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Caravaggio was one of Europe’s greatest artists. He was also one of its most flawed. Painting in the late 16th and early 17th century, his biblical paintings were dark, realistic and extremely intense. His bad boy genius was in direct contrast to the classical style of the time. His style sparked an artistic revolution and the beginning of the Baroque period. But while he attracted commissions from priests, he cavorted with prostitutes. According to a new book, he may even have been a pimp. Author Andrew Graham-Dixon joins us to discuss the gritty genius of Caravaggio.
- Andrew Graham-Dixon art critic and author
Caravaggio was dead before he was 40, but in his short life, he managed to turn art on its head. His passion for dramatic light defined 17th century art. But he lived his life in a shadowy world of criminals, pimps and prostitutes. Author Andrew Graham-Dixon’s new book on Caravaggio traces the origins of the artist’s genius – and his demons.
Before Caravaggio, After Caravaggio
For some art historians and enthusiasts, including Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio was so important that they see a split in art history between the times before, and after, his work. Caravaggio began painting around the 1590s, when the church was in crisis and Italian painters had, in some sense, lost heart. “Caravaggio suddenly put into it blood, guts, thunder, drama, excitement. He brought the stories of the Christian faith right into people’s hearts by setting those stories in the here and now,” Graham-Dixon said.
A “Cinematic” Attention to Light
Caravaggio was one of the first artists to light his paintings as if he was lighting a scene on a film set, though no one is sure exactly how he was able to accomplish this or where he got the idea. Graham-Dixon found records that one of Caravaggio’s landlords had thrown him out of her building because he had damaged the ceiling, and the author suspects Caravaggio might have knocked a hole in the roof to get better light for his work. Director Martin Scorsese has said that Caravaggio’s work greatly influenced his early cinema, in his films like “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver.”
A Life of Violence
When he was 6 years old, Caravaggio lost nearly every close relative to the plague within several days. He went on to have a terribly difficult life, and to become a violent man. “The pope and the cardinals, they want him to be part of their world but he just somehow can’t be that kind of artist. He can’t be the artist who doths his cap, the courtier artists like Michelangelo or Raphael before him,” Graham-Dixon said. Caravaggio was known as a sword-fighter, and as a man who frequently visited prostitutes. But the author always tried to see the logic behind what to some others seemed to be the artist’s simple hot-headedness. In one case, Caravaggio smashed a plate of food into a Roman waiter’s face because his artichokes had been cooked in butter instead of olive oil. Because the artist was from northern Italy, and Roman artichokes were almost always cooked in olive oil, Caravaggio took the plate of food for what it probably was – what Graham-Dixon called “a racial insult disguised as a piece of food.”
“Everything About Him Was Black”
“They say, like his paintings, everything about Caravaggio was black. His hair was black, his eyes were black, his clothes were black,” Graham-Dixon said. To the author, Caravaggio was raw, and vulnerable, and he could not conceal his true feelings in his paintings. There are several “unbearably tragic later paintings,” Graham-Dixon said. One of these is the “Adoration of the Shepherds,” in which Caravaggio paints Mary as “the refugee mother.” “It’s a painting about abandonment. It’s a painting about darkness creeping up, darkness creeping in,” Graham-Dixon said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Caravaggio was dead before he was 40, but in his short life, he managed to turn art on its head. His passion for dramatic light defined 17th century art. But he lived his life in a shadowy world of criminals, pimps and prostitutes. Joining me to talk about the man and his art, Andrew Graham-Dixon. He's the author of "Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, join us on Facebook, send us a tweet. We have a small selection of Caravaggio's glorious paintings on our website at drshow.org. Good morning to you. It's good to have you here.
MR. ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXONIt's lovely to be here.
REHMI'm glad you were introduced to the program by a taxi cab. That's just...
GRAHAM-DIXONI was indeed.
REHMTell me why you believe Caravaggio is such an important artist.
GRAHAM-DIXONI think there's art before Caravaggio and there's art after Caravaggio and they're not the same thing. He arrived on the scene, an Italian painting in the 1590s, at a time when the church was in a crisis, art was in a crisis, painting had become this feeble apologetic mannered style of expression in Italy at the time. Caravaggio suddenly put into it blood, guts, thunder, drama, excitement. He brought the stories of the Christian faith right into people's hearts by setting those stories in the here and now.
REHMIt was fascinating to me, looking through the photographs, the gorgeous photographs, you have in the book that each painting somehow lights or is lighted in such a way as to bring that painting to life in a different way than had been done before or was done afterward.
GRAHAM-DIXONAbsolutely. I mean, in painting, he invented cinematography. He invented...
REHMWhat do you mean?
