The Cork Board

Swords and skulduggery – Caravaggio as James Dean.


For there to be a biography there has to be a story. It is no surprise then that there have been several biographies of Caravaggio, because the story is full of adventure and intrigue. It is a story of rogues, thieves, prostitutes, power and the underworld. Andrew Graham-Dixon says in his excellent biography of the artist, “Caravaggio – A Life Sacred and Profane”,  that any biographer of Caravaggio must also be a detective. One supposes to get to the source, the issues, and track down the man hidden behind the tales, and certainly Mr. AGD has done that.  I cannot imagine a more expansive biography of Michelangelo Merisi (da Caravaggio).

Born in September 1571 Caravaggio

Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni

inhabited  a world or artists and rivals, of brothels and drinking houses, of Church patronage and law courts, of violence and revenge. Oh, and by the way, he rebelled against the accepted traditions of Biblical art to carve his own inimitable niche in art history. His daily life was a chiaroscuro of dark and light, a fitting parallel to the masterpieces he created.

Judith and Holofernes

I’ve no intention of telling the story here. It is too long and my recommendation is that you read Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book. It is, in all honesty, a thriller. It took over 10 years to write, as a result of commitments elsewhere, but the time lag has allowed him to deliver a more complete picture – if you’ll pardon the pun. Historical archives have been trawled and research intensified. The result is a colourful, riveting and fast paced read through the shady world of the Roman underworld at the turn of the 16th century whilst Caravaggio, a master swordsman, swaggers his way through the drinking houses making friends and enemies in equal measure.

The Taking of Christ...........note Caravaggio top right

In order for art in any field to progress artists/artistes like Caravaggio have to be born. Their contribution outlives their short life immeasurably. Think of Picasso, Monet, Dali, Miles Davis, Henry Moore, Jimi Hendrix, James Joyce, Caravaggio, James Dean  ……………boundary pushers.

St. Jerome Writing

His commissions brought him fame and derision. He was loved – he was hated. He introduced simple directional lighting to his scenes. He worked with prostitutes and homosexuals as models (you can imagine how that went down !). He courted patronage and thumbed his nose. His talent, however, was undeniable.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus.............and a horse's arse to his critics...he had style !

Caravaggio’s belief in his art, in his insistence that people see these scenes differently from the classical style that had gone before, was to become his burden and his legacy. It brought him unshakeable troubles in his lifetime but an immortality of spirit.

Doubting Thomas

Caravaggio was rock and roll.

The Supper at Emmaus

14 thoughts on “Swords and skulduggery – Caravaggio as James Dean.

  1. well I thank you for this free lesson in Caravaggio. I have never heard of him and now I want to read more..
    I love a day when I learn something new..
    Great review and love the pictures.
    lynne

  2. Al, so very much to like in this. first your phrase “immortality of spirit” just resonates so loudly within me…and of course Caravaggio’s magnificent art, which one can gaze at forever, never tiring, always new. thanks for this. continue…

    1. I’m glad you liked the post, Tony. His art certainly was one of those watershed moments in history. Until I read the book I didn’t really know the whole story but damn if there ain’t a film in here starring a roughly hewn Javier Bardem. That would take his art to the masses.

      1. Surely you’re familiar with Derek Jarman’s 1986 film, “Carravaggio” ? A highly individual take on the story, as one would expect from Jarman, mixing contemporary and period details to great effect. Nigel Terry exccellent in the lead. Robbie Coltrane as Scipione Borghese, and a wonderful Michael Gough as Cardinal Del Monte. Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton before they were famous… Well worth a look.

  3. “because the story is full of adventure and intrigue. It is a story of rogues, thieves, prostitutes, power and the underworld.”

    Great piece, but what has changed…nothing much different to todays politics!

    1. Hey, John….true enough, but neither does Caravaggio live up to the image of an artist being impoverished, living in a garret, suffering for his muse, only to die in abject poverty. Perhaps he was more a petty criminal with a handy gift with a brush and a few useful contacts. Ah, I’ve just thought, maybe the Vinnie Jones of art – you’d rather he was on your side.

  4. Am looking forward to reading this book as Mr. Graham-Dixon is very passionate about this artist therefore I imagine he will bring Carravaggio to life in a very meaningful way.
    Carravaggio’s story has it all and I often wonder how such a character would fare in to-day’s world – would his talent be dismissed by the ‘great & the good’ in the art world or would he be an underground artist with patronage from a few millionaire eccentrics and of course his choice of lifestyle certainly won’t make him mainstream with loads of ‘friends’, interesting thoughts!

    1. Hello Emer, the book is indeed a thorough explanation of the importance of Caravaggio’s art and the role he played in moving art forward, and I dare say, having read it, I am now a passionate advocate too.
      Where would he stand today ? My guess he would still be a rebel, playing with and cocking a snook at the Establishment whilst trying to drag them and art forward. I think more Hockney than Hirst, though.

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