M is a dazzling book which I imagine will spawn as many imitators as Longitude. It fits into no known genre: it is written with all the bravura of a novel but is not fiction; it is based on fact, but the facts are too sparse or too questionable to constitute a full biography. No matter. What M does is to introduce a completely new way of looking at paintings in their historical context. Normally historical context means some huge overview (‘the origins of the Renaissance’, ‘the death of Mannerism’), but M evokes the day-by-day context of a painter’s working career.
The painter is Caravaggio – Robb calls him ‘M’ because his real name was Michelangelo Merisi or Marisi. Caravaggio was the name of the small town east of Milan where his family lived. He was born in 1571 and died in 1610. These are almost the only certain facts known about him, and even these have only recently been established. Contemporary records of his life add up to barely a dozen pages: a couple of biographical notes, a handful of mentions in news-sheets and letters, a few law-court depositions. On this slim body of fact – and the paintings – Robb has built a gripping 500-page narrative that makes you feel you have been magic-carpeted into late sixteenth-century Rome.
Carvaggio was an important painter because he was ‘modern’ – he painted from life; he was not bound by any religious or pictorial conventions; his Magdalenes, even his Madonnas, were recognisable local tarts, and he painted them with an emotional urgency that made them feel real, often shocking. He was unusual in that he never drew, but painted straight on the canvas, and his paintings were very dark, as if painted in a cellar, so that all the concentration was on the figures. (Robb makes the valuable point that the modern habit of flooding church paintings with light from a coin-in-the-slot machine is completely wrong: they were meant to be shadowy. Even the artist painting them probably never saw them as starkly as we see them today.)
Perhaps thanks to Derek Jarman’s film about him, Caravaggio has become something of a modern gay icon, a Pasolini-esque bit of rough, wreathed in the glamour of violence. Contemporary accounts certainly suggest that he was mad, bad and dangerous to know. They don’t actually say that he was gay, but it seems a safe assumption, given the loving and lascivious attention with which he paints young boys – for instance, the full-frontal Eros, aged about twelve, in Love the Winner. The Church doesn’t seem to have minded about naked boys; it worried much more about ferrule nudity.
He served his apprenticeship under a Milanese painter, Simone Peterzano, who had studied under Titian. At twenty, he went to Rome and was taken up by Cardinal Del Monte, who secured him his first big public commission – two major canvases, Matthew Called and Matthew Killed, for the Contarelli chapel. These were more realistic than any church paintings before and were greatly admired, but the altarpiece he then painted to go with them, Matthew and the Angel, was rejected by the Church because his Matthew was too grubby and peasantlike. This was to be the pattern with M’s work – his paintings were nearly always admired, especially by other artists, but they were also often rejected by the Church officials who commissioned them on the grounds that they lacked decorum. Of course it was the lack of decorum, the breaking of conventions, that excited other artists.
M had many acolytes but he was dangerous company – ‘wild’ and ‘unstable’ by all accounts, and always getting into fights. In 1603 he was arrested for criminal libel – insulting a fellow artist – and spent a few weeks in prison; soon afterwards he was charged with attacking a waiter; next he was involved in a stone-throwing incident; then he assaulted a lawyer for no reason. His patrons managed to get him off all these charges, but in May 1606 he went too far, and killed a man. He fled to the country estate of his new patrons , the powerful Colonna family, but was sentenced to death in his absence and became a ‘life bandit’ with a price on his head. It meant he could never return to Rome.
The last four years of his life were spent moving between Naples, Malta, Sicily and Messina, and then back to Naples. In Malta he was taken up by the Knights of St John and made a member of their order, which should have been a step towards a papal pardon, but within three months he was cast out of the order as ‘a foul and rotten member’, for a crime so unspeakable it was never recorded. He then went to Messina, but behaved so wildly – slashing his own Lazarus Raised to ribbons – that a contemporary noted: ‘his mind’s cracked up’.
Meanwhile, in Rome, his work had been greatly praised by Rubens, and his former friends and patrons campaigned hard for a papal pardon. There seemed some hope that he would get it – at all events, he was supposedly on his way back to Rome when he died suddenly ‘of a fever’ at Porto Ercole in July 1610. But even his death is mysterious: there is no record of his burial and Robb points out that if he was en route from Naples to Rome, he was miles off course, because Porto Ercole is north of Rome. Robb suggests that he may have been the victim of a plot, possibly on the part of the Knights of Malta, and that the boat carrying him simply dumped him on the coast and sped back to Naples with his paintings.
It is inevitably a murky tale, lit, like Caravaggio’s paintings, with occasional flashes of clarity between deep areas of darkness. Robb warns in his introduction that his work is based on very recent Caravaggio scholarship that is still in flux – the chronology of the paintings has only really been established in the past decade, and some of it is still disputed. Indeed, there have already been complaints in Robb’s native Australia (where M was first published) that some of his facts are questionable. I honestly don’t think this matters. Robb has obviously studied the paintings, immersed himself deeply in the historical background and used his imagination to turn the dry bones of scholarship into the heady narrative of life. M is by no means perfect – there are sentences of toe-curling vulgarity and a rather febrile tone throughout. Nevertheless, this is an important book. There may well be more accurate biographies of Caravaggio in future, but I don’t believe there will ever be such an eye-opening one.