Another severed head, Caravaggio?

Why the bad boy of the Baroque still kicks up controversy.

Michelangelo da Caravaggio was a whore-mongering cutthroat with a rap sheet as long as your arm. Gypsies, tramps, and thieves—mostly living, sometimes dead—modeled for his religious and secular paintings. Morbidly obsessed with severed heads, he painted many depicting his own face.

Caravaggio: A Passionate Life

by Desmond Seward (Morrow, $25)

Caravaggio’s Secrets

by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

(MIT Press, $25)

This Baroque bad boy also produced some of the most compelling paintings in the history of art. His dramatic chiaro-scuro lighting and dynamic compositions broke forcefully away from the balanced, static structure of High Renaissance art. He shocked the clergy with his religious paintings, which showed the grimy feet and weary faces of everyday people. Even his Greek gods had dirt under their nails. Four hundred years later, this artistic genius and uncommon criminal is still controversial.

Seward’s slim work reads as a docu-drama; he convincingly sets the stage on which Caravaggio’s tumultuous, violent life played itself out. When he describes the plague in Milan, Rome under Pope Clement, and the Knights of Malta, his colorful writing makes the subjects come alive. At his best, Seward powerfully relates larger historical forces to everyday life.

But the drama’s main character is curiously absent, moving through the book more like a ghost than flesh and blood. Seward fails in his attempt to make Caravaggio visible through his art. Seward promises to “use [Caravaggio’s] pictures to peer into his mind,” yet he devotes surprisingly little text to the content of the paintings, especially those with secular themes. Noting that The Fortune Teller shows Caravaggio’s commitment to working from nature, he describes the work in one line: “a gypsy girl stealing a ring from a young man’s finger while she tells his fortune.”

Seward analyzes Caravaggio’s religious work more closely , but even then his evidence is inconclusive. In David with the Head of Goliath, a young David holds up Goliath’s head. Seward suggests that both faces are self-portraits. The middle-aged Caravaggio as Goliath is “the pure, intelligent soul released from the battered, sinful body . . . redeemed by [the young Caravaggio as] Christ.” A few pages later Seward concludes the book by characterizing Caravaggio as “primarily a religious artist . . . a man who when painting became a mystic. David and Goliath [showed] his conviction that, ultimately, he would triumph over sin and death. . . . [H]is own severed head, grasped by his redeemed self, was a declaration of hope.”

Although Caravaggio scholars agree that Goliath’s face is Caravaggio’s, there is no such consensus that David was a self-portrait. Seward’s interpretation is based on alchemical symbols, though he cites no hard evidence that Caravaggio’s paintings used such symbols. More importantly, Seward’s account of the artist’s life is not easily reconciled with his picture of Caravaggio as a mystic. Seward is no doubt correct in his assessment of the religious fervor of the times, but the halo he places on Caravaggio hangs somewhat awkwardly. How does Seward account for behavior that may have seemed blasphemous—like the allegation that Caravaggio’s model for Mary, in Death of the Virgin, was the bloated corpse of a drowned whore?

Absent such basic explanations, it is difficult to reconcile mysticism with the picture one can read between Seward’s lines of a man who, when not painting, had a psychological profile like Shane McGowan on a bad bender. As a painter, Caravaggio may simply have been a realistic artist who understood his market and gave his patrons the religious subjects they wanted. He could still achieve his own artistic and personal ends through choice of models, chiaroscuro lighting, and naturalistic detail.

If Seward is peering into Caravaggio’s mind, he sees what he wants to see—a religious artist. Another recent work, Caravaggio’s Secrets, by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, suggests a greater range of interpretations than Seward’s. Focusing on concrete details of the paintings, the authors blend psychoanalysis with art criticism to offer more provocative arguments about the relation of Caravaggio’s paintings to his character. They suggest, for instance, that the ambiguous poses of Caravaggio’s subjects reflect a tension between “erotic invitation and self-concealing retreat.”

Such tensions and ambiguities still swirl around Caravaggio. To dispel them, a lesson can be drawn from his chiaroscuro technique: By illuminating one element of a picture, other elements are thrown back into blackness. Similarly, too bright a light on one aspect of Caravaggio, such as religion, only highlights the contradictions between his art and his life.

Resolving those contradictions is

a puzzle of figure and field. Seward’s historical perspective is one source of

illumination on Caravaggio’s enigmatic character. Multiple sources—including psychology and art criticism—are necessary to illuminate that darkness. After 400 years, the ambiguous Caravaggio still awaits our arrival.

Kristian Kofoed writes on the visual arts for Seattle Weekly.