Caravaggio: A Passionate Life

Desmond Seward, Author William Morrow & Company $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-688-15032-7
Seward's passionately partisan life of the painter Michel Angelo da Caravaggio presents the master of chiaroscuro as a figure maligned by art historians and laymen (such as the late Derek Jarman), who have, Seward claims, mistakenly held him up as a darkly glamorous, homosexual and antisocial icon. Seward downplays Caravaggio's duels and deals with criminals, considering them reactions to the violence of 17th-century Rome. Caravaggio served as artist-in-residence to Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who was rumored in his lifetime to be homosexual, and who sponsored several of Caravaggio's more romantic paintings of young men; his servitu particulare is adequately defended here as a business relationship between a heterosexual painter and his celibate patron. In focusing on Caravaggio's artistic triumphs rather than his personal idiosyncrasies, Seward portrays the painter as a man of strong faith; according to the author, his art exemplifies the Counter-Reformation's exaltation of both the theatrical and the humble, while his realistic depictions of people and his dramatic, unnatural lighting anticipate later painters' realism. Caravaggio joined the Catholic order of the Knights of Malta (which Seward depicted in The Monks of War) only to be imprisoned in a Maltese dungeon after a duel with a higher-ranking Knight. From there, his life slid further into misery. It's a tragic tale, from what we can know of it; Seward's trail of evidence runs cold at times, reducing him to conjecture such as ""All we can be sure of is that [Caravaggio's motif of decapitation] reflected some hidden anguish."" Seward apologizes, excuses, exonerates Caravaggio too often (contrast Johanna Falk's treatment of the pedophile Egon Schiele in Arrogance); were it not for that narrative tendency, this look at late Renaissance Umbria and one of its most powerful artists, would be a truly engaging contribution to the field. 16 photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 11/02/1998
Release date: 11/01/1998
Genre: Nonfiction
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