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Book Forum: Art   |    
Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image ? M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio
RICHARD D. CHESSICK, M.D., PH.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:2066-2068. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.12.2066
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Edited by Franco Mormando, S.J. Boston, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, distributor), 1999, 235 pp., $40.00. • By Peter Robb. New York, Henry Holt and Co., 2000, 560 pp., $32.50.

Saints and Sinners is the catalogue of an exhibit of seventeenth-century Baroque paintings at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art. With diligent searching it is possible to obtain it. (I had to buy one because no review copy was available.) It consists of a small number of color plates, a group of 10 essays written at a very high intellectual level by several authorities, and some interspersed black and white reproductions in addition to the color plates. I do not understand why all the reproductions are not in color; it would have greatly improved the catalogue.

The exhibition explored religious and social functions of art in Italy from about 1580 to 1680. It attempted to raise questions about the content and aesthetics of the paintings in terms of the contemporary concepts of decora, delectara, and movera: to teach, to delight, and to persuade the viewer. The editor writes, "As the exhibition and catalogue essays make clear, these goals, in turn, reflect the new spiritual-cultural exigencies of Catholic society in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545–63)" (p. 14). The paintings themselves reveal a variety of styles and approaches to traditional religious subjects, painted at a time that is called by some "the age of Caravaggio," an era that soon yielded to the "age of Rubens" and then to the "age of Bernini." The effect on viewers depended on whether they were informed or not informed (the "informed" defined in the catalogue as "persons thoroughly conversant with artistic practice and theory—such as artists, connoisseurs, and critics" [p. 31]).

The remarkable painting The Taking of Christ (plate 30) by the Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) is the centerpiece of this exhibit and jumps out from the catalogue with enormous impact. Caravaggio remains one of the most exciting and popular painters of all time. Even his early paintings achieved a revolutionary realism that is earthy and palpable and a dramatically intense form of chiaroscuro called tenebrism, along with an extraordinary, idiosyncratic, personal, and sometimes perverse reworking of traditional iconography and compositions.

The recent history of The Taking of Christ is extraordinary. It was discovered almost by accident. In August 1990, the Jesuits of St. Ignatius House in Dublin asked art conservators from the National Gallery of Ireland to help assess and clean the paintings hanging on their walls. Hidden under disfiguring yellow varnish and centuries-long accumulation of dark grimy soot was this Caravaggio masterpiece, which had been hanging in their dining room for 60 years. Fortunately, one of the conservators was an expert on Baroque art and immediately recognized that a masterpiece might well be at hand. Further observation provided documentation beyond doubt.

Caravaggio painted himself into the picture as a kind of puzzled, unsure individual. The expression on the face of Judas is one of the most profound psychological studies in the whole history of painting. An extraordinary feature of the picture is the placement of the arm of one of the Roman soldiers there to arrest Christ. Clad in highly polished and almost mirror-like armor, the arm is placed in the center of the canvas. What Caravaggio meant by this is not clear, and theories abound.

What is clear is that we have no direct knowledge of Caravaggio’s spiritual life. On the contrary, we have a voluminous police record with a wealth of evidence testifying to his unruly behavior and reckless disregard for human life, including committing a murder, which led to his sudden departure from Rome in 1606.

The dramatic intensity of a number of Caravaggio’s paintings depends not on a divine aura but on the psychological interaction of the figures in the painting. This, writes John Varriano in the catalogue, reflects "the epistemological shift from faith to reason that occurred throughout Europe at the time.…Caravaggio’s predisposition to naturalism, already evident in his earliest genre paintings, can only have drawn him to more secular ways of thinking about the spiritual" (p. 196). This secularity is illustrated by his use of tenebrism, a light that dramatizes and highlights the most important aspects of the narrative while indirectly alluding to the presence of the divine. Varriano also tells us that "Caravaggio…was the first artist to exploit symbolic light to such an extent in narrative painting" (p. 200).

The only signature to appear in Caravaggio’s art is written in blood that spills from the neck of St. John the Baptist in the 1608 painting, The Beheading of the Baptist. Caravaggio often painted disguised portraits of himself, however, especially in his early pieces. Usually he appears as an outsider, possibly on the verge of a spiritual transformation but gazing on more with curiosity than with comprehension. Varriano explains, "Where the hermeneutical conflict lies is in our uncertainty about the purposes that this art was able, or was intended, to serve.…Caravaggio’s paintings entered their own ‘dark night of the soul,’ becoming murky mirrors for both his and our own spiritual reflections" (p. 203).

Let us look in more detail at this person whom Stendhal called "a great painter but a wicked man." There have been 16 books and seven exhibits within the last 2 years on Caravaggio, as well as two plays, half a dozen novels, and a film. One of the books is M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, by Peter Robb. It would not be out of line to characterize this genius as having borderline personality disorder. Carravaggio was a dangerous person who associated with women of ill repute and painted pictures of male beauties. He was easily enraged, obsessed with honor, and engaged in many brutal fights, including the murder of at least one man. He was nearly killed several times himself and was badly disfigured in an attack shortly before his death at the age of 38.

