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Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  1,253 ratings  ·  121 reviews
For four hundred years Caravaggio's (1571-1610) staggering artistic achievements have thrilled viewers, yet his volatile personal trajectory-the murder of Ranuccio Tomasini, the doubt surrounding Caravaggio's sexuality, the chain of events that began with his imprisonment on Malta and ended with his premature death-has long confounded historians. In a bravura performance, ...more
ebook, 544 pages
Published September 12th 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 2010)
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Medusa, c. 1597

Whatever he set out to paint, he always ended up painting himself.

It's telling stuff that what few documents remain on Caravaggio's life are mostly court testimonies. Caravaggio was a bad boy artist some four centuries before rock stars. He was the sort of tramp who lived in the roughest parts of town, chatted up prostitutes, smashed bowls of food into waiters' faces, and stabbed a man over romantic quarrels.

The Cardsharps, c. 1594

And from this rough existence on the margins of s
(This review originally appeared at the Washington Independent Review of Books)

Being a tortured rock star is tough in any century. Case in point: Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the brilliant, brooding, bad boy of the 16th-century art world, whose rise to fame in his early 20s seemed propelled as much by sheer force of will as it was talent, and whose fall before the age of 40 makes for a spectacularly self-destructive tragedy worthy of Shakespeare — or at least of Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison,
I know it's a cliche, but facts about this artist's life are so few and far between he is very much like his own paintings: emerging briefly, every now and then, from the dark out into daylight.

Details of his early life are particularly sparse - which made (to me at least) the first hundred or so pages of this biography hard going. There's plenty about Milan and Rome, folk art, archbishops and cardinals, but nothing substantial about the man himself. The result is peculiar: like a portrait paint
Wonderful biography! Perhaps 'a life history' is a better word, as Caravaggio remains an obscure person. The only written records available are court records, relating to his almost weekly arrests for insult and violent behaviour. There are some letters reporting on his whereabouts and letters requesting the status of commissions granted to him, but never a letter from Caravaggio himself or people close to him.

It was great to have Graham-Dixon show us Caravaggio's paintings in great detail and
Jennifer (JC-S)
‘Caravaggio’s art is made from darkness and light.’

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, born on 29 September 1571, died on 18 July 1610. In between, he created magnificent paintings and got himself into a lot of trouble with the law. Caravaggio was particularly renowned for his use of chiaroscuro, a technique which uses light and dark to achieve a three dimensional effect. Caravaggio received his early training in Milan where he specialised in still life. Around 1592 he moved to Rome, where he cha
Willy Schuyesmans
Graham-Dixon beschrijft in deze verbluffende en diepgaande biografie van de Italiaanse schilder Caravaggio het veelbewogen leven van deze uitzonderlijke kunstenaar, die zichzelf heeft leren schilderen en misschien wel juist daardoor de schilderkunst heeft heruitgevonden. Tot dan werden schilders geacht een geïdealiseerde versie van het leven op doek te zetten. Caravaggio daarentegen wilde de werkelijkheid tonen, gevat in spaarzaam licht en vooral veel duisternis. Hij gebruikte modellen die hij o ...more
Bryn Donovan
This is a big book and it took me a long time to read, not the least because I had to keep looking up every picture and artist mentioned online and stare at the paintings. The physical version of the book apparently has terrific reproductions, and I regret buying it on Kindle for my iPhone. :)

Graham-Dixon puts Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s art and life in the context of the politics, arts, religion, and culture of his time. I loved his discussions of the paintings, and the religious painti
This is a remarkable book. In the absence of much of a biographical
record, Carvaggio's life and edgy oeuvre have given rise to a
dissonant clamour of gossip, myths, legends, suspicions, fantasies,
and unsubtle interpretations. Graham-Dixon's achievement here is
to turn instead to the surrounding culture and ethos of the place
and time in which Caravaggio lived, and combine these with readings
of the paintings that are acutely sensitive and intelligent to shed
light on the man and his time. The result
Lauren Albert
This book had the common flaws of biographies about people of whom little is known--speculation, filler and over-focus on their works (when they are artists and writers). The book could have been shorter and suffered less from all three. The filler was pages about events that had nothing to do with Caravaggio--I assume that they were meant to establish "milieu" but they were too long. An example is an extended passage from the trial after artist Artemisia Gentileschi's rape.