GRAHAM-DIXONHe's the first person in the history of visual art to light a scene as if he was a lighting cameraman. We're not quite sure how he did it. I found, in the course of researching my book, a very intriguing detail that his landlady throws him out of her house, that's he's renting from her, because he's damaged the ceiling. And I'd like to think, I visited that street in Rome, and I like to think that Caravaggio knocked a hole through the roof of the house and allowed the noonday sun to flood onto his posed models so that it's like a scene from, say, a Martin Scorsese movie or a Pasolini movie. In fact...
GRAHAM-DIXON...I have Martin Scorsese as interviewed in my book because Caravaggio's one of the great influences behind his early cinema.
GRAHAM-DIXONYeah, "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver."
GRAHAM-DIXONHe was going to see Caravaggio paintings when he made those films.
REHMTell us about the man. How is he, in your view, commonly portrayed?
GRAHAM-DIXONIn the past, he's been portrayed as a lunatic, a romantic outsider, a gay icon and a pro -- pre-gay age, I should say before such terms really existed. But he's been, for me, portrayed as a series of cardboard cutout stereotypes, not as a true human being. And in my book, I hope, he emerges as a true human being. And the reason I wrote it was because of a truly extraordinary thing that's happened in the last 30 years. Which is that we've got this incredibly famous, brilliant artist, a painter of the same stature say as Shakespeare is in literature.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd suddenly, during the last 30 years, a group of scholars working in different places, publishing their findings in a very obscure academic journals, they found his life. They found his detail -- they found everything about him. They found who he killed. He killed a man in a sword fight. They found out who killed him, a man with three accomplices cut Caravaggio's face off outside a gay bar in Naples in 1609.
GRAHAM-DIXONThey found the prostitutes with whom he consorted, the cardinals with whom he curried favor. We found his life. And that's why I wrote my book because I thought, my goodness, I have the chance. Because that -- as I say, they were all rather train spottery (sp?). You know, the main man who spent 30 years of his life researching this material, published it all in a 100 page book in Latin in a privately circulated edition.
GRAHAM-DIXONSo I've -- you know, I felt that in a way I can't claim credit for my own book, you know, in the sense that it represents many, many people's work. But what I've done, is I think it's of such great interest to the general public, this amazing life, this world that he lived in is I brought it together and tried to give you him in his real world.
REHMWhat was that early world for him?
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, his life began with a terrible tragedy, we now know. When he was six years old, he was brought up -- he was born in the town of Caravaggio, hence his name, but it's a little town. It's just outside Milan. He was actually brought up in Milan. And Milan was struck by a terrible plague, when poor little Caravaggio was six years old, and he lost his father, his uncle, his grandfather, all his male relations, other than his brother, he lost in one day of the plague.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd there are these (word?) and all descriptions of how it was in the city at that time, grave carts carrying the dead across cobbled streets as the people light torches in precessions and pray to be saved from damnation. And actually when I read the descriptions which I quote in my book, written by a Jesuit who was there at the time, it's as if you're reading a succession of Caravaggio paintings. And it's almost as if you can see in your mind's eye, these hands stretching out for help and the torch light. So I wonder, if in a sense, you know, the impressions that you get when you're very young, stay with you forever.
REHMWas he at all sickened?
GRAHAM-DIXONHe survived. I -- bubonic plague, either you survive or you don't. It's a question of where the flea jumps from the rat, I'm afraid to say. But, you know, he had this terribly, terribly difficult life. He was a troubled man. He was a violent man. He had a sense of abandonment that I think went with him wherever he went. I think he has problems in his relationship with God. He's, you know, he's a Christian believe, I think, but he paints on the edge of doubt. You know, that's the shadow in Caravaggio's -- that darkness of doubt.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd he has terrible trouble with authority in the secular political sense. You know, he's a painter who's constantly -- the pope and the cardinals, they want him to be part of their world but he just somehow can't be that kind of artist. He can't be the artist who doths his cap, the courtier artists like Michelangelo or Raphael before him. He can't be that. He's -- has to run off away from authority into the street. He has to go fight with swords, he has to go and be with prostitutes.
REHMWhere did that violence come from? Where -- how did that begin? What is the first incident we know of in which he was involved?
GRAHAM-DIXONThe very first incident, I think, is the case of the waiter and the artichokes. Caravaggio's sitting down and he's having his dinner in the Osteria del Moro, the Tavern of the Moor and the waiter serves him some artichokes cooked in butter. Caravaggio looks at the waiter and says, are these artichokes cooked in butter? And the waiter says yes. And Caravaggio says, what do you take you me for? And he smashes this plate in the waiters face, breaks his teeth, open his jaw, big wound. And we know this because the waiter immediately goes off to the magistrate to file a suit against Caravaggio, very litigious, these Italians in this period in history.
