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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Incomplete but compelling portrait of "a preternaturally modern artist", 2 Oct 2007
By 
Robert Morris (Dallas, Texas) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles (Eminent Lives) (Hardcover)
This is one of several volumes in the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. Each offers a concise rather than comprehensive, much less definitive biography. However, just as Al Hirschfeld's illustrations of various celebrities capture their defining physical characteristics, the authors of books in this series focus on the defining influences and developments during the lives and careers of their respective subjects. In this instance, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Because I think so highly of this volume, I think it would be most helpful to others who have not as yet read it to provide a few brief excerpts. Hopefully this will encourage them to obtain a copy.

According to Francine Prose, "Caravaggio speaks to us directly, without any need of translation from a distant century or a foreign culture. His voice is eloquent and strong, resonant with emotion. We feel we understand him, though we can never paraphrase what we intuit he is saying....Yet only lately, since we have learned to accept the idea of art without conventional beauty, art that is rough and strange and disturbing, can we tolerate art that is this [in italics] honest [end italics] about the nature of suffering and divinity, about the way in which a painting is created, about human nature, and the nature of art itself."

How modern he now seems centuries later. Consider these remarks: "The life of Caravaggio is the closest thing we have to the myth of the sinner-saint, the street tough, the martyr, the killer, the genius -- the myth that, in these jaded and secular times, we are almost ashamed to admit that we still long for, and need." As I read that passage and as Prose then examined more closely Caravaggio's personal life, I saw similarities between him and the character Tony Montana as portrayed by Al Pacino in Brian De Palma's film Scarface (1983). For example: "Belligerent, contemptuous, competitive, Michelangelo Merisi would soon be drawn into the whirlwind of insults, attacks, retaliations, and vendettas that passed for nightlife in the Campo Marzio, the raffish neighborhood in which many artists, including Caravaggio, lived." Indeed, he was only thirty-nine when he died in the summer of 1610 and had been a fugitive in exile for the last four years of his life.

In an article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal (October 15 and 16, 2005), Prose discusses "The Martyrdom of St. Peter" (1600), noting that "Caravaggio not only rejected the idealizations of his contemporaries but set his religious scenarios in dark rooms and alleys much like the ones in which ordinary Romans lived, and cast these sacred dramas with local prostitutes and laborers costumed as holy virgins and martyrs....The key to the painting's power lies in the horrifying naturalism of the way in which Peter holds his body, resting awkwardly on one elbow, and his head, lifted slightly off the cross." I include this quotation to indicate that Prose is quite capable of discussing in detail each of Caravaggio's major paintings but that is not her purpose in this brief biography. (A representative selection of those works -- reproduced in full-color -- is provided within the volume, including "The Martyrdom of St. Peter.") Caravaggio seems to have been most comfortable in "dark rooms and alleys" while living and expressing what Prose characterizes as an "empathy for the aged saint [in this instance Peter] and, by extension, for all of suffering humanity." Caravaggio's own sufferings were extensive, with most of his wounds self-inflicted.

Another brief excerpt with which Prose concludes: "Having spent his brief, tragic, and turbulent life painting miracles, [Caravaggio] managed, in the process, to create one -- the miracle of art, the miracle of the way in which some paint, a few brushes, a square of canvas, together with that most essential ingredient, genius, can produce something stronger than time and age, more powerful than death."

