CARAVAGGIO by Helen Langdon


A Life
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A complex, elegant biography of one of the most famous—and famously combative—painters of the 17th century. Caravaggio’s paintings, with their dramatic naturalism and haunting religiosity, give evidence of a compelling personality, but details about the artist are scant. Few of his words were ever recorded by his peers, and he wrote nothing that has survived. In spite of a dearth of original material, British biographer Langdon, in her first book, has created an account that interweaves a lively, informed discussion of his work with known details about his life. What is beyond dispute is that his talent catapulted him to the forefront of the art world by the age of 30. His was “a brooding and profoundly Catholic art,” in Langdon’s words, that rejected idealism in favor of realism. Using models and painting from life, Caravggio created an enfranchising religious vision: when he needed a Virgin, a local whore posed for him; his saints and apostles were humble men illumined by their faith. The passionate, painterly force for which he was lauded in Rome was not divisble from his life, however, and Caravaggio repeatedly brawled with other artists over slights both real and imagined. “Having won sudden stardom, with a place in the world, [Caravaggio] responded badly,” Langdon writes. “He became vain and proud, increasingly involved in street violence, and so famed for his belligerence that news of it circulated through Europe.” He was nothing if not a man of his times, and in Rome, in the 17th century, toughs walked the streets with daggers and swords; Caravaggio was no different. Fleeing Rome after killing a man in a fight, he suffered a tragic, untimely, but unsurprising death as he was attempting to return. To her credit, Langdon skillfully interweaves the coarse tragedy of Caravggio’s existence with the transcendent humanism of his art and uses each to illuminate the other. (43 color plates, b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-11894-9
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1999


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