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, what's going on? What's going on? According to the lunatic theory of Caravaggio, this is just an example of his hot headiness. No, no, no. There's always a logic to his violence. He's a violent man in violent times and he's a very strong sense of honor. What's happening here is that the Roman waiter will serve all of the Romans artichokes in delicious fragrant Roman olive oil. But because Caravaggio's from Lombardy in the North, the Roman thinks, oh, you're a Lombard, you're from up there in the mountains. You're a cheese-eating, butter-eating sloth and I'm going to serve you your artichokes. It's an...
GRAHAM-DIXON...it's basically, it's a racial insult disguised as a piece of food.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd if you look -- what I've tried to do in all -- in every case of Caravaggio's as it were crazy violence. I've tried to unpick and to understand the logic behind it. So if another painter talks about him behind his back, Caravaggio will creep up behind that man, behind his back in the middle of the night, and smash him on the back of his head with the flat of his sword, knock him out. Which is as if to say I'm not going to fight you face to face because you're not fighting me face to face, you're just insulting me behind my back. That's all your worth.
REHMTell what the authorities did once the waiter filed this complaint?
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, you see the thing is, Caravaggio was a very well-connected man. He was in the palace, under the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte. And this is what gives him carte blanche to a degree, to pursue his nocturnal activities with such lawless abandon because what happens constantly, constantly, constantly. So you know, policemen stops him carrying a sword and throws him in jail and he swears -- but he's always, the next day, he's always bailed because old Cardinal Del Monte says he must be bailed.
GRAHAM-DIXONSo I’m afraid the waiter didn't get any money. He just got a sore face and probably never served a Lombard artichokes drenched with butter again. But, yeah, Caravaggio was constantly getting off until, of course, his life spiraled deeply and utterly out of control. And no amount of powerful connections could get him off the death sentence.
REHMHow long have you been working on this book?
GRAHAM-DIXONI have been working on that book, I'm ashamed to say, the book took me 10 years to write, 10 years. But I'm -- it got to the point where my publishers who lives near me in North London used to see me on the heath, walking my dog and I would run behind a tree to get away from him. And he once even caught me and came up behind me and said "When am I going to get my manuscript?" But, no, it's -- because it's an archival biography. It's involved a huge amount of deep, you know, documentary research.
REHMAndrew Graham-Dixon, his new book "Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane."
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Andrew Graham-Dixon is with me. He's written a new biography of the artist Caravaggio. He subtitles that book "A Life Sacred and Profane." You've talked about the fact that he frequented prostitutes. You've talked about the kind of violent behavior that may have come, with reason, at times in his life. What evidence is there to suggest Caravaggio might have also been a pimp?
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, circumstantial evidence. Fillide Melandroni, his principle model in a group of series of paintings was a wonderful, sexy young girl. She appears at Saint Catherine of Alexandria, she appears as Judith Beheading Holofernes, gouts of blood spurting in the air. Well, Fillide was a prostitute under the pimptom, if that word exists, of a man called Ranuccio Tomassoni. Caravaggio takes her from him. Caravaggio ends up killing Ranuccio Tomassoni with a sword, stabbing him through the femoral artery, possibly in an attempt to castrate him during a duel. Missing his genitalia and hitting his femoral artery he bleeds to death in about 18 seconds. Fountains of blood are described.
REHMAnd why are they dueling?
GRAHAM-DIXONIt's quite probably over Fillide. Caravaggio, whenever he's arrested and they say, where were you, he said, oh, I was with Minnie Cucca (sp?), I was with (word?). He's always with one or other of these prostitutes. He paints prostitutes. It's illegal in Counter-Reformation Rome to get a woman to pose for you as an artist. It's not allowed. It's immoral, but there are ways around it. And the principle way around it is to hire the services of a prostitute.
GRAHAM-DIXONMy main evidence for suggesting -- and I cannot say and I wouldn't say that it's definite -- I'm just thinking -- I do think it's quite possible given the fact that he was in fact a pimp is that there's a particular case where he attacks a man over a woman and the man goes to the judge. And in the past in English documents that have translated this it's been translated as, oh the argument was over Lena, the woman who stands on her feet, which is code for a prostitute, in Piazza Madonna. She's Caravaggio's girl. That's how it's always been translated. But what he actually says is not that. He says she is a Caravaggio girl -- a Caravaggio girl, that's how the Italian is.
GRAHAM-DIXONWhich suggests to me that there were other Caravaggio girls and that perhaps this argument over the girl is because this man hasn't been treating one of Caravaggio's prostitutes correctly. Maybe he hasn't paid, maybe he was violent with her. We don't know. But -- I can't say for sure, but on the basis of that close reading -- and I tried wherever possible to really closely read and closely interrogate the documents, the archive -- I've in a sense taken my art historian hat off and put my detective hat on.
