Art historians will disapprove of this book. Serious scholars will deplore it and experts will denounce it. But Peter Robb will have the last laugh, because M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio is pure pleasure for the general reader. Robb reaches down through the obscurity of dank court reports and unreliable rumors and drags a great and elusive artist back into the light. Despite huge gaps in the record, he strings together a gripping narrative and creates a vibrant hero. Caravaggio, who specialized in using darkness and shadows to create what Robb calls “a theater of the partly seen,” would have appreciated this sly and imaginative biography.
Robb brings to life the teeming atmosphere of Rome at the end of the 17th Century, where whores consorted with cardinals and artists stabbed their rivals. Between the violence of the streets and the repressive apparatus of the Counter-Reformation, no one could be trusted. The Church, anxious to stamp out dissidence, was bound to conflict with an innovative and uncompromising painter like Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio.
Yet Robb is not interested in the simplistic melodrama of the outlaw artist, the standard image of Caravaggio. His protagonist is an avatar of creative power, an aesthetic rebel with little interest in politics or love affairs. This Caravaggio is not a persecuted victim, but a passionate craftsman who fought his demons through the transformative lens of art. In Robb’s hands, the genesis of the paintings becomes as dramatic as the stories of murder and pederasty.
Robb knows how to write about art. He avoids pretentious analysis and academic symbolism. Instead he teaches the reader how to pay attention to the details. He draws us into the drama of each painting and along the way reminds us why artists like Velazquez and Rubens considered Caravaggio the departure point for modern art. Describing an early masterpiece, “Matthew Called”, Robb brings our attention to the daring manipulation of light and the amazing instinct for narrative economy. By hiding the figure of Christ, Caravaggio forced the viewer “to search out and identify Christ in the shadow and movement, to take part in the drama.”
Most of all, Caravaggio introduced a shocking new realism into art. He scandalized his contemporaries by painting from live models. Art was supposed to be the province of the ideal, the universal. Caravaggio turned it into a vehicle for personal expression. When someone advised him to learn from the great, “the only answer he gave was to point to a crowd of men – nature had supplied him with enough models.” He insisted on authenticity: he painted what he saw. He could make even a basket of fruit seem erotic, so deeply sensuous was his immersion in texture and light.
His realism became even more controversial when he took on religious subjects. He set The Nativity in the moments after the Virgin Mary has given birth. She seems more exhausted than exalted. In his version of the resurrection, Christ crept from his tomb “like a convict escaping from his guards.” The Church rejected a portrait of St. Matthew because the evangelist was shown with big dirty feet like a peasant. One of his most beautiful Madonnas was taken down when the authorities learned that the model was a notorious prostitute. The conflict between the orthodox subjects he was expected to paint and his own savage, lustful energies gives his work its very specific tension and authority.  
      Reacting against an age that expected of art only stylistic finish and ideological conformity, he introduced a new psychological depth. He represented raw and extreme moments of pain and violence. His paintings are not only visually stunning, they have the interior drama of great literature. Robb grasps his skill “at perceiving the stillness and inwardness that was present even at the height of violence and confusion.” The faces in his work are deeply mysterious and unforgettable.
    His depiction of “The Death of the Virgin” was another painting rejected by the Church. Spurning the traditional image of Mary ascendent on a throne surrounded by angels, Caravaggio showed a poor woman dead in a poor home. There is no opening in the heavens, no grace or redemption. She has evidently struggled; she has suffered; now nothing remains. Considered sacreligious in his day, this painting, like so much of Caravaggio, now strikes an authentically Christian note of anguish and bewilderment.
    The erotic joyousness of his early work gradually darkened into images of sadism and cruelty. After he achieved fame and success, his rage and violence intensified. He had enemies everywhere; he punched a waiter over a plate of artichokes. Finally, angry over a bad call in a tennis game, he murdered a man. Forced to flee Rome, he spent his last few miserable years in flight from his pursuers. But even deep within his guilt and isolation, Caravaggio did not give up. He continued to produce masterpieces, to discover new possibilities for his art. Hurried and desperate, he relied less on models and more on memory. His later work became more abstract and ghostly, almost like compositions of pure light.
    Caravaggio died of fever on his way back to Rome. At least that is the traditional story. Robb believes that he was murdered. The evidence is slim, but by this point, having enjoyed the book so much, the reader is willing to be swept along with Robb’s excitement over his new theory. His enthusiasm and boldness are refreshing, if at times he seems to be trying too hard. Among other stagey touches, he refers to Caravaggio throughout as “M” in order to emphasize the mysteriousness of his character. The book would have been equally vivid without such off-putting affectations.
Painting in Darkness and Light
A review of M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio by Peter Robb
From Newsday