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Conversation: Andrew Graham-Dixon, Author of ‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’

Michelangelo Caravaggio was one of the great painters in the history of Western art. He also remains one of the most mysterious and elusive of artistic geniuses. A new biography wrestles with the man, his times and his work.

“Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane” is by Andrew Graham-Dixon, an art critic, historian and television host of documentaries on art for the BBC. I spoke to him recently about his new book:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat again. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Michelangelo Caravaggio was one of the great painters in the history of Western art. He also remains one of the most mysterious and elusive of artistic geniuses. A new biography wrestles with the man, his times and his work. It’s titled “Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane,” and author Andrew Graham-Dixon is with us. He’s an art critic and historian and also a television host of documentaries on art for the BBC.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: That’s absolutely right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to you.


JEFFREY BROWN: I guess the first question is, why another book about Caravaggio? Partly it was based on new research and scholarship?

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: That was the reason. Strange though it may seem, you have this figure who in art is perhaps as famous and as well-known as William Shakespeare, and yet over the last 10 years, perhaps 15, so much new material has come out about his life. It’s almost as if a depth charge has gone off on the bottom of the waters of Caravaggio’s scholarship, and I just looked at this stuff and I thought, Well how many times in your life would you get the chance to actually completely write a new life of someone as famous as that, actually to bring his life to the attention in its true detail.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, now, it’s funny you say famous as William Shakespeare, because William Shakespeare is so famous and yet so many of the details of his life are still picked over and controversial.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: The thing with Caravaggio, as you probably know, in the case of Shakespeare the archive doesn’t exist. The fire of London; it’s just not there, the documents aren’t there. We know almost nothing. In the case of Caravaggio we know a huge amount, and a huge amount has been found out. It’s there in the archive in Rome. But the thing is this dynamite material, it concerns his pimps, the men and the women who were his lovers, the man whom he killed, what was going on between them. We can now piece this together. I’ve been able to piece this together.

JEFFREY BROWN: You just said pimps, the man he killed. For those who don’t know a little bit about Caravaggio, it is a violent, it’s a fascinating life, it’s the streets of Rome and about a man on the run, a man in trouble all the time.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: Yeah, you couldn’t make it up. One of the greatest artists who ever lived, and he has this life that you just cannot believe. My struggle was to try, try, try, try, don’t make this read like a novel, because every time we found out something else, something new, it was like, this is weirder than fiction could ever have been. This is a man who as well as painting these great, great canvases, he’s pimping, as well as reinventing the history of Western art, creating this new language of chiaroscuro, creating the possibility for someone like Rembrandt to exist. He’s stabbing a man in the groin with a fencing sword, possibly in an attempt to emasculate him. This man is dying with gouts of blood spurting from his leg. Caravaggio is then going on the run, ending up in Malta where he creates another terrible crime, shoots someone in the leg, gets imprisoned in a high-security jail, like the rock-cut cell in which the serial murderer in the “Silence of the Lambs” confines his victim. He escapes, he climbs 200 feet down a precipice, he swims three miles around, he gets in a boat, he runs off to Sicily, and so it goes on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is all around, we’re talking around 1600 here, right?

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: 1606 is the murder.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the times…you’ve set this in — it’s the Counter-Reformation. There is a lot going on in which he’s operating, right?

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: Yeah. Caravaggio has this reputation as being a mad outsider. He was certainly a very volatile man and he certainly had a lot of problems with authority. His entire male family was annihilated by the plague when he was 6 years old. I think that’s where a lot of his problems with authority, his problems stem. He almost seems bound to transgress. It’s almost like he cannot avoid transgressing. As soon as he’s welcome by authority, welcomed by the pope, welcomed by the Knights of Malta, he has to do something to screw it up. It’s almost like his fatal flaw. And yet what I’ve also tried to do is to portray him as a man living in violent times. And he’s not just a lunatic. There’s a logic, a strange logic, but almost all his actions are logical.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that what surprised you? What did you surprise you most when you got to look at this new scholarship and look at the man?