REHMOne would normally think that an artist like Caravaggio would pay a model. If he were in fact a pimp he would be taking money from her.
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, that would be the advantage of being a pimp would be that -- you know, it may well be that -- I'm pretty positive that Caravaggio slept with Fillide. I mean, it seems highly likely that he did. The paintings that he does of her are charged with sexual feeling. He was also sexually attracted to men and almost certainly having sex with men...
REHMI was going to ask you about that.
GRAHAM-DIXON...he is omni-sexual, if you like. But the paintings of Fillide are so charged with that kind of sexual feeling. But the point of having, as it were, a string of prostitutes is that you have a string of free models. You know, Caravaggio perhaps looks after them. He does seem to be doing that. He's always out at night with his sword, which suggests to me that, you know, he's protecting them 'cause he's always out with them.
GRAHAM-DIXONSo, you know, that's where I get my -- I just have an intuition about it. I was ambivalent about saying that he was a pimp, but on balance I believe that he probably was.
REHMAfter Tomassini died, Caravaggio fled. Where did he go and why -- how was he allowed to continue painting and to continue to sell his paintings?
GRAHAM-DIXONAgain, this time even more powerful. Throughout his life, there's the shadowy influence of the Colonna family who were the most powerful family in the whole Milan area. I think from looking at various dates when Caravaggio was born, he was born on the Feast day of Archangel Michael just before a great Christian victory, which was -- the general in the victory was the father of Costanza Colonna, the Marchesa. I think Caravaggio was always regarded by that family as a lucky child and they protected him.
GRAHAM-DIXONSo after he kills Tomassoni, Scipione Borghese, the Pope's nephew, declares a banda capitalli (sp?) on his head. That means you can bring me the body for the reward or if you can't manage the body, bring me the head. So Caravaggio's under death sentence. He runs off -- he's given a carriage, I think, by Costanza Colonna, but we know for sure that he runs off to one of her strongholds in the Alban Hills about 20 miles outside Rome. And there's this extraordinary picture that he paints that takes you to the heart. It's almost the hinge picture of his whole life.
GRAHAM-DIXONHe paints a picture in 1606 in the summer just after the murder and it shows Cecco his painting boy, also his lover I believe, holding the head -- Cecco as David holding the head of Goliath except it's Caravaggio's painting boy and it's Caravaggio's head screaming this death scream, gurgling death blood. He looks almost as if he's still alive, you know, in that 20 seconds that they tell us about when your head's been cut off, when you still have consciousness. It's a terrifying picture. But where is that picture today? And where has it been ever since it was painted? It's in the Borghese Gallery.
GRAHAM-DIXONSo in other words, that picture is a plea bargain. Caravaggio paints the picture and he sends it to Scipione Borghese who loves art -- loves Caravaggio's art. He's saying to the Pope -- Pope's nephew the head of the papal justice system he's saying, here's my head. Here's my head in a painting. Let me keep it in real life.
REHMAnd you will see a photograph of that painting on our website drshow.org. And by the way, for those of you in Fort Worth or nearby, the Kimball Art Museum has an exhibition Caravaggio and his followers in Rome. It's on through January 8 of 2012. So he continues to receive commissions from not only the Borghese family but others, and continues to develop his work. How does his work change over time?
GRAHAM-DIXONIt darkens. I think he feels a profound deep sense of remorse for this murder of Tomassoni. It becomes very dark. His remarks become very dark. There's a story, a rather chilling one, of when he's on the run 'cause he'll spend the rest of his life on the run.
REHMEven though he has his protectors?
GRAHAM-DIXONHe will inhabit pockets of protected space, put it like that.
REHMI see, I see.
GRAHAM-DIXONIn Naples, he's okay because the Colonna are big in Naples. He flies to -- he runs to Malta. He's okay there because Malta, he's under protection. But he's always at risk. But his art becomes very dark. And at one point while he's on the run for another appalling incident, he shot a man on the Island of Malta, towards the end of his life he goes into a church in Sicily and they offer him some holy water. And he says, what's that holy water for? And they say, it's for your venial sins. And he says, it's no good to me. All my sins are mortal.
GRAHAM-DIXONSo you have this sense that he knows that he's damned. I also have this sense actually that he paints these wonderful, beautiful humane -- you know, the contrast between his actions and his soul as an artist is so extreme. It's as extreme as the contrast between light and dark. He paints these beautiful, touching, tender, humane, wonderful, compassionate pictures, which are all about trying to remind the deeply, deeply poor people of places like Naples and Sicily and so on, those incredibly poor people beyond salvation almost that this religion is for them.
GRAHAM-DIXONYou may be starving to death, you may be dying of scurvy or plague or whatever it is, but, you know, you can come to the church and you can -- you know, Christ will help you. That's the message of Caravaggio's art. So there's this absolutely stark contrast. And the art, as I say, becomes very dark.
