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M: The Caravaggio Enigma - Peter Robb

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Paperback: 592 pages / Publisher: Bloomsbury / Published: 18 July 2011

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      14.04.2013 00:44
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      Infuriating biography of a mystique of a man. A marmite biography, I'm sure.

      Firstly, let me apologise. I've been absent for quite some time and I return and have nothing to offer you but a rant. A mega rant.

      Let me get this out of the way: I'm a huge fan of the Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio. His genre paintings are full of humour and ambiguity, his portraits have a real intimacy to them, and his religious paintings are breath-taking, daring, vicious and beautiful. He used grubby beggars and prostitutes and cast them as martyrs. He gave hope to the hopeless. He introduced darkness into painting. He was darkness. For Caravaggio has quite the reputation; not only as the master painter who changed the face of art forever, but also as a scoundrel, a murderer who came to a sticky end. After years of being sneered at and eventually rubbed out of existence, in recent years he has enjoyed new found popularity. Programmes and films are being made about him, and books are being written about his art. In my quest to find out as much about the man and his art as possible, I've been devouring any book on Caravaggio I can find. I came to M with the knowledge that it had caused quite a stir when it was published in 2000.

      M by Peter Robb is a controversial biography of the Baroque bad boy. I've already reviewed a Caravaggio biography on here so it may seem a little tedious to review a book on the same subject. But holy cow these biographies are very different. Allow me to explain in my own nerdy way.

      I like watching TV. Sometimes I get really into a TV show. I get so into a TV show I read fanfiction. Fanfiction is essentially what people write to enhance their enjoyment of a certain TV show. Most of the time, they blithely ignore 'canon' and write what they really wanted to happen on the show. M by Peter Robb is the art history version of fanfiction. It's bollocks, basically.

      Now I'm by no means an expert, but I can tell when someone takes hearsay and presents it as fact. Alarm bells start ringing when on one page Robb tells us we don't know the outcome of a trial, and then a few pages later states Caravaggio was found guilty. He also accuses him of being a paedophile which isn't new but Robb takes rumours and runs with them. This is just the tip of the iceberg though. In no particular order, here are some of the things that annoyed me about M.

      Yes. M. Peter Robb decided to call his biography of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 'M'. That's pretty annoying in and of itself; but he calls him 'M' throughout, going so far as to alter quotes so people who would have referred to the painter by his name, now refer to him as 'M'. On a similar note, Robb uses modern slang when translating quotes from Caravaggio's contemporaries. Sometimes this was irritating and sometimes it was fun. Mostly it was irritating.

      Robb is also annoying when he doesn't translate. I don't know Italian. Clearly Robb does. That's wonderful. It's always useful to know another language. Would you mind translating those phrases for those of us who don't read Italian, Robb? That would be most helpful.

      One of the weirdest things Robb does is rename all the paintings. This is infuriating for two reasons. 1. I often struggle to figure out which painting he's actually discussing. They may not have been given a title by Caravaggio himself, but they all have 'accepted' titles. Why he chose to do this I will never understand. 2. He gives them really rubbish names. 'The Death of the Virgin' becomes 'Mary Dead', while 'The Calling of Saint Matthew' becomes 'Matthew Called'. Yeah, Robb? Matthew called. He wants you to STOP GIVING THE PAINTINGS STUPID NAMES.

      Yes. The paintings. There are hardly any plates of the paintings. No matter how fascinating Caravaggio was as a person, the reason people are drawn to him are his paintings. The reason (presumably) Robb wrote the book in the first place was because he was drawn to Caravaggio's paintings. There's plenty of black and white details of various model's faces, but very few of Caravaggio's paintings are seen in full here.

      Now, one of the most wonderful things about art is that you can have your own interpretations, but Robb sees things that just aren't there. At one point he calls a figure a 'lout'. This figure has his back to us. I think he has a loutish back, or something. What makes this so frustrating is that Robb makes some genuinely interesting and incisive observations, but the next sentence he says something daft and you forget about the clever stuff he occasionally comes out with.

      I mean, this quote: "...in a state of total frontal nudity -...though he was twisting round from sideways on" That's not frontal nudity, Robb. Frontal nudity is nudity...from the front.

      I think the reason I'm so angry with Robb is that he's clearly a very intelligent bloke and did a lot of research, but added 2 and 2 and came up with well... God alone knows. I learned far more about Peter Robb than I did about Caravaggio.

      I wanted to read about the painter whose art shocked the world and still shocks today. I wanted to read about the painter who got in brawls and scaled prison walls and managed to knock out masterpieces in his spare time. I wanted to read about the painter who influenced Rembrandt and Scorcese. I wanted to read about the rise and fall of one of the most important painters in history. Instead I ended up reading a book that was an ode to Robb's ego.

      And yet... I read the damn thing all the way to the end. To quote film critic Mark Kermode; "I was often cross, but never bored."

      Price and Availability:

      Really easy to get hold of in bookshops. The Paperback is on Amazon for £12 (new).

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