M (Peter Robb)

A deeply engaging search for counter-reformation Rome’s most electric artist

M, 1998 (Duffy and Snellgrove).

M, Peter Robb’s biography of Caravaggio, is a dense and richly written accumulation of the surviving fragments from the artist’s short life. First published over twenty years ago, its central hypothesis – that Caravaggio was murdered by the Knights of Malta and/or the papacy – was accompanied by claims that were equally bold: that Caravaggio was a dangerous subversive, a proto-atheist, a bisexual and a revolutionary artist thwarted by the stifling religious climate of counter reformation Rome. In it, Robb turns the stark light of Caravaggio’s canvases onto the artist himself.

Robb’s vision of late sixteenth-century Europe as analogous to Cold War Europe in the twentieth, riven by religion as it would later be by politics, is powerfully articulated. One feels the tightening of the ideological screws, the suffocation of ideas and intellectual enquiry (Galileo, Giordano Bruno), the brutal state-administered repression (Beatrice Cenci) and the informants, snoopers and spies that facilitated the papacy’s totalitarianism. Into this oppressive milieu arrives in Rome the penniless Michelangelo Merisi, fleeing some unspecified but serious crime in Milan.

Ottavio Leoni’s portrait of M (1621); Caravaggio sizes up the intrusive viewer [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

The uncertainty surrounding Caravaggio’s departure south (he was involved, directly or indirectly, in a killing) is indicative of the absence of key pieces of evidence in Caravaggio’s life that last right up to his death, somewhere off the west coast of Italy (Porto Ercole? Pola?) in 1610. Such ambiguities are the reason Robb uses ‘M’ instead of Caravaggio; ultimately unknowable, the public ‘Caravaggio’ recedes beneath layers of obfuscation, hearsay, myth and rumour to become the mysterious single letter initial.

The network of friends, allies and illustrious patrons that surrounded Caravaggio is where we find Robb at his most engaging. M sketches out in a deliberately discursive style, echoing the confusing nest of the artist’s contacts, the manner in which Caravaggio’s admirers supported him in his struggle to succeed in violently competitive Rome, and equally aided him at his most vulnerable moments, whether fleeing to Genoa after assaulting a lawyer or hiding out on the Colonna estates in Zagarolo after the murder on the tennis court in 1606.

The intellectual proclivities of Caravaggio’s most ardent and long-lasting protector Cardinal Del Monte are given ample room, and though Robb makes clear that Caravaggio would likely be unenthusiastic at the prospect of one of Del Monte’s high-flown soirées – preferring to stalk the streets with his gang – he does situate Caravaggio very definitely into this loose collection of nascent, quasi-scientific avant garde thinkers.

Which is where, in Robb’s mind, the trouble begins. For intellectuals like Del Monte and his circle posed an obvious and clear danger to a very suspicious and centralised papacy (though a prodigious letter writer to his boss Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Del Monte is tight-lipped on personal and private affairs). It is not a coincidence that Galileo was a friend of Del Monte’s. Nor would it have passed unnoticed to the cardinals looking to commission work from Caravaggio that he was living at Del Monte’s palazzo, nor that he had painted some highly erotic images of naked or near naked young men (boys, actually).

These same cardinals would almost certainly have been aware of the whispers that were spread about Caravaggio, about his unorthodox approach to painting (using real life models, and no drawing); his short temper; the use of well-known courtesans in his work; and, maybe most dangerously of all, the incredible popularity of his paintings with the lower orders, the penniless pilgrims, strays and vagabonds that visited or lived in Rome, who, as Robb demonstrates, were viewed with open hostility by the church.   

This image of Caravaggio as the radical outsider, however, can be overworked. He was far from the only hot-headed artist in Rome, nor the only painter going against the prevailing fashion for orthodox religious works; Annibale Carraci was after all decorating the Farnese ceiling with lascivious depictions of the pagan gods when Caravaggio was at his height in Rome. But Caravaggio’s idiosyncrasy for Robb lies in the uncompromising originality of an art that was shockingly new.

In David with the head of Goliath (c.1605-10), Caravaggio bargains with Cardinal Scipione Borghese – instead of my severed head, take this self-portrait substitute [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

And it is the paintings upon which we must rely if we want to know the man. In an interview, Robb states that it is the paintings that provide ‘the best evidence we have for the kind of man M was’,[1] given the gaps in the record and the somewhat unreliable early biographers. And the man that emerges from the paintings is for Robb the first modern artist, a man with his own ideas and vision for his art that stood in contrast to the meretricious, sickly-sweet style of the early Baroque.

Robb is on sure footing when it comes to unpacking the web of alliances that reached all across the Italian peninsula between cardinals, aristocrats, prostitutes, soldiers and pimps. He is equally absorbing in bringing to life Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily during Caravaggio’s lifetime (a skill employed with equal deftness in depicting twentieth century Italy in Midnight in Sicily).

Less convincing is the surety with which Robb connects Caravaggio’s violent, frenzied life with the urgency and vitality of the art. This is tricky ground. Was Caravaggio able to pack his paintings with so much barely concealed tension, such a visceral violence and charged sexuality, because this is how he lived?

Probably, yes. But does Caravaggio’s fidelity to truth, his determination to paint his saints and Madonnas from life, as ordinary human beings, with dirty fingernails and voluptuous breasts, suggest a heretical, anti-church artist, a foreshadowing of the Enlightenment individual? It’s tempting to agree here. Caravaggio was associating with people like Del Monte, those covertly extending the boundaries of acceptable intellectual and artistic expression. But a look at Caravaggio’s work points, in my mind, to a profoundly religious man, though one asking questions of his faith rather than paying it lip service.  

Robb contends that Caravaggio was basically stuck with religious themes because he operated in Rome, and Rome during the frigid, unsmiling counter reformation. But why then was Caravaggio so clearly desperate to return to Rome following his flight in 1606? If Rome was the ideological nightmare Robb describes – and let there be no doubt the church was flexing its counter reformation muscles, and violently opposed to freedom of thought – then why did Caravaggio want to go back? It cannot be merely because it was where he had friends, or felt at home, especially given he was very well paid for works in Naples and Sicily.

The Burial of Saint Lucy (1608), painted towards the end of Caravaggio’s life. In ‘M’, Robb counters those who see the stripped-back, bleakness of Caravaggio’s final works as a kind of foreknowledge of the end of his own life, instead comparing the pared-down style to that of Michelangelo’s incomplete late sculptural works, a disposal of the extraneous [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Masur]

Robb is eager to reverse the smothering tendency of some of Caravaggio’s critics, who he believes have tried to dilute Caravaggio’s radicalism by assimilating him into the pantheon of Old Masters and underplaying the heterodox quality of Caravaggio’s work (the homoeroticism, for instance). This rescuing of Caravaggio from boring good taste is one of the themes of the book, and is a commendable endeavour. But it is this ambition, I think, that leads Robb to placing on Caravaggio’s shoulders a burden (e.g. a potential atheism) that a look at his work simply doesn’t sustain.   

Whether you agree with Robb’s thesis or not, readers of M will be rewarded with the probing questions Robb forces us to ask of Caravaggio and his work, the scrutiny of the early commentaries and the gaps Robb looks to fill in Caravaggio’s life, in an artist who’s paintings remain as enigmatic as the man who made them, four hundred years after his unsolved death.


[1] Duffy and Snellgrove, ‘Speaking with Peter Robb about M’: https://web.archive.org/web/20060207004930/http://www.duffyandsnellgrove.com.au/extracts/m_interview.htm – accessed October 2020

Review of M (1998) by Peter Robb.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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