Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Having not seen the printed book itself (having read it via Audible), I’m hoping it’s full of reproductions of Caravaggio’s work. Being one who has studied art, I’m familiar with many of the works described herein, but I kept having to reference my personal print library or hit up Google because descriptions of the art (while helpful) are not the art itself.  And that’s fine.  That’s how it should be.  One expects to need visual references when listening to art history.

On the whole, this was merely an ok book. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either, which seems worse given my love for Caravaggio’s paintings. He was an interesting guy, and the book demonstrates that at every turn. The thing is, this book is so much more than a biography, and so much less for the same reasons. The author gives us the known facts of Caravaggio’s life, but it’s clear that most of what’s here works on assumption and extrapolation as well. We’re given histories on the Church and Italy of that time, as well as depictions of cultural elements that would have defined Caravaggio in one way or another. This information, then, is applied as fuel for analysis of the given artworks, in which the author tries to glean even more information about who this artist was or wasn’t. Interesting? Sure, and it’s even well-written and coherent, but it’s also overblown. I kept wondering how the author managed to type this book with his pinky finger at full extension on his tea cup. There’s enthusiasm for the topic, and then there’s the desire to prove you know more than you do. This book has a foot in each camp, but leans more on the latter, and that’s with the narrator toning it down to tolerable levels. It might impress a newcomer to the subject matter, but it might also frighten away that same newcomer, much like listening to the overly-scholastic talk about Shakespeare. Without the need to impress (which the artwork does on its own, let’s be honest here), the book could easily have been half as long and twice as engaging. Even so, it’s still worth it if you’re interested in the topic and can sift through the author’s pretentious nonsense.

3 stars

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