I was going through an old stack of papers and found this interview with Peter Robb, the author of the controversial Caravaggio biography, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. At times, “M” was maddening. The very insistence on reducing Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s name to “M” made me think there was no way on earth I’d ever get through this book. Italics are replaced for quotation marks. Profanity abounds. And the worst part: “M” often or, some art historians would argue, altogether fails to contextualize Caravaggio’s paintings in the larger religious, militant, and aesthetic wars happening in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
I have a confession: for its many, terrible faults, I enjoyed reading “M.” It was enjoyable because most of the book was baffling to the point of being comedic, and although there are sporadic sentences of it that I genuinely did side with, it was on the whole, essentially a drawn out tabloid – full of assertions and conspiracy theories about Caravaggio’s sexuality and (my favorite part), his death. And for this, it was awful. I need to spoil the ending for you, because it should be made into a film starring Ethan Peck as Caravaggio and the Six Fingered Man from the Princess Bride as the principal villain. The start of the final chapter of “M” sets the stage for Caravaggio’s mysterious death:
“M disappeared. No hard evidence ever came to light about what happened to him. … The church funeral records from port’ Ercole were preserved from these years, and the register for July 1610 contained no trace of the death and burial of anyone who might’ve been M. The cemetery itself yielded nothing. … M grimly joked in Sicily that all his sins were mortal. His listeners thought he was just being cheap about religion, but as his painting of John beheaded showed, he knew how the [O]rder punished capital offences. Brother knights sewed you into a sack and threw you into the sea. Alive in some variants, already strangled in others. Maybe, after setting off in the boat with his paintings and his promises, M never even got as far as the deserted beach.”
Robb’s theory is that Caravaggio was killed by the Knights of Malta, and the death-by-fever on the beach story is a cleverly crafted (though slowly realized) cover up for murder. If you wish, you can preview most of the book, including this last conspiratorial chapter, on Google Books.
Anyway, “M” is not what I’d like to talk about. I felt that I should let you all know about Robb’s theory about Caravaggio’s death, because what I’d like to talk about is professional art historians.
The following is the first question and part of Robb’s answer in the interview I mentioned:
Question: “You approach Caravaggio’s art very differently from academic art historians, and you have a lot to say about the connections of culture and politics at the time M was painting.”
Answer: “We can’t leave art to the professional art historians. On the whole, they’re prisoners of their training and unlikely to give you any sense of why art matters. They see art as an expression of prevailing values. They look at a religious painting and see theology, official values, precedent, iconology, almost anything but art. Not much on whether the painting lives for looking at it, or how it lives. The language of the discipline struggles to distinguish hackwork from genius. The academics know this, and their descriptions are guarded, timid, inert. Writing on M, they manage to make his paintings sound like all the inferior work of the age instead of proclaiming its amazing newness and difference. There are brilliant exceptions, but art historians mostly write for each other. I’m trying to write for and about real people in the real world. That means widening your field of vision beyond the specialized milieu of art.”
Caravaggio, St. John the Baptist, c. 1604.
As I read this, I thought how interesting that Robb condems art historians for not seeing the art in art, when he reads into Caravaggio’s art all sorts of juicy things that don’t exist within it. It’s far more reasonable to read into, say, Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist that it is simply… St. John the Baptist — the “precedent, iconology” and religion behind it — than it is to make up some blast story about how John is somehow a come hither for its seventeenth century viewers. I also balk at the idea that art historians are “prisoners of their training and unlikely to give you any sense of why art matters.” I’m absolutely mind-boggled that Robb doesn’t realize that art historians study, write, research, and analyze for years on end because they are searching for meaning. Art historians are still historians — they just happen to specialize in art. No one would accuse “real” historians of being “prisoners to their training” and not giving us an idea of why the world is the way it is. It’s what historians do. Art historians can spend years studying one artist and still only scratch the surface of who they are, why their art is the way it is, and how their art speaks to us today. Caravaggio is a perfect example wherein historians have spent decades of their careers researching this man, his art, and the world that influenced him. Robb doesn’t give art historians enough credit for the work they’ve done and continue to do.
I also take issue with Robb’s perception of art historians’ descriptions of art as “guarded, timid, [and] inert.” If our descriptions are such, it is only because we guard ourselves against being too liberal with describing what is physically on the canvas. (I’ll touch more on this in another portion of this interview’s Q&A below.) Describing art can easily become fantastical and turn into an analysis of something that isn’t actually there, or that is improper to consider given the constraints of the time in which the art was created. Historians have their own constraints — those of time and influence. They can’t just describe things in populist or exaggerated manners to get a rise out of people. It would be doing everyone a disservice. Accuracy is of the utmost importance.
