations of a young John the Baptist snuggling with a horny old ram, the debauched child-god Bacchus, the seductive lute player. In a very different key, dramatically staged and lighted, are the "you are there" biblical scenes: St. Matthew summoned from his countinghouse to a different life. "Who, me?" he seems to say. Or St. Paul lying dazed on his back on the road to Damascus, his horse looming dangerously above him. "His raised hoof won't crush his thrown rider," Prose writes, "not even if he has to hold it like that for a lifetime."
Prose's Caravaggio is an artist of intensity and transgression, requiring in both art and life an almost violent sense of the real: "Matthew's rough meat hook of a hand" or the shockingly "bloated corpse" of the dead Madonna. Prose, whose "Lives of the Muses" convincingly explored moments of reinvention in the lives of male artists inspired by women, is particularly good on the nature of conversion, both in the paintings of Matthew and Paul and in the artist himself, for whom each painting represented "a frozen glimpse of forever" amid "the terror of revelation."
As an art critic, Prose is a bit of a street brawler herself. She swaggers among her rivals like Mercutio, spoiling for a fight. Contemplating Caravaggio's bizarre, queasy self-portrait as "Sick Bacchus," Prose claims that "few critics have bothered to point out the obvious: how deeply strange the painting is." But she has learned a lot from those few, and one wishes she were a little more gracious to the art historians who bolster her arguments. She chides the naïveté of "many of these academic and literary conversations" about Caravaggio's sexual proclivities, but when she says, quite accurately, that "sex between men in Caravaggio's time was viewed very differently than it is today," those academic conversations are why she knows this.
Nonetheless, Prose brings to Caravaggio a fresh and unflinching eye. Her pages on his final months - as he flees across Italy to Naples and then, astonishingly, to Malta, pursued by a partly phantasmal posse of papal guards, Maltese knights and Roman street toughs - have some of the intensity of Caravaggio's own claustrophobic final works set in "dark crypts and bleak rooms." An early biographer's words on Caravaggio's last journey could serve as the painter's epitaph: "Bad luck did not abandon him." Or, as Prose handsomely sums it up: "Having spent his brief, tragic and turbulent life painting miracles, he managed, in the process, to create one - the miracle of art, the miracle of the way in which some paint, a few brushes, a square of canvas, together with that most essential ingredient, genius, can produce something stronger than time and age, more powerful than death."
Christopher Benfey teaches English at Mount Holyoke and is the author of Degas in New Orleans and The Great Wave.
Christopher Benfey - Faculty Profile