Thursday, June 7, 2007

Caravaggio and the dangers of the life/art nexus

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1606

Today I just began reading Peter Robb's 1998 book, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. I read enough of the reviews to know that Robb's work's authority isn't exactly unquestioned; and, because of my near-ignorance of Caravaggio, I know to be a bit cautious in assessing it. But that's what bibliographies are for, and this book's is 15 pages long. In the meantime, I'm so far enjoying Robb's almost Raymond Chandler-like prose style; it seems appropriate, given its subject, and it has me wanting to read more than I have time for today.

In any event, as I go along in it I thought I would share from time to time passages from it that to my mind are especially provocative, for good or ill, and solicit commentary from those so inclined. I'll start today with his brief discussion of the mis-dating of the David and Goliath you see here. It had been customary to think of this painting as being from 1610, one of his very last, its poignancy full of the painter's self-knowledge that his life was approaching the end. But, Robb writes,

[t]hat David was painted four years earlier.

The wrong dating of this bleak and powerful painting matters a lot to anyone trying to make sense of M's life. The error's doubly false. It shifts the emotional gravity from M's tragic year of 1606, when he painted this David--in the time of lucid desperation that followed the killing in Rome. And the painting's own iconic power lends a falsely self-aware and tragic finality to his last months, or even years--as if M by 1610 were resigned and knowingly going to meet his death. It's a misreading that spills over into his other last paintings and throws everything awry. The four year switch is false about his art and false about his life at once. It feeds back into the old story. The old myth. (11)
The dating of this painting seems emblematic of how the writing of Caravaggio's story has gone over the years. We don't have much in the way of written records, and much of that--"hardly a word untainted by fear, ignorance, malice or self-interest," Robb says in his "Note to Readers"--is, well, less than completely objective. So there are the paintings. And just as it was once common to read Shakespeare's plays for clues about his life, so also have people done with Caravaggio's work. Robb will be no different in that regard. But he argues that his book is a hypothesis, to be proven or disproven as we learn more.

Let's find out what he has to say, shall we?

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