Obviously, this is not a definitive biography nor did Prose intend it to be. Rather, her purpose is to share what little information there is about Caravaggio's life and career, doing so within the social and cultural context of late-16th and early-17th century Italy. Her portrait is compared with Caravaggio's painting "David with the Head of Goliath." Who was the model for the decapitated giant? The artist himself. "It is, we find ourselves thinking, the face of a man so reckless and desperate that, just a short time later, he would imagine that it was possible to travel in the heat of July, through the miles of swampland" in pursuit of the boat that sailed without him. His "lonely and miserable death" at an early age seems inevitable and so sadly appropriate.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Incomplete but compelling portrait of "a preternaturally, 29 Dec 2005
By 
Robert Morris (Dallas, Texas) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This is one of several volumes in the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. Each offers a concise rather than comprehensive, much less definitive biography. However, just as Al Hirschfeld's illustrations of various celebrities capture their defining physical characteristics, the authors of books in this series focus on the defining influences and developments during the lives and careers of their respective subjects. In this instance, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Because I think so highly of this volume, I think it would be most helpful to others who have not as yet read it to provide a few brief excerpts. Hopefully this will encourage them to obtain a copy.
According to Francine Prose, "Caravaggio speaks to us directly, without any need of translation from a distant century or a foreign culture. His voice is eloquent and strong, resonant with emotion. We feel we understand him, though we can never paraphrase what we intuit he is saying....Yet only lately, since we have learned to accept the idea of art without conventional beauty, art that is rough and strange and disturbing, can we tolerate art that is this [in italics] honest [end italics] about the nature of suffering and divinity, about the way in which a painting is created, about human nature, and the nature of art itself."
How modern he now seems centuries later. Consider these remarks: "The life of Caravaggio is the closest thing we have to the myth of the sinner-saint, the street tough, the martyr, the killer, the genius -- the myth that, in these jaded and secular times, we are almost ashamed to admit that we still long for, and need." As I read that passage and as Prose then examined more closely Caravaggio's personal life, I saw similarities between him and the character Tony Montana as portrayed by Al Pacino in Brian De Palma's film Scarface (1983). For example: "Belligerent, contemptuous, competitive, Michelangelo Merisi would soon be drawn into the whirlwind of insults, attacks, retaliations, and vendettas that passed for nightlife in the Campo Marzio, the raffish neighborhood in which many artists, including Caravaggio, lived." Indeed, he was only thirty-nine when he died in the summer of 1610 and had been a fugitive in exile for the last four years of his life.
In an article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal (October 15 and 16, 2005), Prose discusses "The Martyrdom of St. Peter" (1600), noting that "Caravaggio not only rejected the idealizations of his contemporaries but set his religious scenarios in dark rooms and alleys much like the ones in which ordinary Romans lived, and cast these sacred dramas with local prostitutes and laborers costumed as holy virgins and martyrs....The key to the painting's power lies in the horrifying naturalism of the way in which Peter holds his body, resting awkwardly on one elbow, and his head, lifted slightly off the cross." I include this quotation to indicate that Prose is quite capable of discussing in detail each of Caravaggio's major paintings but that is not her purpose in this brief biography. (A representative selection of those works -- reproduced in full-color -- is provided within the volume, including "The Martyrdom of St. Peter.") Caravaggio seems to have been most comfortable in "dark rooms and alleys" while living and expressing what Prose characterizes as an "empathy for the aged saint [in this instance Peter] and, by extension, for all of suffering humanity." Caravaggio's own sufferings were extensive, with most of his wounds self-inflicted.
Another brief excerpt with which Prose concludes: "Having spent his brief, tragic, and turbulent life painting miracles, [Caravaggio] managed, in the process, to create one -- the miracle of art, the miracle of the way in which some paint, a few brushes, a square of canvas, together with that most essential ingredient, genius, can produce something stronger than time and age, more powerful than death."
Obviously, this is not a definitive biography nor did Prose intend it to be. Rather, her purpose is to share what little information there is about Caravaggio's life and career, doing so within the social and cultural context of late-16th and early-17th century Italy. Her portrait is compared with Caravaggio's painting "David with the Head of Goliath." Who was the model for the decapitated giant? The artist himself. "It is, we find ourselves thinking, the face of a man so reckless and desperate that, just a short time later, he would imagine that it was possible to travel in the heat of July, through the miles of swampland" in pursuit of the boat that sailed without him. His "lonely and miserable death" at an early age seems inevitable and so sadly appropriate.
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4.0 out of 5 stars His departures rarely featured fond farewells and warm invitations to return, 7 Jun 2013
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
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Some of the most astonishing paintings ever produced came from the brush of Michelangelo Merisi, who later become known as Caravaggio, after the town where he was born in 1571. He had a fairly good education, but as soon as he settled upon becoming a painter it was obvious that he had found his metier. Not for him idealised versions of beauty, he painted what he saw, and it was a revelation. No one before him had used chiascuro (roughly meaning shadows, darkness) to frame their work, though later painters often tried to make their works Caravaggioesque, something that he found deeply objectionable especially as his fame grew.