In every possible way, Caravaggio is of great interest to psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and anyone else studying the relationship between emotional illness and creativity (1). He was always ready to argue or fight and impossible to get along with. Like many patients with borderline personality disorder, Caravaggio was well able to grasp the interior psychic life of others, but, unlike most patients with personality disorders, he had the genius to portray it in painting. There is no space in a brief review to discuss his small output of about 60 paintings, many of which are great masterpieces.

Although it cannot be called the definitive biography of Caravaggio, an honor that probably belongs to Helen Langdon’s volume (2) (not made available for review purposes), Robb’s popular biography has the narrative propulsion of a novel. It received a great mixture of reviews, from those who detested it to those who found it illuminating and valuable. It probably should be read more or less as a novel, since Robb has been misled by the errors contained in a monograph published in 1994 by the Italian scholar Ricardo Bassani and the art historian Flora Bellini, a lurid biography called Caravaggio the Murderer. An Australian author residing in England, Robb often uses language that is found more in novels than in biographies. In addition to almost every obscene word known to man and a scattering of British slang, there is a disconcerting peculiar distribution of italicized words in the book that made no sense to me.

Nobody knows how Caravaggio died; Robb offers a rather persuasive, imaginative tale of an ambush on a lonely beach. He also seems obsessed with the possibility that Caravaggio was gay, repeatedly suggesting it. Although Langdon’s work (2) is more scholarly, Robb effectively catches the atmosphere of Rome and the personality of the swaggering, brawling, and dangerous Caravaggio as he makes his way through an era during which Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600.

M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio makes a great holiday read: a mixture of biography, novelistic drama, and manual of art history, based on the very slim information available on Caravaggio and his life. Unfortunately, it contains few reproductions in color plates. This is especially disconcerting because Robb spends a lot of time discussing many of Caravaggio’s paintings in great detail.

Caravaggio was a street thug, both a painter and a fighter, whose motto was "without hope or fear." His life began in a kind of double setting. One was rural, familiar, and pious—the village of Caravaggio (after whom the painter is named)—and the other was "a busy Milan full of religious zealotry and business men and turbulent Spanish soldiery" (p. 21). His childhood included "a long epidemic of the plague…and the overnight disappearance from his life of father, grandfather, and uncle when he was barely six years old" (p. 21).

Caravaggio’s life was one of "radical breaks and sudden unexplained departures" (p. 101), and it was clear that this turbulent, violent, and brutal existence was created by Caravaggio himself: "The train of successes, contingencies and disasters, the powerful friendships and poisonous enmities would all be precipitated by M’s powerful sense of self, his steely will to be his own man, create his own life and project his own vision of the world" (pp. 101–102).

Readers of this unusual book are advised to have at hand a volume or two of reproductions of most of Caravaggio’s paintings (3, 4). Caravaggio’s work runs against everything that was characteristic of Italian Renaissance painting because of the "living presence of his human figures" (p. 106) and its emphasis on violent action. He was an enormously resilient painter who "was able to rethink his art in the process of creating it—resolving the imaginative dilemmas with a wholly new conception of the subject" (p. 183). As Robb’s book becomes more speculative, he argues that if Caravaggio’s feelings had been for women, he would not have been able to treat his erotic feelings in art with such a freedom, but that "boys were a window of opportunity" (p. 187).

There is an excellent discussion (pp. 209–211) of the painting The Taking of Christ, the centerpiece of Saints and Sinners. Robb then explains that with the painting The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew in 1600, Caravaggio threw over the problem of perspectival painting

for images of an hallucinatory vividness—hallucinatory because they were looming at you out of the picture plane instead of receding behind it, not caught in a grid of perspectival lines but swimming at you in all the unnerving clarity of their strong relief out of the murky dark, and because you weren’t sure where you stood in relation to them, so that everything was unsettled, mobile. (pp. 276–277)

For a book that contains so much obscene language, it is remarkable that M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio also contains cogent aesthetic observations such as the one just quoted, a strange juxtaposition perhaps somewhat akin to the personality of Caravaggio himself. Caravaggio’s work asks more and more of the viewer, "forcing you to peer into the gathering darkness to make out the objects of your visual pleasure. More and more, you were having to create those objects for yourself" (p. 281). Just as on canvas Caravaggio showed "an ever more intense and nuanced awareness of physical presence, and absorbing empathy with other people’s ways of being in the world," at the same time his "street fighting had to be a release from the ever less bearable tensions involved in the painting—the higher pitch of violence coincided roughly with his work’s new depth" (p. 299). But as Caravaggio developed, he became subject to "movements and activities he was less and less the master of,…a sense of hidden forces prompting, directing, leading on.…Some terrible new events in his life would be lit by sudden flashes of light and followed by patches of darkness" (pp. 392–393). He ended as the most famous painter in Italy, who at the same time was being hunted down like a dog with a price on his head.

Chessick R: Emotional Illness and Creativity. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999
 
Langdon H: Caravaggio: A Life. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999
 
Kitson M: The Complete Paintings of Caravaggio. New York, Penguin, 1985
 
Moir A: Caravaggio. New York, Harry M Abrams, 1989
 
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References

Chessick R: Emotional Illness and Creativity. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999
 
Langdon H: Caravaggio: A Life. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999
 
Kitson M: The Complete Paintings of Caravaggio. New York, Penguin, 1985
 
Moir A: Caravaggio. New York, Harry M Abrams, 1989
 
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