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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 11 July 2020

"Caravaggio" by Andrew Graham-Dixon

This biography of the artist Michelangelo Merisi (1571 - 1610), known as Caravaggio from the town outside Milan where he was born, is subtitled 'A Life Sacred and Profane'. "Caravaggio's life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights" (p 3). As well as being a painter of startling originality and huge later influence he was repeatedly in trouble with the law for fighting in the streets; his murder of a man (probably during a duel) led to a capital conviction and his fleeing from Rome, eventually to Malta where he was soon again in trouble with the authorities requiring him to break out of jail in Valletta. So there was no shortage of incident during his 38 years and AGD tells a rattling good yarn. However, this is about a painter and the art was the most important thing in Caravaggio's life, and AGD describes and explains the masterpieces in a way that enhanced my appreciation of this fabulous artist. These masterpieces are illustrated by a surprisingly large number of high quality colour plates and it is not the fault of the book that Caravaggio's extremely tenebristic style makes it difficult to see many of the details described.

AGD attempts to explain C's style by describing the context of the world in which he grew up. Milan, a city notorious for pimps, prostitutes, thieves and violence, was in thrall to Archbishop Borromeo, a priest of a Savanorolan bent, who used the confessional to operate a hierocratic police state. He encouraged the practice of 'composition' recently made popular by Jesuit leader St Ignatius Loyola (revived from methods employed by St Francis of Assissi) which aimed to get believers to “visualize Christ's sufferings ... as if you were actually present at the very time ... you should regard yourself as if you had our Lord suffering before your very eyes, and that he was present to receive your prayers.” (p 32) Thus art was an aid to devotion. AGD suggests that these practices had led to the development of realism in early Renaissance art: "artists competed with each other to create convincing illusions of actual presence, developing new techniques such as mathematically calculated perspective to paint ever more convincing images of the life and sufferings of Christ. Painters made their pictures as realistic as they could in order to assist worshippers in their own acts of mental picture-building.” (33)

In particular Borromeo encouraged the practice of 'sacred mountains' which were places where pilgrims could go and encounter crib-like Biblical scenes in which usually terracotta figures were arranged in theatrically-set groupings. “The most skilfully carved and painted of the figures have a shocking actuality about them. This is not art that seeks to idealize nor generalize life; it is art that aspires to the condition of a simulacrum of life itself.” (p 39) “The way in which he [Caraviaggio] paints the wrinkled faces and bodies of his protagonists has its exact parallel in the wizened physiognomies conjured from clay by the masters of terracotta sculpture” (p 40)

Descriptions of Caravaggio's art include:

  • "Caravaggio's life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights" (p 3)
  • His use of light and shade was so original that it gave painters nothing less than a new grammar and vocabulary.” (p 41)
  • The painter’s intense sensuality ... his feel for the flesh and blood of the human body and ... hius sensitivity to the suggestions implicit in the least exchange of glances.” (p 42)
  • an art of paroxysm and abandonment, filled with images of turmoil in dark places.” (p 52)
  • Tintoretto's brooding, monumental religious canvases, full of dramatic contrasts of light and dark - lightning strikes of supernatural illumination that shiver like spiritual electricity - are the only late sixteenth-century Italian paintings to prophesy elements of Caravaggio's own mature style.” (65)
  • Caravaggio is not merely the painter of rogues, crooks and the enchantresses of the street. He is the painter as vagabond.” (110)
  • Caravaggio seems to have had almost no interest in theories of art.” (118)
  • The transience of nature is linked to precariousness. Entropy and the fear of falling are connected in Caravaggio's mind.” (135)
  • Whomsoever the Medusa looks at, she freezes, preserving them forever in a single, charged instant of being. From the flux of life she takes a moment and makes it last for all time. That is what Caravaggio’s art does too.” (159)
  • In these later paintings he used a dark ground and worked from dark to light, a technique that he may have seen for the first time in the art of Tintoretto. It suited him in a number of ways. A dark ground enabled him to focus only on the essentials of the scene, as he imagined it. Dark paint creates an illusion of deep shadow around the principal forms and therefore also does away with the need to paint background detail.” (184)
  • Caravaggio’s habitual impatience is manifest too in his frequent practice of working wet-in-wet rather than waiting for each layer of oil paint to dry. He was unique among the painters of his time in making no preparatory drawing for his pictures, preferring to block out his compositions directly on the primed canvas. Having posed his models, he often marked the exact positions of heads and other contours by making light incisions in the base layer of paint ... No other artists of his time used such incisions.” (185)
  • Bellori said: “he never showed any of his figures in open daylight, but instead found a way to place them in the darkness of a closed room, placing a lamp high so that the light would fall straight down, revealing the principal part of the body and leaving the rest in shadow so as to produce a powerful contrast of light and dark.” (186)
  • Caravaggio's dark and monumental oil paintings would certainly have looked extremely Venetian in the chapel of a Roman church in 1600, because only in Venice, where dampness and humidity discouraged fresco painting, was it common to see such large works of religious art carried out in oil on canvas.” (204)
  • God is light, so he announces his presence among men in the elusive forms of a shadowplay. The innkeeper cannot see it, it but by standing where he does he casts a shadow on the wall that gives Christ a dark but unmistakable halo.” (223)
  • Earlier artists had often envisaged the portrayal as a chaotic crowd scene, confusing the eye with a multitude of soldiers and panicking disciples. Caravaggio’s new technique of emphatic chiaroscuro was the perfect editing device for avoiding such unnecessary complications. He uses it here as a ruthless means of exclusion, spotlighting the figures at the very centre of the drama ... In his interpretation, the whole story becomes an elemental conflict between good and evil, innocence and malignity.” (229)
  • Michelangelo's prophets are nobly idealized figures, decorously draped, but Caravaggio’s Matthew is an ordinary, imperfect human being in working clothes that leave his arms and legs bare ... a simple man stunned by the directness of his revelation.” (236)
  • Many of the technical departures of the artist’s later work are related to his circumstances: he stops painting from models, in all but a few cases, because he has no time to find them or money to pay them, and he paints quickly because he has to move on.” (331)
  • Placing such emphasis on the proximity of one man's body to another is Caravaggio’s way of heightening the horror of the scene. Torture is a misbegotten form of physical intimacy.” (346)
  • The snapshot immediacy of the image, with its extremely innovative effects of cropping and occlusion, is suggestive of alienation and abandonment.” (538)
  • He painted as if the rich and the powerful were his enemies, as if he really did believe that the meek deserved to inherit the earth.” (438)
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini ... was profoundly influenced by Caravaggio’s sense of light, by his narrative directness, and by his casting of poor and ordinary working people in leading roles.” (441)


Other great moments:

  • Nowhere was the misogynistic cult of celibacy stronger than in Lombardy. It did not necessarily entail sexual abstinence, merely a refusal to be yoked to any single woman.” (p 16)
  • While Bacchus symbolises inspiration, he also stands for disorder, anarchy, an unruly surrender to the senses. He is passion, opposed to the reason embodied by Apollo.” (84)
  • Counter-Reformation Rome was a city in which all manner of thieves, rogues and scoundrels thronged. Their presence was a symptom of social crisis. Recurrent plague not only destroyed lives, but ravaged economies in the cities and states where it struck.” (100)
  • Aristotle's distinction between tragedy and comedy ... held that tragedy should focus on the actions of the elite - kings and princes - while comedy should concern itself with the behaviour of those at the very bottom of the social heap.” (107) This comes from Aristotle's Poetics.
  • The polyphonic and monodic modes are at opposite ends of music’s emotional spectrum. Polyphony subsumes the individual voice within a choral harmony, reflecting the desire to conjure up an essentially otherworldly sound, such as the singing of the angelic host. Words are hard to distinguish in the layers of polyphonic singing. Syntax dissolves and sense is sacrificed for an effect of transcendence. By contrast, monody puts precise meaning and specific human emotions at the heart of music. The single melodic line, the solo voice, is easily understood ... It might be said that while polyphony aspires to heaven, monody expresses man.” (128)
  • According to the Neoplatonic thought of the Renaissance, classical myth was alive with shadowy anticipations of Christian truth. The legend of Dionysus, who died to be reborn, was regarded as a pagan prophecy of the coming of Christ.” (155)
  • The centre of the city was dark. Overshadowed by unbroken lines of tall buildings, its congested lanes and alleys were rarely penetrated by direct sunlight. Despite the sunshine of southern Italy, most daily life took place in deep shadow, in a form of civic space not unlike the bottom of a well.” (338)

As I think you can see, I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliant book.

July 2020; 444 pages





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