Peter Robb

M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio

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M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio Summary

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M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio is Australian author Peter Robb’s biography of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a provocative painter born in 1517 who left little trace of his life and legacy other than his artwork. Known for depicting deeply sensual religious scenes, Robb puts together a portrait of Caravaggio through reflections from contemporaries, police records, paintings, fragments from notebooks, and casual sightings of the man by friends and enemies. In the biography, Robb focuses on the culture that Caravaggio, or M as he insists on calling the painter of many names, lived within, and the ways he dramatically altered the art world with his daring tableaux. Published in 2001, the biography is considered the most thorough and complete work on Caravaggio to date.

The world in which M lived was a unique one – it was the period of the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation in Europe, and plagues raged through the streets of Italy. M was born in Milan but ultimately settled in Rome, though not before losing nearly all of his elder family members, including his father and grandfather, to the plague. The focus of the world at that point was on purity and holiness – the aim, as nearly everyone saw it, was to be a good Catholic, something M was not. Despite this, a number of incredibly artistic and scientific feats challenged the flat, one-sided theology of the time. Caravaggio became one of these figures, who both operated within and remained on the outskirts of the predominant culture of Italy.

Caravaggio’s work was challenging for a number of reasons. He painted religious scenes, as did many painters at the time, but his interpretation of events was often deeply sexual and sensual, causing many viewers to question his ethics. In his biography, Robb describes every single remaining canvas that Caravaggio created in vivid detail, dedicating pages to descriptions of the scenes. Caravaggio was interested in both religious and classical iconography, and painted both – he soon became a successful artist, despite his sometimes questionable depictions of some saints, including Christ himself.

Caravaggio lived under a number of names, as his police files and friends attest. As a child he was Michelangelo, but as an adult he referred to himself as Marisi, Moriggia, Merigi, or simply M. Bisexual, Caravaggio was known around Rome for his interest in pubescent boys, as well as his tendency to hire prostitutes to serve as models (a common practice during the period), utilizing their services after a session was complete. He was also known for painting a number of young boys, whose portraits first gained him notoriety among the elite in Rome. Later, an English traveler recognized one of Caravaggio’s models as the boy servant who worked for him.

Despite his legacy among the queer art community as a man who proudly displayed his sexuality during a period when such displays were considered both inappropriate and dangerous, Caravaggio was a known hothead with a number of enemies. Because Robb had little to go on in the construction of his biography – Caravaggio left no notebooks, treatises, or other documents discussing his philosophy of art or his life – much of his information was gleaned from Caravaggio’s police records picked up during his years of rabble-rousing, or from enemies who noted their distaste for him. Regardless, Caravaggio was as daring and passionate a man as he was a painter, and Robb makes it clear in discussions of both his life and his work that this kind of passion was unique, dramatically changing the art world after Caravaggio was gone.

Ultimately, Robb argues that Caravaggio, a complicated man, was the most successful artist of his day in his ability to depict the horrors of his era, as well as the violent spirit of the time.

Australian author and journalist Peter Robb spent his formative years in Australia and New Zealand. He then left Australia to live for about twenty years in and around Italy, with a brief stint in Brazil. His time as an ex-pat inspired his writing. Robb is the author of six books, the latest published in 2012. All of the books were authored after Robb returned to his home in Sydney in 1992. M is Robb’s second book and was first published in Australia in 1998. He has also written Midnight in Sicily, Pig’s Blood and Other Fluids, A Death in Brazil, Street Fight in Naples, and his most recent book, Lives.