REHMHe tried to become a knight of Malta. What was that about?
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, his great protector, Costanza Colonna, her son had also liked Caravaggio, although he was a nobleman. Caravaggio was a mere painter. He had committed a terrible, dreadful crime, so bad that we don't know what it is. And the Pope had said, I'm going to have him executed. And she pleaded with the Pope and he'd said in the end, all right, he can go and be a knight of Malta. He can go and fight at the front line of Christendom against Islam, 'cause that's what the knights of Malta did. And maybe I'll pardon him.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd that had worked out for Costanza Colonna's son. And in a very recent document we really, really recently found out -- a very exciting find -- we know that Caravaggio -- there's a document actually that tells us that it was Costanza's son, the admiral by this time of the fleet of Malta. He's risen that far up, he's been safe -- he is the man who takes Caravaggio to Malta. So clearly the Colonna have decided what worked for one difficult young man maybe will work for Caravaggio too.
REHMCould -- right.
GRAHAM-DIXONMaybe they'll knock some sense into him. And for a while it works and he -- you sense -- he paints these wonderful portraits of the knights of Malta, these gray beard, military heroes who have been Christian soldiers all their life and you can sense Caravaggio's respect for them. It's almost as if for the first time he's found those fathers, those male relations, those men to look up to that he never had in his life, he's found them.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd he paints his way into being a knight of Malta with this huge great picture of the beheading of Saint John, shocking, wonderful, great picture. But he has to -- excuse my vulgar term -- he has to screw it up and he does. On the day before the painting is hung, he goes into the house of the organist of Malta and he shoots a noble knight in the leg.
GRAHAM-DIXONWe don't know why. A question of honor. Caravaggio, see, 'cause he'd been made an -- my suspicion is he'd been made a knight of Malta on merit, which is not a top, top knight of Malta. That's very graded and so maybe this guy had said, oh, well, you're not really a proper knight of Malta...
GRAHAM-DIXON...or something like that. So Caravaggio goes crazy, shoots him in the leg. He gets confined in a stone-cut cell, maximum security prison. He's the only man ever to escape from the stone-cut cell, the maximum security prison.
REHMSo he had to have help.
GRAHAM-DIXONYeah, grappling irons were found by the side of this pit. I've been in the pit myself, in fact, a knight of Malta locked me in it as a joke for ten minutes to see how it felt.
REHMHe locked you in there?
GRAHAM-DIXONYeah, he shut the -- he shut the lid. And then when he let me out, he said, see how does it feel to be Caravaggio for ten minutes? I was shaking 'cause I've got claustrophobia. But, no, he managed to escape. He climbed over the perimeter wall. He then climbed down a 500 foot precipice. He then swam four miles around to a bay where someone on a boat was waiting and then he ran off to Sicily.
REHMWhat was he like physically?
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, I mean, they say he was stocky, dark hair.
GRAHAM-DIXONThey say, like his paintings, everything about Caravaggio was black. His hair was black, his eyes were black, his clothes were black. Of course, his clothes were black 'cause you -- if you were a bit of a skullduggery monger in Rome in the 17th century, you wore black because you could melt into the shadows at night. There was no street lighting in those days.
REHMHow tall was he?
GRAHAM-DIXONWe don't know. I would reckon -- people weren't as tall in those days. I would reckon probably somewhere like 5'6". He was a very, very fit man. I mean, he never lost a sword fight, that we know of.
REHMAndrew Graham-Dixon. His new biography "Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. We'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Garrett, you're on the air.
GARRETTHi, thanks for having me. Yeah, I would just like to hear about Caravaggio's maybe progression of faith as is depicted in his paintings from maybe his early career into his later career.
GRAHAM-DIXONSure. Well, that's a -- I mean, it's something one can only infer. But I suppose the great test case example would be if you compared The Supper at Emmaus that he painted at the noonday moment of his career, which is now in the National Gallery in London. It's the first Caravaggio I ever really fell in love with. My mom used to take me to see it. It's a day lit painting. It's full of the sense of religious revelation. The disciple stretches his hands out in awe as Christ appears and presses the bread and everything. It's about this moment of appearance.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd then you look at the picture that he paints of the same subject, the Supper at Emmaus, it's now in Milan. It's done exactly at the moment just after he's killed Ranuccio Tomassoni. And it's as if someone has turned a dimmer switch down in the room. The painting has gotten so much darker. There's so much less sense of joy. There's so much less sense of you will definitely be saved. It's almost a painting about the possible disappearance of Christ. It's as if Caravaggio literally finds it harder to see salvation.
