Seward, a renowned British historian (The Wars of the Roses, 1995, etc.), sets out to reassemble the shadowy life of the 17th-century Italian chiaroscuro master Michelangelo de Caravaggio. Born in 1571, Caravaggio lost his father to the plague when he was only six. From then on, death followed close on the painter's heels, leaving its reflection in Caravaggio's portrayal of corpses and severed heads in his art. A man of violent temper, prone to fits of jealousy and uncontrollable rage, Caravaggio committed a crime in nearly every city he lived in and had to flee the law on numerous occasions. Arriving in Rome in 1592, he lived for many years on the fringe of respectability, making a meager living in the workshops of other artists. Eventually, one of his paintings caught the eye of Cardinal del Monte, who invited Caravaggio to become a resident painter at his palazzo. The cardinal's patronage ensured a quick rise to fame and numerous commissions--especially from clergy, who were perpetually smitten by Caravaggio's Madonnas (even if many of them were modeled by prostitutes). Caravaggio's success culminated in a commission to paint the pope's portrait, but soon after, he was implicated in a duel that ended in the death of his tennis partner. Caravaggio became an outlaw in Rome, but he continued to exploit his talent and even sought admission to the Knights of Malta. The master of the order relaxed the roles to admit the famous artist but was just as soon obliged to expel him for attacking another knight. Caravaggio would remain on the run until death finally caught up with him. Penniless and exhausted from wounds and illness, Caravaggio died on the shore at Porto Ercole in 1610. Given the glaring lack of historical data, Seward does a fine job of piecing together circumstantial evidence of the painter's turbulent life, while skillful juxtaposition of Caravaggio's personal narrative and art illuminates the origins of his dramatic style.