“… [A]rt historians mostly write for each other. I’m trying to write for and about real people in the real world. That means widening your field of vision beyond the specialized milieu of art.”
There is so much wrong with this statement, I’m not sure where to begin. Let’s start with this: I’m an art historian, and I’m not just writing for other art historians. I’m not only refering to this website, either, but to all my work. If given the opportunity, I’d just sit in a park and read my papers to everyone. I’ve said it a thousand times: art history matters, even and especially outside of academia. No part of art history should be hidden away as we scholars converse amongst ourselves, hoarding our specialized knowledge from the outside world that might actually be interested in hearing what we have to say. People in the “real world,” perhaps now more than ever, are interested in art history. About half of readers of this website in fact, aren’t even art history professors or students, but the general public of all ages who are curious about art and its meaning.
Secondly, and this is something I seem to have to reiterate far too often, art history is an interdisciplinary field. Sure, it’s its “own” field, but one can’t study art history without studying history, religion, military history, political science, fashion, or film (depending on your area of focus). Thus, there’s not really a need to “[widen our] field of vision beyond the specialized milieu of art,” since it already is.
I certainly understand why the reviews of “M” on Amazon are so positive. “M” is entirely colloquial, which makes it a fairly quick and easy read. For the general world, quick and easy reads that are also educational are hard to come by. Academic books are highly specialized and geared toward specific audiences. Sometimes, they are conversations between scholars, bickering amongst each other in drawn out, meticulously researched anthologies or books. Academics can’t necessarily afford to use popular language. Their publishers are often university presses or journals, and I just can’t imagine that something like Robb’s finished product would ever be acceptable to them for many reasons (especially trading quotation marks for italics). I’ve always thought that sounding “academic” comes with experience, and yet this isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps our culture is simply not disciplined or patient enough to read something like Caravaggio: Realism, Rebellion, Reception or Caravaggio’s Secrets or even Helen Langdon’s (not-very-jargon-filled) biography of Caravaggio. Whatever it is, I don’t think Robb’s casually written book is helpful in provoking deep thought or educating with accuracy. And yet the “real world,” if Amazon is any indicator of popular belief, loves “M.”
Should we give up and just leave art to those who want to deliver it in real terms to real people?
While I sympathize with Robb for wanting to make art matter for the world, and in their terms, such a movement should absolutely come from the “professionals” — from museums and curators and art historians, because they know what they’re talking about. They didn’t undertake graduate study and years of research just to be brushed aside and brushed off as “professionals,” as if they are somehow the Big Bad Wolf out to ruin art for everyone with their professional opinions and strange words. It’s a good thing that academics exist. Museums and educational programs and free public talks are good things. These serve to place art in the hands of the populous, with accurate historical context and analytical tools, and then say “Here. You’re equipped with the basic information you need. Now, go and make of art what you will.” But by all means, someone who knows nothing of history or worse, refuses to acknowledge it, should not be the one attempting to educate the masses about art of a historical time period. That will confuse everyone. I was confused after finishing “M.”I was writing my thesis, and if it wasn’t for the other reputable sources I had and my own convictions about historical accuracy and sticking to iconography, I would’ve been an academic mess.
I wish the interview had stopped there, but it didn’t, and neither do my criticisms.
Continuing into the first question’s answer, Robb says:
“I do give a lot of space to the paintings themselves because they’re the best evidence we have of the kind of man M was. The work of any artist is a kind of autobiography, and you have to learn to read it. Anyone who looks at M’s paintings feels immediately that this painter was making something intensely personal and original out of the conventional religious subjects he was required to paint.”
Caravaggio, The Annunciation, c. 1608
This, I can agree with. I agree that by nature, artists insert themselves in some way, however small, into their work. Now, in “M,” Robb tended to find homosexual references in every last bit of exposed flesh of Caravaggio’s paintings — so, given this context, I should add that this visual autobiography artists create can’t be read into too much. Like most artists, Caravaggio had patrons who commissioned paintings that represent iconography in specific ways. (If those original contract documents are available, they should always be referenced when analyzing a work of art lest we insert ourselves or our modern ways of thinking into our analysis.) It would also be scandalous to the point of ruin if paintings or sculptures that invited or glorified inappropriate activity were publicly and openly displayed in the rich, often pious households that Caravaggio painted for. This was, after all, seventeenth century Italy, where piety was fiercely being guarded and reformed to fend against the Protestant movement that was gaining momentum. Art was a tool the Church used to enforce proper belief, and they would not undermine it by allowing art to be made and displayed that had ulterior meanings. Paintings and sculptures were abandoned or not paid for if they failed to conform to the new edicts for art laid out by the Church.
The interview continues for several more questions, and that brings us to the final question that will be talked about here.
Question: “How does your M — a revolutionary misfit — differ from other interpretations of the painter?”