GRAHAM-DIXONI'm not saying that he intends to paint -- see, this is the thing about him that's really interesting -- he doesn't necessarily intend to paint that meaning. It's just that he is so naked as an artist. You know, unlike artists who can cover their own feelings by being clever or dissembling their emotions, he can't. He's someone who cannot help letting you know what he feels, so he paints Saint Catherine of Alexandria. It's Fillide in the room with him. It's painting sexy Fillide as well as Saint Catherine. And you can feel the attraction between them. He can't conceal these things.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd there's, you know, unbearably tragic later paintings. There's a terrible, terrible beautiful painting. Right at the end of his life he paints the Adoration of the Shepherds. And he paints Mary as this refugee mother. He paints the shepherds who have come to worship. But it's as if there's a force field and you know that those men are never gonna reach that mother and child. They're never gonna help that mother and child. And I -- when I look at that painting I feel that that mother is Caravaggio's mother, the child is Caravaggio. It's a paining about abandonment. It's a painting about darkness creeping up, darkness creeping in.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd I've talked -- I'm dwelling on it because I think it's a very interesting question, by the way -- well, I've talked to a number of priests and, you know, people who are believers, Christian believers about why they love Caravaggio's art. And they've said to me several times, because he also paints the doubt. He leaves room for the doubt that we've all felt.
REHMAnd the "Adoration of the Shepherds," as you've just heard, described the most tragic of nativities. Mary is a refugee mother utterly alone in the dark with her defenseless child. You can see that on our website, drshow.org. I'm wondering so much about your own feelings about this man and how his life has affected yours. And that's something I'll want to talk with you after we come back from a short break. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. Andrew Graham-Dixon is with me. We're talking about his new biography of the artist "Caravaggio." The subtitle of that biography, "A Life Sacred and Profane." Let's go back to the phones to Hillsdale, N.Y. Good morning, Noah, you're on the air.
NOAHOh, wonderful. Thank you. It's a wonderful show. Thanks for taking my call.
NOAHI recently traveled to Syracuse where Caravaggio spent some time and then I became interested in the last year of his life. And I had to questions for the author. I know when he was traveling back to Rome at the end of his life, he was traveling with three paintings and he stopped in Naples and died in Porto Ercole. I was wondering did those paintings -- the paintings -- the ship left while he was dying in a hospital supposedly. Did the paintings ever reach the person it was intended for and what was sort of the end of that story?
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, you see, you put me in a very awkward position here, Noah, because, I mean, would the writer of a terrific crime novel give away what happened right at the end? I mean, surely -- that's one of the reasons I want people to buy my book.
REHMBut of course, you'll answer his question.
GRAHAM-DIXONLet me tell you this, I spent an awfully long time interrogating some absolutely fascinating documents which tell us exactly what happed to Caravaggio at the end of his life and it's an astonishing story, which I don't want to give it all way, but basically you're quite correct. He travels with three paintings from Naples to...
GRAHAM-DIXON...he's on his way to Rome. Stops at a place called Palo. I've been there. It's now Silvio Belusconi type supermodel stuffed hotel for the super rich. But in those days it was a humble stopping off point for people wishing to make deliveries to Rome. And I think that's where Caravaggio meant to disembark and get his paintings onto a cart and go into Rome with his patent. Something went wrong. He was arrested. The boat went on without his paintings and it's said in the mythical accounts of the past that he ran down the beach after the boat and died of malaria in the heat of the noonday sun. He didn't do anything as stupid as that. Caravaggio is very logical man.
GRAHAM-DIXONOne of the things I noticed when I went to the supermodel hotel was the fact that on the wall, it still bears the old insignia of the Italian postal service, which means that it was a postal station, which means that he could’ve got a horse 'cause it's a long, long way from there to Porto Ercole where he died, 50 miles. So he could've ridden it in a day. And I believe he did ride it in a day. Of the three paintings that survived, there was an almighty wrangle for them after Caravaggio died. There was a great big fight. The Knights of Malta tried to get -- well, they actually illegally sequestered them all. They got their agent in Naples to sequester them all.
GRAHAM-DIXONScipione Borghese sent his people out. Other people wanted them. In the end only one survives that we know of and it's an image of St. John and you can see it in the Borghese gallery. But, no, it's an incredible story. And the saddest thing about it, you know, if you really wanna know what happened to him, the bottom-line is read my book because it absolutely, you know, spells it out and tells you -- even tells you the name of the last man that saw him alive. I even have managed to find out the name, which is a tragic thing, of the boat that took Caravaggio to his death in the unsafe harbor of Palo (unintelligible)
REHMSo this tweet from David is incorrect, he says, "I thought Caravaggio died on a beach within sight of a ship that was to rescue him." Is this not true?
GRAHAM-DIXONThat's not true. He didn't...
REHMThat's not true.
