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M by Peter Robb

M

The Man Who Became Caravaggio

By Peter Robb

Pub Date: Feb. 10th, 2000
ISBN: 0-8050-6356-0
Publisher: Henry Holt

An exuberant attempt to penetrate the mysteries surrounding the astounding paintings and brief, turbulent life of the Italian artist who has come to be known as Caravaggio. As Robb (Midnight in Sicily, 1998) points out, even the painter’s real name (probably Michelangelo Merisi) is a matter of conjecture, as is his birthplace (Robb opts for Milan). The name Caravaggio comes from a small town in which, according to tradition, the painter had been born, perhaps in 1571 or 1573. His end is as uncertain as his beginning: He disappeared in July, 1610, and was widely assumed to have been murdered, though his body was never discovered. So little known a figure would seem an unpromising subject for a biography. Yet out of the slender documentation, a close and often deeply convincing reading of Caravaggio’s several dozen surviving paintings, and an admirable grasp of the hard realities of life in Italy during the violent expansion of the Counter-Reformation, Robb has written an account that is consistently gripping and generally persuasive. The painter would not seem at first to be a particularly sympathetic figure. He was, according to many who knew him, difficult, often contentious, and sometimes violent. It seems likely that he killed a man. Yet Robb makes a good case that “M,” as he calls him, was difficult at least in part to protect his artistic integrity, which produced revolutionary paintings that embraced harsh reality in a way more cautious painters avoided and the church condemned. Robb’s readings of M’s paintings, including such astonishing works as “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter,” “The Beheading of John the Baptist,” “The Weeping Magdalen,” and “Mary Dead,” are detailed, energetic, and convincing, as is his version of M’s death. A compelling portrait of the painter as outsider and provocateur; a first-rate evocation of both a genius and the violent times in which he lived. (16 pages illus.)