While I know that a
Absolutely wonderful. What an extraordinary, fierce and brilliantly talented man Carvaggio was. How remarkable that he managed to stay ahead of the many people he outraged as long as he did.
Splendid book about a painter whose life was as wrapped in violence as it has been shrouded by conjecture. Some recent discoveries and archive dredging have filled some gaps and Graham-Dixon does a good job at dissecting through document comparison and research. Still, most of Carvaggio's life remains a mystery.
The main idea of the book is how Carvaggio embraced a vision that became so original and counter to norm that his influence was felt all throughout Europe for centuries to come , from V
Peter Clothier
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio:A Life Sacred and Profane is essential reading for anyone interested in this mercurial late 16th, early 17th century Italian artist, whose brilliant, often disquieting work challenged the conventions of the Mannerist style that preceded him and opened up the path of gritty realism for artists in the centuries that followed. The book creates a more subtle, complex, and persuasively human portrait of a man too often reduced in the past to the caricature of the bad ...more
This is a tremendous book about a tremendous talent. If you look at his work and then at the work of his fellow artists, there is no comparison.
There is a vibrancy, depth and excitement to Caravaggio's work that is lacking in the artists who held on to the tried and true.
Andrew Graham-Dixon does not expect his readers to be art critics. This author explains the times in which Caravaggio lived and explains his work without talking down to his readers. Graham-Dixon does not work to impress rea
Jeremy Garber
A fine illustration of what art history is supposed to be - a lovely, well-written study of Caravaggio's life at the macro and micro levels. The author paints Caravaggio as a violent 17th century "gangsta" (backed up by evidence and reasoning - he was probably a pimp!) who nonetheless displayed a tortured religious sensitivity in his art. Graham-Dixon goes all the way from papal and Italian politics to examining the significance of a bowl of fruit. I am not a professional art historian, so I can ...more
Clay Mosby
A great book about a wonderfully talented yet troubled man. When about 3/4 of the way through this book, I realized that the exhibit "Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome" was in town at the Kimbell Art Museum. I went today and saw some of these beautiful paintings in real life. When I got home from the museum, I sat down and finished the book. I read on the Kindle iPad app and it was helpful to have the Art Authority app to consult as I read the book--all of the works that are referenced in the ...more
This was a great audio-book especially for those who love period or religious art. Caravaggio lived during the counter-reformation period in Italy, and the author reveals some of the cultural dynamic of the period which lends a greater understanding of the world in which Caravaggio lived.

I listened to this book during lent which made it a very good piece for added meditation and prayer on the scriptural passages that Caravaggio illustrated over the course of his career. There is alot of good the
Will Kelton
I've often looked for a good book about this fascinating and controversial early 17th c. artists, but never found the right one. Some are overly long and dry, some are sensational (not in a good way) and others are just picture books. This one though seemed to do the trick. The author has a real knack for the subject and provides so much interesting detail about the man caravaggio that its hard to know where to start when addressing his life. He was a bit of a troubadour, going from various plac ...more
Slim Khezri
This is a great biographical book on the life of the great Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio titled After you complete this read, you will never look at a Caravaggio work the same way again. "Caravaggio : A Life Sacred And Profane" by Andrew Graham-Dixon. This book rates among the best biographies (and best books) I have read in quite a long time. While the author is certainly an erudite academic, the text is approachable and well-written (i.e., it is not the dry litany of facts t ...more
There are only two books over the last year that I truly savored. One is The Vixen by W.S.Merwin. I re-read the poems in this volume in awe over a period of two months, reading one and reading it again to unlock its secrets, though I'm glad I don't think I ever will
Then why you ask, do I rate this volume below Greenblatt's Will of the World when I also savored the incredible insight of the author into Caravaggio's life, a volume that provides hard evidence to create astounding inferences?
This vo
It took the author ten years to write, but the results are very well-written. Much of the existing documentary evidence of C's life is found in criminal records: he lived in a violent society and was as quick to quarrel as everyone else. The sordid details are balanced by close and very sympathetic readings of the paintings, which reveal a brilliant and singular talent, and a man painfully aware of his grievous faults.
Carravaggio was only 38 when he died.
Neil Novesky
A fine account of 16th and early 17th Century world, particular of the artisan. A basic interest in the period and art history is a pre-requisite to an honest reading of this book. If you can permit yourself the time and curiosity, you feel like you have taken a course (with a great professor) when your finished.
The problem with any Caravaggio biography is that they're essentially a tragedy, since his genius couldn't overcome the fact that he was a total shitshow, what with the brawling and the court cases and fleeing multiple cities wanted by the authorities and dying alone and unheralded. I though this was a good mix of biography and art commentary - I always enjoy when an author is willing to say, 'yeah, this painting just isn't that good.' I got the impression that Graham-Dixon is pushing some of th ...more
Very informative. I learnt quite a bit about paintings in general and Caravaggio’s in particular.
Troy Rodgers
This book had no listing for an audiobook at the time of this review, but I'm reviewing the Audible version. Having not seen the printed book itself, I'm hoping it's full of reproductions of Caravaggio's work. Being one who has studied art, I'm familiar with many of the works described herein, but I kept having to reference my personal print library or hit up Google because descriptions of the art (while helpful) are not the art itself.

