Peter Robb’s “M” is a genius in the studio,bugger in the bedroom, and hothead on the tennis courts of Rome at the end of the 16th century, a swaggering presence—always sharp- tongued, usually armed with sharp objects—whose regular appearances in the court records for libel and acts of violence provide the basis for a dark and anticlerical reading of his paintings. While Helen Langdon, in her devout biography Caravaggio: A Life, prefers to recognize “harmony” with the Counter Reformation in his canvases, Robb finds turbulence and a subversive energy—an intensity of feeling born from his belief in painting directly from nature, placing him at odds with the dictates of the Council of Trent and in “harmony” with the models for his religious figures, often criminals, prostitutes, or impoverished pilgrims. This devotion to human fallibility makes his paintings unforgettable, and Robb, an inspired amateur in the best sense of the word, uses his familiarity with the traditions of Italian street life, as well as with the shady interplay of church, state, and crime family, to cast new light on Caravaggio’s art and illuminate its sources in his particular underworld.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known to his contemporaries by a variety of aliases and to the modern age as the generic Caravaggio, makes a brief and beguiling appearance in Robb’s travelogue-cum-Mafia exposé Midnight in Sicily (1996). Between loving descriptions of the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo and pasta con le sarde, Robb mentions trying in vain to see a late Caravaggio altarpiece, The Adoration of the Shepherds With Saints Lawrence and Francis. The painting is described by Langdon as “sweetly devout and unchallenging,” but Robb, like so many other Caravaggisiti, would never have the chance to judge the altarpiece in person. The San Lorenzo Adoration had been stolen 10 years earlier, and the “prevailing theory of its fate,” writes Robb, “was that it’d never left Palermo and secretly adorned the home of a mafia boss.” Now, in his own bare-fisted reckoning with the painter’s life and work, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, Robb dismisses the same altarpiece as a toss-off and reads desperation in its traditional iconography. “M didn’t have—for once—the time or the will to resist his clients’ prescriptions,” Robb argues. Soon after the altarpiece was finished, the Roman avvisi, or daily news reports, published a rumor of the artist’s murder in Naples, and though he managed to elude his powerful enemies until the following summer, the rest of Caravaggio’s life, as well as his death in the malarial outpost of Port’ Ercole, remains, to this day, an “enigma.”
The art market then, as now, was ruled by a small number of collectors (most with connections to the Vatican) whose taste encouraged a uniformity of style and whose patronage effected wild swings in artists’ fortunes and renown. “They all came to Rome,” Robb writes with his usual colloquial verve, whether they be “painter, sculptor, architect, stonemason,” and M (the name is just one novelistic technique deployed by Robb), no stranger to career ambition, left the confines of Lombardy and its rustic style for his chance at the Big Commissions. Family connections afforded M a room in the home of monsignor Pandolfo Pucci, where he copied devotional paintings; the work was “demeaning” and monotonous, as was the menu for dinner every night—salad—earning Pucci M’s undying scorn and the nickname “monsignor Insalata.” Next stop was the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari, a favorite painter of Pope Clement VIII, where M’s talent for still life was abused on his assembly line of minor pictures.
One street fight later, M managed to sell his painting Cheats to the progressive Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte and entered into the “quid pro quo” of official patronage. In return for lodging, protection, and access to Del Monte’s circle of wealthy collectors, M produced paintings of confounding realism for his private gallery. Del Monte, an amateur scientist, introduced M to the convex mirror and the compass, an object with “erotic allure,” and played a crucial role in securing M his first large commission for the San Luigi dei Francesi church, the dark and revolutionary paintings Matthew Called and Matthew Killed. “Dazzling fame followed,” writes Robb, and M played his part in this rags-to-riches story to the hilt. By 1603 the Dutch painter Karel Van Mander, while impressed with M’s stylistic innovations, would note in his Lives of the Painters that “he goes out . . . with his rapier at his side and a servant behind him, moving from one tennis court to another and always looking for fights or arguments, so he’s impossible to get on with.”
A prime example of Robb’s biographical method is his treatment of M’s first Judith and Holofernes, a popular subject from the Apocrypha (earlier versions exist by Donatello, Botticelli, and Giorgione) usually depicted, as Robb points out, sometime after Judith has beheaded the Assyrian general in his chambers. Instead of painting the heroic aftermath, “M now showed the intimate and wholly private horror of the murder itself.” Robb identifies the model for M’s Judith, a celebrated Roman prostitute named Fillide, and traces the source for M’s uncanny depiction of the beheading to the public executions, on September 11, 1599, of the young noblewoman Beatrice Cenci, her stepmother, and younger brother—all for plotting the murder of Francesco Cenci, one of the wealthiest and cruelest men in Rome. Robb’s account of the Cenci trial is one of the high points of his narrative, and his exegesis of the Judith that resulted is brash and brilliant:
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.
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.