M – Andy brushes up against the genius of Robb and Caravaggio

August 10, 2012

Caravaggio helped me come out.

Kind of.

Oh. And, um, apologies for the delay. Computers are bitches. Computer dudes are bigger  bitches, but let’s not go there.

In the  early ’90s I was delusionally attending a Baptist church – a youth group leader in fact, although I didn’t take advantage. SBS was a font of sexual depravity, and even as a Baptist youth group leader I was on the lookout for sexual depravity. One night, Derek Jarman’s biopic Caravaggio was on. It was pretty good, I thought. Later I saw a doco about Jarman’s Edward II.  I had to wait til London to see that.

Which is where I was a year or so later. Rural Australia ain’t a great place to come out, not if you’re a spineless pissant like me. Others manage it quite well, apparently. London is Europe (unless you’re English), and in Europe I sought out (among, er, other things)  some of Caravaggio’s paintings. In London, Malta, Paris, Rome and Florence, Madrid and Toledo and Vienna and Dublin. Yes, even Dublin, although while I remember visiting the gallery that apparently holds one of Caravaggio’s paintings I don’t remember seeing the painting itself. But maybe I did.

What’s his other hand doing, though?

Caravaggio – or M, as Peter Robb calls him – made a signficant impact on me back then. And my god, do I love those pictures. So it’s a bit of an embarrassment that it’s taken so long to get around to reading this book. Especially when I remember it being published in the late ’90s. At about that time, Melbourne’s National Gallery hosted a Caravaggio show that included six, maybe seven of M’s paintings and a bunch of stuff by his  “followers”.  Ho hum.

Anyway. Finally, I’ve read the book.

And sorry, Netty, although thank you for filling in while I was away, but sorry… You’re a little bit full of shit. This book is awesome.

As Netty said, I read this on the Greek islands. On at least one occasion, I ducked on to the internet to see how much it would cost to make a sneaky diversion to Rome to see some oil. It was exorbitantly expensive, as it turned out, by our standards anyway. But that’s how much I love these paintings.

In some ways the book and its author lie in the shadow of their subject. The book is amazing and Robb is a brilliant writer. It’s funny and irreverent, on a number of levels – Robb clearly adores M but he’s happy to take the piss. It’s a bit of a revelation – I had an idea about the terror the Catholic church was prepared to inflict during the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, but I hadn’t realised that it was so brutally enforced by what, at the time, passed for a state. Details of M’s technique, and how it differed from accepted techniques and was scorned by his infinitely less talented contemporaries, are fascinating. Robb also casts a little – though not a lot, because there’s not a lot to be cast – of light on Caravaggio’s life, and I think Netty is mistaken in suggesting he was bisexual (although if I remember Jarman’s film sticks to this myth), because Robb seems to argue that the women he’s supposed to have rooted were simply the hookers he used for his paintings.

M’s sex life is bothersome – a bit of a pain in the arse, pardon the pun. Because he fucked kids. He was a pedophile, although the concept probably (probably) didn’t exist at the time, just as the idea of gay possibly (arguably) didn’t exist either. The concept of “child” probably meant something very different then too. (Juliet was supposed to be 12, wasn’t she?) To be honest, Cecco and Mario don’t seem to have been too messed up by this. Mario went on to be a straight, successful businessman; Cecco went on the be a rather good painter (the book features one of his paintings – taking the piss out of M decades after his death – which is subtly, hilariously obscene). I have enough of a brain to realise that M fucking 12-year-olds in the late 16th century is slightly different to Allen Ginsberg saying it’s OK for adult men to fuck 9-year-olds in the 20th century, but still. M shagged his apprentices, and his apprentices were very young.

Nevertheless. M painted some of the most amazing pictures humanity has ever or indeed probably will ever see. Even if you have to put a few lira (euros, these days) in some dodgy machine to make the dodgy lights work in some dodgy chapel. Robb has pieced together some of the man’s life and, more importantly, told us how to look at his paintings properly.  I’m planning on buying a complete works on Book Depository, and hoping the reproductions are good.

PS Apologies again for the delay. More from me about some suicidal bint called Anne in the next few days. And then Netty and I will have something to say about a whitey called Nadine.


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