Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Book Review: M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio

M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio

Some books are so masterfully written that you almost don't have to be interested in the subject matter at all to get drawn into the story. I have to admit that despite having an art degree, I hadn't given much more than a passing thought to the artist known as Marisi, Moriggia, Merigi, Michelangelo Merisi, and simply M from Caravaggio. I've seen a couple of his paintings and they are quite stunning, but I didn't know enough about them or about him to feel as fascinated about them as I should've. Now I wish I could go in person and see each one of them, such is the depths to which this book pulls you into M's life and his art.

Part history, part in-depth art analysis, part detective mystery, this book is a just plain fascinating look into the M's world: the Rome and Italy of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the world of the Inquisition, corrupt popes, the Counter-Reformation, the world that ordered Galileo to stand trial for heresy for insisting that the earth rotated around the sun and not vice versa. Into this world comes M, a wild and woolly swordsman who got into frequent squabbles and eventually murdered a rival in the streets of Rome, a lover of nubile young boys, an intellectual and a painter of an extraordinary and often shocking new style. Though many of his paintings were commissioned by the rich and powerful or hung in prominent chapels, others were rejected by the church powers or removed from view before the public ever set eye on them.

The author, Peter Robb, does a wonderful job of drawing us into M's world, of helping us understand how and why his artwork was so powerful in its time, and of sorting through the often scant documents and testimony as to what really happened to M in the various stages of his life. My only complaint is that there's very few plates in this book. As the author takes you into each one of M's paintings in depth, I found it necessary to go check a large-format book out from the library with good quality color plates of each of the paintings being discussed. That really helped me see in detail what the author was describing.

Now I wish I could go back to Italy just to visit each of the chapels and museums that house these works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Like any subject that one learns about in depth, it becomes more fascinating the more you know and understand. It's also funny how it awakens your eye to the particular subject. Since reading this book, I've seen several images of Caravaggio's paintings that wouldn't have stood out to me before. Last night we were watching the National Geographic special on Mecca, and they showed one of M's interpretations of Isaac and Abraham in the video. Before, it would've been just another illustration but now I've spent pages and pages in analysis just of this one painting, so the image is so much more meaningful.

In short, if you have any interest in art, history, or just like a great non-fiction read, pick this book up. Be prepared to become immersed though, it took me quite a few weeks to thoroughly absorb all this book has to offer.

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