Robb begins his answer with an explanation of why he chose to call Caravaggio “M,” what contemporary sources said about Caravaggio, and his criminal record. Robb’s interpretation of Caravaggio and his violent nature is something that he thinks differentiates him from other writers.
Answer: “I think we owe it to M to consider that this violence might be related to his painting – to problems his painting and his own artistic intransigence caused him – and not to dismiss him as a man with a talent for trouble, a genius who coincidentally happened to be a murderous psychopath. Because I don’t believe he was a psychopath at all. I think he was an extraordinarily, fiercely tenacious man who, in defending his art against its very real enemies, was also defending his sense of himself, including of course his sexual identity and his way of being in the world. If this differs from current practice, this is because the academy [academia] has been taking possession of M’s art over the last few decades, centering an immense amount of research and discussion on a painter who not so long ago was still considered a minor and aberrant artist. In doing this, specialists are following and not leading popular taste. … And since the academy is by its nature very conservative, a lot of its energy has been devoted to pulling M back into the mainstream, and showing that his painterly and religious values weren’t so different after all from what everyone else thought about art and religion in M’s day. He was really a fairly conventional painter, they say. Orthodox. Even the violence of his daily life, some argue now, was perfectly acceptable for that time. There’s this deadening desire to normalize a painter whose life and whose art were both dazzlingly and radically outside established norms. I resist the deadening of a great and living and deeply disturbing painter, and in doing this I am much closer to his own contemporaries in the way I see him.”
I don’t think any art historians would characterize Caravaggio as a “murderous psychopath.” He certainly did have a “talent for trouble,” and this is speculated upon in many studies of his art and life. I’m not sure where Robb is getting the idea that art historians believe Caravaggio to be a “fairly conventional painter.” That hasn’t been my experience with academic works about him. It’s also historically accurate to argue that Caravaggio’s violent behavior was acceptable for the time — to a degree. He once threw artichokes at a waiter’s face — that is probably not normal for seventeenth century Rome. But what is normal is Caravaggio constantly carrying a sword, or Caravaggio wearing fine noblemen’s clothing, because if history tells us anything, it’s that duels were standard practice in Baroque Rome and that men jealously guarded their honor. This doesn’t make Caravaggio any less interesting. So what if he engaged in duels like any other nobleman protecting his honor might? Nor does it make his life and art any less “disturbing,” because he obviously had some anger issues and dealt with them physically and (maybe) through his art.
There is a difference between “normalizing” a painter and placing him in the wider context of the world in which he lived, which is what art historians do. This isn’t an attempt to “deaden” Caravaggio or make his life any less significant or unique. Again, I doubt any art historian would say that Caravaggio was just like everyone else. It’s impossible to deny that Caravaggio created an art form that was wholly new to Italy and revolutionized the aesthetics of devotion at home and abroad. As Helen Langdon, in her (much more historically accurate and indeed masterful) biography of Caravaggio, says:
“He began his career as a painter of lyrical and courtly genre, with pictures of gypsies, musicians, and card players, which ravish with the beauty and precision of their naturalistic detail. But he developed into the most powerful religious artist of his age, creating a new Catholic art deeply rooted in the contemporary spirituality of the Counter-Reformation.”
Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, Borghese Gallery. Date disputed: either before 1606 or circa 1610.
Much has changed in the past decade since Robb’s book (and this interview) has been published. Art historians know more about Caravaggio, old ideas are being challenged, and new ideas are being formed. And despite the rise in Caravaggio’s popularity — Caravaggiomania, as Philip Sohm calls it — I believe that our work on Caravaggio’s art and life are still unfinished. In fact, as we learn more about Caravaggio, the mysteries only seem to increase because of all the things we still don’t know.
Returning again to the theme of art as autobiography, I’d like to end with the following words from David Stone, that, as I bury myself in studying Caravaggio more, I have increasingly come to appreciate as a wonderful description of Caravaggio the Painter. These words stem from an examination of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath and of the self that Caravaggio constructed through his art:
“I want to stop here and admit that my responses to Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath are in many instances shaped by my own fixation on Caravaggio’s personality. Not the castration-obsessed murderer, but the terrifyingly daring poet of naturalist painting: the Caravaggio who paints himself as a saddened bystander at the murder of St. Matthew; the Caravaggio, yet in another self portrait, who verifies the past for us, craning his neck as he holds up a lantern to the darkness, so that he (and the spectator) can see the Betrayal of Christ firsthand. With this, his most beautiful conceit, he defines himself as an illuminator of Christian storia and capturer of nature. “
Those words, from a professional art historian, from the academy, are not words that rob Caravaggio’s art of meaning. They imbue his art with even more meaning.
Leave art to the professional art historians, and let us become ever joyous “prisoners” of our research.