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Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane Hardcover – September 12, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 91 customer reviews

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Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
The bestselling author of "Encyclopedia an Ordinary Life" returns with a literary experience that is unprecedented, unforgettable, and explosively human. Hardcover | Kindle book
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Editorial Reviews


“An impressive web of biography, social history and art history.” (Kirkus)

“Graham-Dixon's biography brilliantly illuminates the life of an artist who was no less shadowy than his canvases--a man capable of both committing murder and creating ineffable beauty.” (Joseph Luzzi - Bookforum)

“[Graham-Dixon] is an entertaining art historian. He took ten years to come to terms with a very obdurate and highly original painter. Time well spent.” (Economist)

“A thrilling lesson in the art of seeing, a sensual exploration of the shadows of Caravaggio's sometimes violent but always Christian world, a detective story with a highly satisfying ending.” (Peter Carey)

“Criticism that manages to be skeptical and humane, dryly witty and deeply serious ...” (Anthony Quinn)

“The most gifted art critic of his generation.” (Robert Hughes)

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane reads like a historical-swashbuckler-cum-detective-story while also providing an up-to-date introduction to some of the most admired paintings in Western art.
” (Michael Dirda - Washington Post)

“Graham-Dixon combed the criminal records of the era to glean extraordinary details about the artist’s run-ins with the law. He skillfully evokes the social and religious context of turn-of-the-17th-century Italy.” (Ann Levin - Associated Press)

“[Graham-Dixon’s] achieved a masterpiece of his own: an informative, fresh account of the painter’s life and death. Even more impressive are the author’s powerful and accessible analyses of Caravaggio’s paintings, commentary that leaves readers eager to see the pieces at the heart of the story.” (Michelle Jones - Dallas Morning News)

“This book [resees] its subject with rare clarity and power as a painter for the 21st century.” (Hilary Spurling - New York Times Book Review)

“Caravaggio has rarely been seen in such depth and such relief as in this marvellous biography.” (Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum)

“Andrew Graham-Dixon brings the bad-boy genius of the 17th century to life as vividly as if he were one of today's pop stars.” (John Richardson, author of A Life of Picasso)

“I have never known an art critic in London who responds so well, year in and year out, to the challenge of subjects that cover the whole range of Western art.” (John Russell, long-time art critic of The New York Times)

“Andrew Graham-Dixon is the most gifted art critic of his generation.” (Robert Hughes, former art critic of Time Magazine and author of The Shock of the New)

About the Author

Andrew Graham-Dixon has presented six landmark series on art for the BBC, including the acclaimed A History of British Art, Renaissance and Art of Eternity, as well as numerous individual documentaries on art and artists. For more than twenty years he has published a weekly column on art, first in the Independent and, more recently, in the Sunday Telegraph. He has written a number of acclaimed books, on subjects ranging from medieval painting and sculpture to the art of the present, including Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, Art: The Definitive Visual Guide, and Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 514 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (September 12, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393081494
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393081497
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.7 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #122,366 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
As a specialist in Baroque art--and author of books on Rubens and Bernini--I have read every serious book published about Caravaggio. Graham-Dixon's is quite simply not only the best book ever written about this towering artist, but also the best biography I have ever read about ANY artist. He sets a new standard, with his engaging, elegant style, his thorough--ten years!--research, and his astute judgments and reasoning. It is magical, and sets a new standard for cultural biography. It also affirms the British playwright Sir Terence Rattigan's observation that 'What makes magic is genius; and what makes genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.'
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This book rates among the best biographies (and best books) I have read in quite a long time. While the author is certainly an erudite academic, the text is approachable and well-written (i.e., it is not the dry litany of facts that one may expect). The decade of research and the passion of the topic at hand on the behalf of the author are evident from the beginning of the book to its end. The reader will approach Caravaggio's work (and the work of other masters) with new insight; previously accepted facts about works of art and their creators will be challenged and questioned.

The success of the book lies not in the research by the author of Caravaggio (he left almost no paper trail and no descendents) but in the research into the zeitgeist of the time and place in which the great artist lived. Here, the author shines as we learn about the laws, customs, history, social unrest, religion, and attitudes of early 17th century Italy - and how it affected the "bad boy" of Art History.

The hypothesis on Caravaggio's true possible occupation is somewhat shocking but backed by sound evidence. The challenge to his historically accepted sexual orientation (and the actual known facts culled from obscure sources) will cause the reader to question supposed truths in all future endeavors into the topic of art historical research - that makes this volume required reading for all art students as well as connoisseurs.

Each major work of Caravaggio is analyzed for technique and symbolism - as well as original impact. The reader is afforded the luxury of having each referenced work as a color plate within the book itself. Thus, the reader not only has a delightful biography but a solid reference for the work of this important master.

After you complete this read, you will never look at a Caravaggio work the same way again.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I recommend the reader have at hand a computer screen and/or library reference book with more and better quality/size plates. Some early works lend themselves to relatively inexpensive, small-scale reproduction, but, almost all of the larger works appearing here suffer, particularly when the author attaches so much significance to details of the paintings to fill in some of the many missing gaps of evidence of Caravaggio's existence. Also, the inferior color plates cloak, in my opinion, the genius of Caravaggio's use of chiaroscuro.

The book otherwise is intriguing and enchanting and an obvious labour of love. Even after enjoying Graham-Dixon's masterful approach, Caravaggio remains one of those elusive greats about whom I wonder: how could one person, of humble stock, recklessly living on the fringes 400 years ago, leave such an immense mark? My feeling is that he was touched by fire, and saw, heard, felt and in his own way communicated in mysterious but miraculous ways no one else could.

Just as the author impresses by showing how derivative Caravaggio could occasionally be (e.g., of Michaelangelo), it is also wonderful to read of the artist's profound continuing influence. Here is a snippet from the book from Martin Scorcese, the outstanding filmmaker, on the influence he carries over to his own works from Caravaggio's story-telling approach: "[Caravaggio] was choosing a moment that was not the absolute moment of the beginning of the action, it's during the action, in a way. You sort of come upon the scene midway and you're immersed in it." Wow!
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Format: Hardcover
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, born on 29 September 1571, died on 18 July 1610. In between, he created magnificent paintings and got himself into a lot of trouble with the law. Caravaggio was particularly renowned for his use of chiaroscuro, a technique which uses light and dark to achieve a three dimensional effect. Caravaggio received his early training in Milan where he specialised in still life. Around 1592 he moved to Rome, where he changed the subject matter of his painting to street life and young boys. In 1595, his extraordinary talent caught the attention of Cardinal Francesco del Monte who subsequently became his first patron.

Two of Caravaggio's three painting about Saint Matthew: The Calling, and The Martyrdom (the third painting is The Inspiration) were his first public commissions and created a sensation. Their success meant that he never lacked commissions or patrons. His paintings in this period were realistic, direct and very intense and looked as though the events they depicted had taken place in the streets of Rome.

But Caravaggio's personality was also direct and very intense and resulted in his being arrested on several occasions. In 1606, after Caravaggio stabbed and killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, he flees to Naples intending to return to Rome (where friends are lobbying on his behalf) via Malta and Sicily. Along the way, he produces several magnificent works - including the altarpiece `The Beheading of St John the Baptist `(1607-1608) created for St John's Cathedral in Valletta, Malta. This altarpiece constituted Caravaggio's payment to the Knights of Malta for his investiture as a Knight of Magistral Obedience. Alas, Caravaggio was not to retain his knighthood for very long: his escape from Malta in 1608 saw him expelled from the Order.
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