He found powerful patrons and earned good money, but there was another side to him. Caravaggio was a street brawler, he liked to fight, with or without his sword, and this sometimes got him into trouble. It is often difficult to reconcile his genius as an artist, with other aspects of his psychological make-up. The streets were ruled by men. Women did not venture far without fathers or other protectors but there were boys, a resort he used in common with many others, as well as prostitutes. Today he is often thought of as a Gay icon, but his sexuality was more fluid, according to Francine Prose, and other commentators.

What moves me about his work is its complete absence of pretence. Its realism about the quality of life (often very poor), and the compassion he brings to some of the greatest works of art in the canon. Take a painting such as The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, the saint caught in the moment just before his death as his killer grasps his wrist, prior to plunging a wicked looking steel rapier into his body. Those arrayed in this painting are all flinching aside, their eyes wide with shock; a young boy who has been standing behind him twists his body away from the scene, his mouth open - calling out in dismay as Matthew lies on the ground, one wrist captured, the other flung aside. Deep shadows surround the scene but the killer's body, strong, hefty, is poised to kill.

The most moving painting of all is, in my opinion, Caravaggio's David With the Head of Goliath, precisely because the head is Caravaggio's own, held in David's hand by the hair. He often put himself in his paintings, but never before with more devastating pathos. It was painted towards the end of his life, while he was on the run for murder. Whatever he was doing, Caravaggio never stopped painting. It was many years, not until the 1950s, that the art world woke up to his worth. All that time he lay in the shadows himself, uncelebrated, unappreciated. Now we see, with modern eyes, how, in his middle and later period of paintings, genius ran through every stroke of his brush.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Master psychologist, brawler, genius - Caravaggio brought to life, 17 July 2010
By 
Jeremy Bevan (West Midlands, UK) - See all my reviews
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Francine Prose has done a very good job, in just over a hundred and fifty pages, of bringing the turbulent genius of Michelangelo Merasi, otherwise known as Caravaggio, vividly to life. Born in 1571, the painter's early subjects are the gamblers, thieves and fortune-tellers `painted from life' in Rome's Campo Marzio where he lived - and frequently brawled. But as his own experience of life in the brutal and anarchic Eternal City of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries darkens, so too do his paintings (he'd seen enough dead bodies - and quite possibly despatched the odd one himself - to be able to portray them very realistically). Prose does an excellent job of bringing some of these pictures to life, and recreating for the reader something of the shock that not infrequently attended their unveiling. (Sometimes, it was Caravaggio who reacted badly, as when he slashed to ribbons with his own dagger `The Resurrection of Lazarus' he had painted for the unappreciative citizens of Messina.)

Alongside the (at least by comparison) rather twee offerings of more fashionable contemporaries like Guido Reni, Caravaggio's works were disturbingly graphic, almost photographic in their depiction of `warts and all' reality - witness for example his `Doubting Thomas'. He had a gift, too, for conveying the psychology of intense spiritual drama: his `Conversion of St. Paul' portrays something `inward and brutal', argues Prose, while the realisation that they are eating with the risen Christ nearly `rockets' Jesus' fellow-diners from their seats in the painter's first rendering of `The Supper at Emmaus'. Prose sees a development in his style towards depicting ever more intensely the sense of isolation of his subjects, seemingly alone even when portrayed as part of a group (witness the mourners in his `Death of the Virgin').

In summary, then, a fine, vivid and readable portrayal of the man and his art. One criticism, though: there are only eight colour plates, depicting eleven paintings. Given the detailed description, and praise, Prose lavishes on `The Entombment of Christ' and `The Burial of St. Lucy' with its vast expanse of emptiness occupying the top two-thirds of the canvas, they, too (and several others) could have been depicted in colour. Still, the fact that Prose's well-crafted little book sent me to the Web Gallery of Art to view them shows what a good job's she's done of whetting this particular reader's appetite.
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Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles (Eminent Lives)
Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles (Eminent Lives) by Francine Prose (Hardcover - 5 Mar 2007)
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