GRAHAM-DIXON...he may well have died on a beach. He died at Porto Ercole, but it wasn't within the sight of a boat that was come rescue him. I mean, it's not far off what was actually happening. I was gonna say the saddest thing of all in my new research is the name of the boat was Santa Maria di Porto Salvo, which in Italian means St. Mary of the Safe Harbor.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd Caravaggio dies, as I say, in an unsafe harbor, so...
REHMHere's another tweet, "I think that Caravaggio influenced the young Rembrandt. How formal or informal was their interaction?"
GRAHAM-DIXONIt wasn't formal, but it's absolutely indisputable. Without Caravaggio there's no Rembrandt. Rubens was a great, great, great supporter of Caravaggio and Rubens took Caravaggio paintings to the low countries. So there's an absolute straight line of influence. Without Caravaggio, the whole of Dutch painting would look utterly different. I mean, if you look at, for example, portrait -- such as his portrait of the Maltese knight, Martelli, it is a late Rembrandt portrait painted 50 years before Rembrandt had dreamed of his own style.
GRAHAM-DIXONThe drama, the lack of decorum, the cutting through of the ordinary sort of as it were well-mannered rules. Everything that makes Rembrandt very Shakespearean, if you like, well, it also makes him very Caravaggious. Without Caravaggio, there's no Spanish painting. Think of Ribera, think of Velazquez. Without Caravaggio, French painting would look completely different. Think of Jericho, think of Jacques-Louis David.
GRAHAM-DIXONIt's no coincidence that the French Academy in Rome is bang in the middle of where all those Caravaggio paintings are to be seen. His influence is -- you know, Pasolini, Martin Scorsese, his influence has always been deep and profound and immediate and it's purely through the eye and through the heart. He never had any followers. He never had any disciples. It's just people seeing his pictures and thinking wow.
REHMAll right. To Dayton, Ohio. Good morning, Anne.
REHMHi, go right ahead.
ANNEHi. So I actually studied art history and teach art history and Caravaggio has always been one of my favorite painters to talk about. So my question is that when speaking of this doubt that Caravaggio had in terms of his faith and religion and God, of course, and how much that may be the reason and the way that he painted his religious subject matter. For example, even the saints, right, and Christ and other characters that actually show up in all of his paintings that he creates look utterly human. They look like they're people dressed up as people acting out a certain scene instead of kind of emanating any kind of divine sense to them. If your guest would have some thoughts about that.
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, visually speaking, Caravaggio refuses to have a supernatural imagination. He refuses it. He refuses the language of the Baroque. In a Baroque painting, if a miracle takes place, a fricassee of angels will appear stage left, possibly carrying the Madonna aloft in their arms. Caravaggio does not paint miracles like that. But I think you'd be wrong to think that he doesn't paint miracles at all, that he has a totally secular imagination.
GRAHAM-DIXONThink of "The Supper at Emmaus" in the National Gallery in London. It's a painting about those who see and a painting about those who don't see. Everything looks exactly as a normal supper scene might look. Three men are seated at a table. An innkeeper looks on. The innkeeper has his hat on. Two of the men realize that a miracle is taking place. How do they know? They know because God has arranged things in the form of a shadow play. The innkeeper's head casts a shadow on the wall behind Christ that gives him a halo.
GRAHAM-DIXONThe light that rakes down from the upper left corner touches the ball of fruit and deposits a shadow on the table cloth in the shape of a fish. The fish being the ancient mnemonic sign for Jesus Christ. What Caravaggio is saying is if you had been there at that miraculous moment, would you have seen what was happening in the shadows with the light? It's a miracle, but you have to look to see the miracle. It's not that he doesn't believe in the possibility of the miraculous. It's just that he believes if it were to happen, things might look almost exactly as they do right now.
REHMThanks for your call, Anne. And to Loveland, Ohio. Good morning, David.
DAVIDGood morning. I'm not sure what I love more, Caravaggio's work or the stories of his life. I have a technical question.
REHMGo right ahead.
DAVIDI have read that Caravaggio made use of, oh, it's sometimes called a camera obscura or some kind of projection methods onto canvas which he traced and then painted. Can the author verify that? Has he found any evidence of that?
GRAHAM-DIXONSure. It's a red herring. It's not true. It didn't happen. There are -- there's evidence to suggest when you look at Caravaggio's work that he may have been interested in lenses and in the kind of images that lenses can produce. Galileo who experimented with lenses was a fellow guest, if you like, at the Palazzo Madama. Galileo would probably have known Caravaggio because they were both being supported by Cardinal Del Monte who was a great patron of the arts and the sciences.