On the whole, this was merely an ok book. I didn't hate it,
Rob Atkinson
The best biography in print about this brilliant painter and troublesome character, especially strong on the aesthetic origins of his startlingly original compositional approach, and in the author's close analysis of all his known paintings (every one of which is pictured for reference, in color). Graham-Dixon sticks to the occasionally sparse historical record, nevertheless offering highly plausible, logical solutions to episodes in Caravaggio's life that have elicited wild speculation in other ...more
This is my first book from Audible and while I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it - Mr. Ballerini has a magical voice - I think perhaps art books are best left to the coffee table. I missed the ability to see the paintings so vividly described as I was hearing those words. This is no fault of the author's or the narrator's at all; I think it's a failure of decision making. Mine to take an audiobook of such a topic and whomever decided to make an audiobook of this work. For I think that the exper ...more
This is a book for the serious art enthusiast. It's not a light read. And it's terribly long.

But if you have a passion for the origins, history and political aspects of art, as well as it aesthetics, you'll thoroughly enjoy this book.

Caravaggio was an artist born in the Italian Renaissance. He was a controversial figure from early on. He was testy and easily drawn into an argument. Which word invariably lead to violence, usually involving a sword. He was exiled from Rome for murdering a pimp. H
Wessel van der Merwe
Very well researched - took some time to get into it but well written.
The author starts out to write the book like he is doing his doctor's thesis on Caravaggio and he finished it in the same style - would have passed in flying colours!
Insofar as Caravaggio is concerned - he was extremely gifted and influenced a whole generation of artists. Gifted but also very temperamental and why did he just had to love swords and knives? Although the author concluded that he was not mad, I am looking from th
Greg Brozeit
A spectacular biography in every way imaginable. The author carefully puts together the historical record to provide as complete a picture of a complex, troubled genius as is possible.

More importantly, Graham-Dixon illuminates each of Caravaggio's paintings in such clear historical, literary, and artistic detail that anyone familiar with these paintings will now see them with a depth they have never before experienced. I already know that I will come back to it again and again in anticipation of
A mammoth of a book, but nobody does Art History better than Graham-Dixon. I could talk about a thousand different aspects of the book that (at times) tickled, teased, stung and even grazed my palette; the testimony by Martin Scorsese towards the end of the book, however, takes the cake:

" I was instantly taken by the power of [Caravaggio's] pictures. Initially I related to them because of the moment that he chose to illuminate in the story. The Conversion of St Paul, Judith Beheading Holofernes:
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Andrew Graham-Dixon has presented six landmark series on art for the BBC, including the acclaimed A History of British Art, Renaissance and Art of Eternity, as well as numerous individual documentaries on art and artists. For more than twenty years he has published a weekly column on art, first in the Independent and, more recently, in the Sunday Telegraph. He has written a number of acclaimed boo ...more
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