Oxford Mail
February 2000


Wild Child Caravaggio

Never a dull moment
then, as Caravaggio
swashbuckles through
history beating acquain-
tances, murdering and
fleeing the authorities.


The painter could have kept the scandal sheets in circulation all by himself. Assaulting policemen, stabbing with a sword and once throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter, Caravaggio was the Liam Gallagher of the seventeenth century.

Make that the artist formerly known as Caravaggio. That is, in fact, the name of the small Italian village of his wayward youth. Yet sources remain foggy as to the Renaissance lad's real identity: Michaelangelo Meresi; Marigi, Amerigi, Narigi, Morisius. No wonder his latest biographer settled for a simple 'M'.

Peter Robb's book – which he promoted this week in Oxford – tackles the passionately violent and violently passionate man and his myths. Caravaggio's life was short and brutal, his paintings bright and alive.

"His extreme intensity and immediacy make him the first modern painter," Peter explains. "His art makes you think of the human drama of the creator. Everything leads you back to the man."

Never a dull moment then, as Caravaggio swashbuckles through history beating acquaintances, murdering and fleeing the authorities. "He is portrayed as a violent, psychotic man, but he was much more wronged than wronging. His actions were entirely defensive.

"Caravaggio was hounded from the moment he became famous. He lived in an ugly, repressive society." Peter explains that the emotion-choked paintings exploded on the "decadent, stilted world of Roman art. His vigorous, clean realism was absolutely stunning."

Many of those images were of sensual young men, spurring rumours of the artists homosexuality. "It's not so much denied as ignored," the author claims. "That's Italian prudishness for you. You'd have to be blind not to see it in the paintings."

This sets the stage for Peter's most controversial point. He claims the bad boy was harassed – and ultimately killed – for love. The traditional view holds that he was headed to Rome for a papal pardon. Arrested by mistake, Caravaggio missed the boat – which contained paintings which he hoped would influence his case. Enraged, he followed on foot up the coast, where he caught fever and died in the wilds.

"He was murdered. It was revenge," Peter insists. "Many mysterious and sinister things happened in the last years of his life. He slept with a sword under his bed – that is the behaviour of a hunted man.

"He suffered some overnight reversal of fortune in Malta, where he was celebrated. I think it was a sexual crime and that's why it has been dropped from the records."

Much of the artist's life remains in shadow, and Peter's bold theories have drawn harsh criticism – as has his "mean streets" style worthy of a Humphrey Bogart film. Just imagine some private investigator growling through a haze of cigarette smoke: "He died in 1610 in an unidentified location, probably on July 18. He disappeared and his body was never found. No one witnessed his death. Or those who did weren't talking."

At least the film noir air adds humour to a tragic tale. Caravaggio's life was nasty, and until quite recently he was sidelined as an artist as well. Oxford's John Ruskin dismissed his work as "horror and ugliness and filthiness" and in 1660 Nicholas Poussin accused Caravaggio of coming "into this world to destroy painting".

But all that malice is fading. "He was neglected and ignored until this century," Peter says. "But he is one of the greatest European painters. He changed art forever."

And that's probably more than Liam Gallagher can say.

Caravaggio paintings are quite rare, but an early copy of his Martha and Mary is on display at Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford. M by Peter Robb is published by Bloomsbury, 567pp, £25.

"Many mysterious and
sinister things happened
in the last years of his
life. He slept with a sword
under his bed – that is the
behaviour of a hunted man."
Oxford's John Ruskin
dismissed his work as
"horror and ugliness and
filthiness" and in 1660
Nicholas Poussin accused
Caravaggio of coming
"into this world to
destroy painting".


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