Caravaggio's restless, uneasy mind

Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A life sacred and profane, Penguin
Michael Fried, The Moment of Carravaggio, Princeton

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was thought by many to be deeply flawed in character, in studio technique, and, indeed, in aspiration.

There was the  "unnaturalness" of his lighting, and, paradoxically, the lack of restraint in his pursuit of natural appearances, to say nothing of his over-dependence on the artist's model, dirty feet, and other lapses of decorum.

But 20th-century connoisseurship and scholarship turned the tables. Through papal patronage which fused the sacred and the sacrilegious, Caravaggio has turned into a man for our troubled times, and also a scholarly industry: the painter of impenetrable darkness and flashes of terrifying light; the prophet of cinema; a rich subject for psychoanalysis, a personality haunted by abandonment "issues", anger and violence; the artist as fugitive, outcast, the ne plus ultra of volatility, a kind of proto-Romantic swordsman.

Almost everything we know about Caravaggio is to be found among the ample and invariably fascinating records of the civil and criminal courts in various papal and other jurisdictions, a scarifying catalogue of beatings, knifings, swearing, slander, stone-throwing, assault with a dish of artichokes, other fights and fracas, and manslaughter.

One thing both these books bring out is how consistently unpredictable Caravaggio was in setting himself compositional problems, and even more so when devising solutions. An example is a mysterious device in the Ambrosiana "Basket of Fruit", from about 1595 or 1596.

By any measure a masterpiece of still life, this composition is lifted to heights of complexity by the daringly asymmetrical arrangement of vine leaves silhouetted on the far right, two of which seem to sprout from a stem wedged firmly between two figs and a bunch of grapes.

How characteristically unconventional it was, then, for Caravaggio to choose such a baffling and original way to animate his subject matter – the proud invention of a restless, uneasy mind.

FULL REVIEW: The private lives of Caravaggio (Times Literary Supplement)

LINKS:
Carravaggio website

Tour of where he lived and worked

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