Caravaggio Portrayed in New Bios: Bloody Brawls, Food Fight
(Book Reviews. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg
News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Edward Nawotka
Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) -- One afternoon in 1604 Caravaggio
flung a plate of fried artichokes in a waiter's face and
threatened him with his sword. The fellow couldn't tell the
painter which were prepared in oil and which in butter.
(Caravaggio had ordered four of each.)
Though a genius when it came to portraying the intensity of
faith in dramatic light, Caravaggio (1571-1610) could have
benefited from anger management classes.
Judging by two new books on the artist, ``The Lost
Painting'' (Random House, 261 pages, $24.95) by Jonathan Harr
and ``Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles'' by Francine Prose
(HarperCollins, 149 pages, $21.95), he spent a lot of time
trolling the streets of Rome looking for a fight or a girl for
The painter was in and out of jail. Both books relate how
Caravaggio supposedly slashed a rival in the Piazza Navona for
chatting up his favorite prostitute and model.
Not long after, rather than pay off a debt on a lost sports
bet, Caravaggio picked a fight with the winner and stabbed him
to death. That murder forced Caravaggio to flee Rome for good
and sent him into exile in Naples, Sicily and Malta. He died of
malaria while on his way back to Rome to receive a pardon from
Other than his police record and his art, little is known
about Caravaggio -- in particular what happened to his
paintings. A number are missing and presumed destroyed.
``Fewer than eighty authentic Caravaggios -- some would
argue no more than sixty -- are known to exist,'' writes Harr,
who chronicles the search for one masterpiece, ``The Taking of
Harr's story begins when Francesca Cappelletti, a 24-year-
old Italian student, discovers what may be an entry in a
centuries-old ledger for the sale of the painting. The paper
trail leads her from Italy to London to Scotland, and eventually
to Dublin, where by strange coincidence the painting is
discovered in a Jesuit dormitory by an Italian art restorer
working for the National Gallery of Art.
Harr won the 1995 National Book Critics Circle for ``A
Civil Action,'' which detailed the fight between the citizens of
Woburn, Massachusetts, and a pair of corporations over
groundwater contamination. He was able to breathe life into a
lawsuit, thanks largely to the charismatic attorney at the heart
of the story (played by John Travolta in the 1998 movie).
Here, Harr struggles to keep the action flowing. Although
we learn a great deal about the subtleties of combing through
archives in dusty basements of ancient palazzos, such academic
research is almost impossible to dramatize. Instead, he relies
on the personal life of Caravaggio and of the contemporary
characters to add zip.
Though Prose is the author of 13 novels, she paints a more
methodical portrait in her book, which is part of the ongoing
``Eminent Lives'' series of short biographies published by
HarperCollins and Atlas Books.
Believing that most everything about Caravaggio ``can be
inferred from what he painted'' Prose focuses on creating a
chronology of the paintings and tying the events of his life to
the best-known works including ``The Gypsy Fortune-Teller,''
``The Crucifixion of Saint Peter'' and ``David with the Head of
Goliath.'' In that vein, she describes ``Sick Bacchus'' as a
portrait of the painter looking ``diseased, hollow-eyed,
bilious'' and dates it to a time when Caravaggio was
hospitalized after being kicked by a horse -- or what Prose
calls ``the era's equivalent of running into a door.'' He was
probably suffering from injuries sustained in a fight.
Never mind their different approaches, both authors rely on
some of the same source material and enjoyed residencies at the
American Academy, which is housed in a magnificent villa on the
Janiculum, Rome's highest hill. Prose quotes extensively from
other biographers and relies particularly on Helen Langdon's
authoritative 2000 biography ``Caravaggio: A Life.'' Read
together, Harr tells a more colorful story and Prose is better
at interpreting the art.