Street-Fighting Man

The dark bedroom setting, the sheets and pillows and blankets and the knotted up heavy red canopy overhanging the act, enhanced the stifling, muffled intimacy of the killing and the identity of sex with violence. . . . Nothing took the image beyond that reality—no history, no structure, no transcendence, no symbolism, just violent death.

Milan, Rome, Genoa, Naples, Malta, Syracuse, Messina, Palermo, Naples again . . . everywhere M traveled he found trouble to go with his commissions, the most serious threat to his survival being a bando capitale, or death sentence, handed down in Rome for his part in a fatal confrontation with Ranuccio Tomassoni, a well-connected shakedown artist and former pimp. Redemption from his crime would require a "social anchor" that Del Monte could no longer provide, and M looked to the Order of Saint John in Malta—a "strange nexus of austere monasticism, aristocratic militarism and criminal adventurism"—for sponsorship.

The masterpiece he produced in return for being knighted by the Order, John Beheaded, was the only painting that M ever signed. But his plans for a hero's return to Rome, like the lives he venerated on canvas, went terribly awry: An unknown crime against the Order ("Sex with a page," speculates Robb, "would have been the ultimate outrage") led to his imprisonment in an underground cell in fort Sant' Angelo, and his daring escape from "the heart of Malta's security system" only postponed the inevitable and added to the list of former protectors who pursued him to the ends of the earth.

Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes
photo: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Anciana
Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes

Details

M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio
By Peter Robb
Henry Holt, 496 pp., $32.50

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A painter as tender and violent as Caravaggio demands a biographer with a taste for the perverse, and Robb, whose latest book constitutes a genius move, is just sick enough to get the job done right. While the artist's cottage industry continues to churn out the handsome, reverent volumes (see Langdon's Caravaggio), Peter Robb's M is that rarest of hybrids, a cerebral thrill ride, and its indulgences are more than balanced by the brilliance of his insight. File Caravaggio's heretical art among the unintended consequences of the Counter Reformation, and carry Robb's M to your bedside, but with a warning: The fearful, tame, or orthodox need not apply.

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