Thursday, September 6, 2012

Book eight: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Maybe I’m stuck in a rut reading books about troubled historical figures who struggled with (or at least may have struggled with) homosexuality.  Because immediately after reading about Alan Turing’s troubled gay life, I moved on to Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Let me start by saying this is an epic biography of an artist that has always intrigued me.  Graham-Dixon’s attention to historical detail and careful annotation is mind blowing.  It’s obvious this is an author who is intent on getting it right. And while my knowledge of art is far superior to my knowledge of mathematics (which made reading the book about Turing a challenge), it's still easy to feel uninformed up against Graham-Dixon's brilliance.

Even with the immense effort taken to document the details of Caravaggio’s life, this book just wasn’t all that interesting. But it may not be Graham-Dixon’s fault.  It might be that no one knows that much about Caravaggio.  Sure we know he got into a lot of trouble brawling with other cantankerous artists.  Yes we know he probably killed a man.  Of course we know he wasn’t the best at managing his business affairs.  We even know that his relationship with the Catholic Church was something akin to bipolar.  But generally, I pretty much knew most of what is covered in this book, certainly not to the detail provided here, but nonetheless I didn’t feel like the book really introduced me to anything new.  And that’s OK, except Graham-Dixon seems to make up for this fact by adding lots of filler.

Most of the book features the lives of people who lived at the same time and in the same places as Caravaggio.  And a lot of their lives aren’t as interesting as I’d like them to be.  Graham-Dixon suggests that many of these relationships are the reason Caravaggio may have acted the way he did later in life.  I frequently found those assertions to be a stretch.

Which brings me to the one assertion that other art historians have suggested, but that Graham-Dixon suggests is a stretch; Caravaggio was gay (or at least had meaningful homosexual relationships).   Graham-Dixon strikes me as an old white guy who probably is a little uncomfortable with the whole gay thing.  He goes out of his way to confirm that while we have historical documents that confirm Caravaggio had sex with women, there are no historical documents confirming Caravaggio had sex with men.  But in a book that jumps to several historical conclusions (or at least theories), Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane chooses to gloss over a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that the artist and his assistant may have been one of art history’s great gay couples.  And wouldn’t that make a great book.

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