“A wild man of art”: Caravaggio biographer talks about new book (video embedded)

I was looking for something else at the PBS website when I ran across this fascinating interview by Jeffrey Brown of Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.

I suppose if you’re reading this, you already know something about Caravaggio’s luminous, breathtaking paintings. Seeing some of his most famous paintings in person was one of the highlights of a solo trip to Europe I took in 1993.

Caravaggio left us more than great artwork — his bizarre, violent life has left many legends and questions. Apparently, Graham-Dixon’s book answers some of those.

A passage from the interview:

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.

Well worth a listen:

Watch Conversation: ‘Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane’ on PBS. See more from PBS NEWSHOUR.