Caravaggio: A Passionate Life

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9780688150327: Caravaggio: A Passionate Life
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Michael Angelo da Caravaggio (1571-1610) had an amazingly colorful and adventurous career, full of dramatic contrasts. He was a religious artist who used prostitutes and castrati as his models; a mystic with a police record; the favorite of Cardinals and the Pope's portrait painter, who committed a murder; an outlaw from the Roman hills, lionized at Naples; a Knight of Malta imprisoned in a Maltese dungeon; hunted by hired assassins in a vendetta with an unknown enemy; horribly disfigured by sword cuts in a Neapolitan brothel. Ironically, he died on a lonely Tuscan beach after receiving a pardon that would have allowed him to become an even greater painter.

Based on the latest research, but largely written as an adventure story, the book concentrates on the man and his personality, without neglecting the artist. It vividly re-creates his life in early Baroque Italy and as a "monk of war" on Malta.

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Review:

Historian Desmond Seward has written an indispensable book on Caravaggio--equally balanced and historically double-checked. But even with all its references, dates, names, quotes, and careful scholarship, this biography reads like a novel that is impossible to put down. Caravaggio, of course, with his "wild, wild spirit" and "very strange temper," according to contemporary accounts, is a natural subject for a galloping narrative. Caravaggio's religious and social status as a Knight of Malta, his protection by a famous cardinal, his street fighting, his fine silk clothes worn until they rotted away, his prostitute models and lowlife friends, his repeated failure to win a commission for St. Peter's, and his bitterness at the rise of mediocre rivals are just some of the ingredients of this good read.

What Seward does, to riveting perfection, is convey 16th-century life to the reader. He takes Caravaggio's renowned naturalism and shows us where it came from. He transports readers to Rome in the 1590s, where they explore the old stones of the ancient empire, step over the human excrement in the streets, and witness the pageantry of luxurious horse-drawn carriages promenading through the mud. Readers lurk with Seward in the darkness, light lamps and candles, and feel the damp as the Tiber rises, leaving behind more than a thousand corpses when it finally recedes after a terrible flood. They stand in the crowd and watch as the heads and bodies of decapitated criminals are quartered and hoisted on spears and ramparts for display. Gradually readers get the feeling that Caravaggio's predilection for severed heads was less the product of a tormented imagination than it was simply all in a day's observation for an unwavering realist. --Peggy Moorman

About the Author:

Desmond Seward, a well-known historian in both America and Britain, is author of The Monks of War (new edition 1995), the first general history of the military religious orders since the eighteenth century. He lives in Brighton, England.

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