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Book Review: Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles by Francine Prose

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One would expect a biography, the writings of a life, to begin with birth, or, at least, with a point near the start of that life. However, in Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles Francine Prose opens her depiction of the tumultuous life of the great painter at a moment he would have appreciated: the moment, as Prose says of several of Caravaggio’s works, “the moment when the inevitability of death is revealed and even desired.” Her opening line is simple, and immediately arresting: “He was thirty-nine when he died, in the summer of 1610.”  Prose goes on to describe a life so tormented with manic genius, that, in this cinematic age, one can only imagine Caravaggio as played by Robert Downey Jr.

“He was wanted for murder in Rome, for stabbing a man in a duel that was said to have begun over a bet on a tennis game. It was not the first time that he had been in trouble with the law. He had been sued for libel, arrested for carrying a weapon without a license, prosecuted for tossing a plate of artichokes in a waiter’s face, jailed repeatedly. He was accused of throwing stones at the police, insulting two women, harassing a former landlady, and wounding a prison guard. His contemporaries described him as mercurial, hot-tempered, violent.”

If I succumb to the temptation to quote extensively here, it is because Prose writes so lucidly of this complex artist that all other interpretation seems superfluous. Born Michelangelo Merisi, the painter known as Caravaggio inhabited that uncomfortable, even painful, place of artistic genius. Aware of his own talent, he declined to follow the dictates of contemporary cultural esthetics, yet was bemused and hurt by the failure of others to comprehend his work. He also appears to have been driven by a craving for self-destruction. Meeting with successes, he entered a series of “successive cycles of violence, escape, flight, and exile that would recur, with increasingly disastrous consequences, throughout his life.”

Prose’s work is as much an intensive course in art-appreciation as it is a biography. She guides the reader through the paintings that highlighted Caravaggio’s life, blending his life and work with exquisite detail. Indeed, the only flaw in Caravaggio is the paltry selection of color plates. I was so taken by Prose’s analyses that, like a child confronted by rows of candy, I wanted to see every painting she described – immediately.

Caravaggio may have experienced similar child-like problems with impulse control; however, Prose makes it clear that he is a mature painter for a mature age. Deviating dramatically from the pastel, flowing confections of his contemporaries, Caravaggio painted shadowed, realistic pieces that showed the full range of human suffering and redemption. His paintings unsettle us by confronting us with the truth that sex, pain, violence, innocence, and death can and do coexist, and that all possess beauty. Prose enables us to see Caravaggio’s paintings in their full range of emotion, making the case that depictions of the sacred without the profane, beauty without ugliness, light without dark are facile, dimensionless, and juvenile. Indeed, Prose says it better, “In order to love Caravaggio, we ourselves had to learn to accept the premise that the angelic and the diabolic, that sex and violence and God, could easily if not tranquilly coexist in the same dramatic scene, the same canvas, the same painter.”

Prose makes a compelling case for Caravaggio as a painter for the modern era. As the world shrinks, and as we delve deeper into the workings of the human mind, perhaps we can better appreciate “the myth of the sinner-saint, the street tough, the martyr, the killer, the genius – the myth that, in these jaded and secular times, we are almost ashamed to admit that we still long for, and need.” The layered force of Prose’s writing draws us into the turbulent mind of a man who encapsulated, espoused, and exposed the worst and the best of what makes us human.

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