GRAHAM-DIXONHowever, it would be entirely wrong to think that Caravaggio composed and created his scenes using a camera obscura. They're not images of that kind. In fact, the invention of chiaroscuro, which he invents so brilliantly and uses so brilliant, it's entirely done in order to get away from a narrow focused realism. It enables him to throw everything that he's not interested in into darkness and merely to spotlight those whose faces, those whose emotions he wants us to see. You try doing with a camera obscura, you'll see how surely difficult it is.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd my clenching evidence is that when the landlady who locked him out of the house for smashing a whole in the roof of the house, when she did that, she was obliged by law to have an inventory taken of everything that he owned. So we know that Caravaggio had three fencing swords, two daggers, one plate. Obviously he wasn't much of a cook. But he definitely did not -- this list goes on and on and on and on. It's incredibly detailed. He had a pair of eagles wings. He had a capuchin robe. He had five large unfinished paintings. But he did not -- and this inventory list was very conscientious. He did not have an enormous lens driven contraption...
GRAHAM-DIXON...for the posing of models. So I think it's absolutely just not true. But, you know, there's as it were an element of something about the supposition that isn't totally mad, but it's not actually true to answer your technical question.
REHMAll right. To Battle Creek, Mich. Tom, good morning to you.
TOMOh, good morning, Diane. My wife in her office has a beautiful reproduction of a Caravaggio work. I believe it's titled "Flight into Egypt."
TOMAnd I'm wondering if your guest could perhaps shed some light on the story behind that painting so that I could share that with my wife who's working diligently right now.
GRAHAM-DIXONRight, right, right, right, right. Well, it's an early picture. It's a very charming picture. It's one of two in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery. And it shows this beautiful angel coming down. And Joseph can't see the angel, but Mary is aware of the angel. And it's just this very, very beautiful depiction. It's a very soft, sweet, early Caravaggio. It's in many respects a rather uncharacteristic picture. It's untroubled by questions of religious doubt.
GRAHAM-DIXONI mean, in a sense it's not one of the pictures that electrifies me, but I do love it. It's got a kind of gentleness about it that you don't find in many of his other pictures. And there's this lovely sense I think of Caravaggio does always make it real and you feel that family aura. Or a family of refugees, you know, with their bare feet and the way that they're nestling against each other, you can almost feel the cold.
REHMDoes that help, Tom?
REHMDoes that help?
TOMYes, it did. It certainly does. It is a very charming painting and we both came upon it actually at an exhibit of reproductions of Caravaggio which was at Loyola University, Loyola University Gallery in Chicago. And we both fell in love with the artist and found that particular work to be very charming.
GRAHAM-DIXONThere's a long account of it in my book. And I wouldn't discourage you from purchasing it for your wife for Christmas.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I said earlier I wanted to understand how working on this book for ten years has affected you. One of the things I've read is that you found his death and the circumstances thereof so tragic that you actually began to cry. And now recently there is a report that fragments of his skull were found. How is all this affecting you as an artist in your own right?
GRAHAM-DIXONWell, I mean, I'm lucky enough that the book's been nominated for a couple of prizes. I've met the other short listed authors and biographers. Often, I hadn't quite realized, it's quite common, sort of biography syndrome. The biographers end up hating their subjects. I wanted to see how the people that did it. It was like didn't you end up hating him? And I didn't up hating him. I ended up feeling more and more compassionate for this man with this sort of tragic flaw just built into his personality right from the beginning. It's as if somehow he is like a -- you know, it's -- my book is truthful, but it has in a strange sense a sort of -- the patent of a tragic fiction. And it is very obsessing.
GRAHAM-DIXONAnd I did find it obsessing when I finally realized, I told my publisher I wouldn't be able to solve the mystery of his death. I didn't feel I would be able to do that. But I was just gonna leave it open. And then one night just at the end, it's 3:00 in the morning and I was sitting there. And I'd been looking at the dates of some correspondence and I suddenly realized that in the dates lay the answer. Now, it was my little Sherlock Holmes moment, if you like. And I realized exactly what had happened to Caravaggio. And I did -- without out being too sentimental about it, I was probably tired and overwrought, but I did shed a few tears. 'Cause I just thought, oh, no, did it have to be like that? It's so sad, so sad.
GRAHAM-DIXONBut, yeah, it's had a profound effect on me writing the book. And, as I say, but I still very passionate about what the book has to say, I hope, which is about releasing him from these constricting straight jackets of stupid stereotype, you know, gay icon, photo realist, lunatic, you know, making him into a real person. That's what I'd like most of all to come through from the book. You know, as well as just a great genius. And huge amounts of my book are just purely about the paintings, not about the drama, the life, the death, the swords, the women. But that would be my ambition is to show people what a sensitive and strange and tragic human being he was and what a great artist as well.
REHMAndrew Graham-Dixon, his new biography "Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane." Just wonderful to talk with you. Congratulations.
REHMThanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn. And the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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