The life of the 17th-century “sinner-saint” artist Caravaggio.
Capturing the brevity and paradox of her subject’s life, National Book Award finalist Prose takes on an artist as loathed in his own time as any modern artist since. Today, however, Caravaggio is considered part of the canon, an artist whose works draw admirers to out-of-the-way places. Novelist Prose (A Changed Man, March 2005, etc.) leads us on the artist’s odyssey from the small town of Caravaggio, to Milan, Rome, Naples, Malta, Sicily, back to Naples, and finally to Porto Ercole, where he died of a fever. She excels in relaying what little we know of the artist’s personality, a complex mix of undoubted charisma but with an almost psychopathic urge for self-destruction. Caravaggio had an attraction to rough trade, which belied his role as the live-in artist for one of the most cultured and civilized ecclesiastical salons of Rome. The author tracks that personality in Caravaggio’s art—his work went from sexy and alluring to so realistic that, when he emerged as an independent artist, many in the establishment thought it vulgar. But it was his ability to illustrate eternal truths by use of the everyday, the mundane, the specific, that made him so popular with those who instinctively understood his art. To many, Caravaggio was merely a copyist, one finding inspiration among the most base members of society; it was inconceivable that Caravaggio would use a dead prostitute for the model of the dead Virgin, despite a result that is today considered one of the most captivating of Baroque paintings.
A fine biography—and a study of why revolutionary art can be reviled in its own time and revered in another.