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: Well, I took a detective’s approach. And if we were to talk about my book, it’s three books: It’s a book about his world, it’s a book about the events of his life and it’s a book about his art. In terms of being a book that attempts to unpick the events of his life, I had to stop being an art historian and be a detective. And it’s about trying to work out motive. It’s about trying to understand the honor codes by which these people lived, which is similar in some ways to the kind of gang codes that you get in major urban cities today. In other words, if you insult my reputation, I will cut you in the face. If you insult my wife, I will attempt to castrate you with a fencing sword. If you are my landlady and you lock me out of my house and spread the word that I’m a bad guy, I’ll go around to your house and I’ll smash the shutters, because your house is your face, it’s your honor. You’ve insulted my honor; I insult you. So it’s piecing together that kind of thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But somehow he was painting amidst all this.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: I know. That’s the incredible thing. In fact there’s a wonderful description of Caravaggio written by a Flemish painter who says, There is this amazing artist called Caravaggio, you wouldn’t believe it. He paints these huge, amazing, fantastic, wonderful pictures, but he does it in two weeks flat, and then he’s off for a month with his friends, with his sword by his side, drinking, gambling, fighting. His art is made of light and dark. But he’s a made of light and dark, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: So now come to the work itself, because that is what is known. What is it the essential character of it that you wanted to bring out.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: That’s the paradox of it. His work has been infected by his reputation, so people see him as a wild man, almost like as a wild man of art. So they focus — his art is very dramatic — but people just focus on the drama. What they’ve missed, I feel, is the intelligence and the beauty and the subtlety of it. There is a great, great painting of the conversion of Saul, St. Paul. As one of Caravaggio’s critics said, he’s removed the action from the story altogether; he’s turned it into a drama of light and dark, Saul, at the moment of his conversion, to the way of Christ. It’s permeated by this divine light. Caravaggio has brilliantly, subtlety, placed him in an environment that reminds you of the manger, the Nativity. That animal, which is his horse, in fact, in the story, but it makes you think of the Nativity. So there is Saul lying on the ground like the baby Jesus in the manger, but at the same time he’s also like Christ on the cross, because his arms are out spread. So it’s as if in his mind at the moment of his conversion, he’s living through the whole life of Christ, from the beginning, Christ as baby to the end, Christ on the cross. So, yes, it’s dramatic. Yes, it’s immediate and yet it’s also beautifully poetic and humane. It’s a picture designed to bring poor people into the church. That’s Caravaggio’s great mission. He’s a painter for the poor.

JEFFREY BROWN: A painter for the poor, and of the poor I gather, right?

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: That’s right. There is a kind of argument going on at this time: Do we use art to impress people with the fact that the church is mighty and they are small? Or do we use art as a form of social control as well as a form of religious awe-inspiring machinery? Or do we use art to remind everybody that no matter how rich you are, if you are too rich, you aren’t going to have light through the eye of a needle. And Caravaggio is on that side of the argument. He’s as it were on the left wing side of the argument.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to look at one more. A very dramatic and famous one, right? David with the head of Goliath.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: He gave this picture, we know, because it’s in the Borghese Gallery in Italy. Caravaggio kills the guy on the tennis court, has to run away. Bando capitale is issued. Bando capitale, that means that bring me the body of Caravaggio, but if you can’t get the body, bring me the head, the head will be enough. That is issued by Scipione Borghese. Within a month of that being issued, Caravaggio is up in the hills…. He’s run away and he sends this picture to Scipione Borghese.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here is the head.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: Nominally it’s David, which is Cecco, Caravaggio’s painting boy and assistant, probably his lover. He’s modeling for Goliath, and he holds this head, this screaming head of Goliath, but it’s Caravaggio’s head. The picture is a plea bargain. He’s saying to Scipione Borghese, who loves art, and who loves Caravaggio’s art, here is my head in painting, but let me keep my head in real life.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’ll keep painting for you but let me go on.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: Yeah, and that is eventually the deal that will enable Caravaggio to try to return to Rome, is indeed a result of this painting. It’s a deal whereby he’s going to back to Rome with a pardon, but Scipione Borghese wants all of his pictures. Doesn’t work about, but…

JEFFREY BROWN: Is he, finally, because of all the drama and the mystery, still, and the work, is he more than others perhaps inevitably, I don’t know, shaped by the times that look at him?

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: Well, I hope, you see, when you say mystery, I would hope that my book actually dispels the mystery. We now know who killed Caravaggio. We now know why —

JEFFREY BROWN: You want to tell us?

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: I want people to read the book! We now know who cut his face off. We now know who’s boat — I mean, I’ve managed to work out, which I couldn’t believe, it sent a shiver down my spine, but I just suddenly realized that the last man who saw Caravaggio alive was the boatman. And when I re-read the account that’s gone down in history I suddenly realized, this is all written in nautical terminology on the basis and documents I worked out. But the only guy that could have asked was the boatman. He’s the only guy in Naples who knew what happened to Caravaggio. The pope is asking, What has happened Caravaggio? They guy in Naples writes back immediately, and they can only write back immediately if you’ve seen someone there who knows what happened and that’s got to be the boatman. His boat that he takes Caravaggio to his death on is called Santa Maria di Porto Salvo. The boat is called St. Mary of the Safe Harbor, and Caravaggio dies tragically in this very unsafe harbor. So, as I say, you just can’t make it up.

JEFFREY BROWN: It goes on and on.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: It goes on. You can’t make it up.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.”
Andrew Graham-Dixon, nice to talk to you.

ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: It’s been a great pleasure. Thanks for having me on the show.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thanks. And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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