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Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  2,369 Ratings  ·  159 Reviews
In a bravura performance, Andrew Graham-Dixon explores Caravaggio’s staggering artistic achievements, delving into the original Italian sources to create a masterful profile of the mercurial painter. This New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book of the Year features more than eighty full-color reproductions of the artist’s best paintings.
ebook, 544 pages
Published November 10th 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
Clif Hostetler
Jan 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
This is a biography of a gifted artist who unfortunately also possessed a proud and difficult personality that got him into frequent trouble with the law. Ironically, much of what is known about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) comes to us from the criminal archives that document his frequent arrests and various depositions in legal interrogations. Of course his paintings are also a permanent record of his life's work as is also the milieux, both churchy and raunchy, within which he ...more
Jul 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, arts, donated
(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,
Jun 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: c-art
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
I love art history because it seems very interactive to me. I often have the painting being discussed pulled up on my phone, so while the author describes specific moments and strokes in the painting, I can also be studying it in detail. When you read a book specifically about one artist, if it is any good, you will learn new ways to admire and study their paintings- and this book was no exception. I had always learned more about the profane interpretations of Caravaggio's art, but this was the ...more
Jennifer (JC-S)
Feb 10, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: librarybooks
‘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
Greg Brozeit
Dec 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, art
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
☙ percy ❧
this was a compelling, extremely well-written account of caravaggio's life and his paintings. the amount of historical context was just right; not so much that it seemed like a tangent, but enough to give the reader insight into the world and political climate in which caravaggio lived.
Willy Schuyesmans
May 29, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 19, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
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
Greg Z
Aug 16, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Andrew Graham-Dixon, via numerous reproductions, begs us to look closer at Caravaggio's work. In 'The Burial of St. Lucy" we now see one of the gravediggers staring at the heavenly-lit hand of a priest, thus reflecting upon the miracle of St. Lucy's martyrdom and perhaps his own path to Christianity. And as I looked closer at other paintings, there were some elements not explained, and I want to know even more about Caravaggio's work. A number of which are so beautiful, I'd like to have a reprod ...more
Aug 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A difficult subject to write about as seemingly there are only secondary sources to rely upon--it's too bad Caravaggio didn't have a Theo. He remains an enigmatic and remarkable character. He was only 38 when he died and led a tumultuous life. Graham-Dixion tells the story through Caravaggio's remarkable paintings--a valiant effort but much of Caravaggio's life seemingly will forever remain a mystery. While the book does have copies of many of the paintings discussed it is perhaps advisable to g ...more
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
Jean Poulos
Sep 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013-audio
It is obvious that Andrew Graham-Dixon has done a lot of research before writing this book. The book is well written and keeps one interested throughout the book. Graham-Dixon not only covers the life of Caravaggio but also provides the history of the catholic church and Italy during the life of the painter. This in-depth coverage made me feel as if I was there. Edoardo Ballerini did an excellent job with all the Italian names. Before reading this book I knew nothing about Caravaggio. Michelange ...more
Jan 07, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jeremy Garber
Jun 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art
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
Chintushig Tumenbayar
Караважио нэрээрээ олонд танигдсан Микеланжело Мерисигийн амьдрал уран бүтээлийг харуулсан сайн номнуудыг нэг гэдгийн уншсан даруйдаа олж мэдлээ.
Эдрээ бартаа дунд төрлөхийн авъяас чадвар, шинийг эрэлхийлэх хүсэл нь 15-16аар зууны үейин урлаг соёлыг түүний өмнөх болоод хойно гэх хоёр үед хуваах хүртлээ дүгнэгдсэн байдаг нь гайхалтай.
Jul 28, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very good; combining the limited facts of Caravaggio's life with thoughtful analysis of his work. It also does a great job of bring to life the chaotic and violent world of 16th /17th Italy. If i had a gripe it is that the repro's are small and occasionally slightly randomly ordered
Nov 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Peter Clothier
Jan 24, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Matthew Pritchard
A fascinating peek into one of the most daring and innovative painters in history. The book oscillates between expert analysis of each of Caravaggio's most famous paintings (and the historical contexts in which they were created) with details on the artist's turbulent life and his mercurial and violent character.

It is also beautifully illustrated.
Feb 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Few works of art have so totally and utterly mesmerised me as the paintings by Caravaggio in the Chiesa dei Francesi, which I visited the first time as a teenager in Rome. At the time, the chiaroscuro of his Calling of St Matthew absolutely struck the most inner chords of my sensitive and impressionable teenage soul. But the imprint has remained, and I have forever sought to see more to understand further why this artist so vividly managed to create a passion for painting at such a young age. Gr ...more
Oct 30, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, history
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
May 31, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: malta-and-rome
Graham-Dixon is a detective as much as a writer in this wide-ranging book that covers not just the life but the larger context of early seventeenth-century Rome, Malta, Milan and Naples. He refers to numerous court records and other newly discovered documents that reveal a man who was proud, easily provoked, violent and in many ways typical of his time, place and background. I learned an enormous amount about the people and places, and found his discussions of the paintings (too small in this ed ...more
Clay Mosby
Dec 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: obsessions
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
Feb 17, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art-artists, history
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
May 24, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Andy Bird
Jan 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An absolutely superb book on Caravaggio and his times. Readable and informative, highly recommended !!!
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Caravaggio 1 4 Jul 16, 2015 06:51AM  
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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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