Andrew Graham-Dixon: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin,  2011 

Andrew Graham-Dixon
Caravaggio A Life Sacred and Profane

Late C16th/early C17th artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was quite late earning respect in the crowded art world of the C20th. A remarkable rehabilitation was achieved in 1951 with an extremely influential retrospective organised by the significant Italian art historian Roberto Longhi. In some respects Graham-Dixon notes, Caravaggio had to wait for fame for C20th film makers like   Pasolini and Scorsese to understand his startling vision of ordinary people in paintings. Especially in his religious paintings Caravaggio scandalized his Italian peers by using street people, whores and the poorest of the poor to as his models for some of the most momentous paintings of Biblical history. In addition his use of black backgrounds with only one source of light highlighting  just the central action, with no fluffy and irrelevant landscape behind in the painting was ground-breaking and radically altered painting styles from the C17th onwards.

Caravaggio’s life is breath-taking, scary, bitter-sweet, sad and enormously vibrant all at once. Although in Milan he was theoretically apprenticed to an artist to learn to paint, Caravaggio was effectively self-taught with a skill that at times seems miraculous and methodology unique in his age. Coming from relative poverty Caravaggio had to rely on wealthy supporters who had the contacts to gain him important commissions especially once he moved to Rome where churches like St Mary Maggiore hold some of his most famous paintings. 

But Caravaggio also had a quite separate life at night on the streets and in the bars and places of ill repute in Rome. Here his quick temper, pride and sense of his own right to be accepted resulted in many street battles with opponents equally talented with the sword and with dangerous friends.  The inevitable occurred and Caravaggio had to flee Rome after the death of an opponent in a street fight. His life then became one long attempt to restore his honour at the same time as escaping from would be enemies seeking revenge. Life on the run included a rural estate well away from Rome,  Naples,  Malta, Sicily and eventually an ill-fated attempt to return to Rome from Naples.  All this time Caravaggio continued to produce some of the most significant paintings in the whole of art history. 

So many myths have gathered around Caravaggio from the three C17th biographers Mancini, Baglioni and Bellori through to the ever-increasing array of modern writers who can see a best-selling story in this relatively brief but extraordinary life.  Graham-Dixon freely acknowledges his debts to writers ancient and modern but has the advantage of some recent careful research which for the first time has thrown light on the complex and until now hidden story of his life on the run.

This account is lavishly illustrated with all of Caravaggio’s major works and other folk of interest in his life. I found the book impossible to put down and feel a deep pang of sympathy and regret that a painter of such explosive talent should have his life cut down when who knows what else he could have produced.  5 stars and rising. 

Max Gawn,  Max Gawn Captain’s Diary,  with Konrad Marshall, p/b, Richmond, Hardie Grant  Books, 2021

Max Gawn Captain’s Diary

This is a book that could only be enjoyed by long-suffering supporters of the Melbourne Australian Rules Football club who have been waiting 57 years for another Melbourne Demons Premiership Cup.

Max Gawn is an experienced and effective media personality who has many fans including from other clubs through his wise, accessible and thoughtful commentary on football and life in general.  This book includes a game by game analysis of the 2021 season which was remarkable for the complexity of match times and places forced upon the AFL by the nation wide impact of COVID 19.

Without unnecessary boring detail Gawn manages to highlight events, players, flight complexities, matches interrupted by lightning, players and and coaches interactions and the tensions mounting into the Finals series.   Gawn is honest about his own doubts and challenges as Captain and the pressure of the leadership role.  The book highlights the complexities of an elite professional  club life with all the ups and downs, the need for teamwork combined with the drama of game selections, the injuries and the talented players who miss out in a team studded with outstanding players at the peak of their careers. 

As a supporter who was beginning to think that another premiership would not happen in his lifetime, you can imagine that I devoured this book in record time!  4 stars.

William Gaunt,   The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy, h/b, London, Folio Society, 2017 

William Gaunt
The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy

C20th artist and art historian William Gaunt has produced an exceptionally thorough analysis of the C19th Pre-Raphaelite art movement. The movement commenced as an alternative to the Royal Academy for outstanding artists which this group regarded as out of touch, stuffy, upper class and too wedded to the “Grand manner’ of Italian art, of Raphael and the C16th and C17th. 

The original seven members of the “Brotherhood” were William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, his brother William Michael Rosetti, James Collinson, Frederick George Stephens and Thomas Woolner. Their ideal female model was a beautiful young girl of eighteen, Lizzie Siddal whom Rosetti eventually married.  Friends and unofficial associates of the brotherhood were Ford Madox Brown, Walter Deverell, Arthur Hughes and Charles Alston Collins.  

The ideals and ideas to which they were dedicated were complex and varied but centred on the Romantic Spirit of the past and a focus on unsophisticated nature. Gaunt notes it was linked with Romantic Poetry, with the Arthurian legend,  with the Gothic and religious Revival, with the reactions against the Industrial Revolution; with Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley, Pugin and Pusey, the anti-Victorian thinkers Ruskin and Carlyle, though with the Italian masters of the later Middle Ages, who provided its name, it had very little to do. They were all lacking resources except Rosetti and were living on the edge. 

The Fellowship fell apart almost as soon as it was created. Hunt had a passion for the East and for Jerusalem and conversion of the masses to the Christian faith through art. He spent most of his time in Jerusalem. Woolner sailed off to Australia to join the gold rush. Mlllais dabbled with the Pre-Raphaelite spirit but quickly returned to where the safe money was and after several stops and starts became Britain’s favourite artist of the late C19th and eventually the President of the Royal Academy just prior to his death. Italian/British Rosetti was quixotic, dominating and outlandish, with new passions constantly forming and his outrageous life style was too much for some. 

The second revival of the “Brotherhood” was sparked by the complex and wealthy Oxford art critic and polymath John Ruskin who poured money and influence into the group and brought others in. Key figures in the second Pre-Raphaelite phase were Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and Ford Madox Brown. All of these remarkably able and talented artists and craftsmen were to have a vast and lasting influence on the English Anglican Gothic Revival, on design craftmanship and furniture making, on philosophy for the common man and freedom in art. 

The complex and ever-changing history of this group is elegantly told by Gaunt and becomes a picture of changing Britain in the second half of the C19th and the early C20th. Undoubtedly the key figures are Rosetti and William Morris whose beautiful  wife Jane maintained a ménage à trois with Rosetti for two years in their joint home at Kelmscott,  but Gaunt also manages to keep us informed of the activities of Hunt, Millais, Burn-Jones and many other acolytes.

Having spent considerable time in the UK tracking down Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Morris’s Red House in Kent and the little church and eccentric house and burial place of William and Jane Morris at Kelmscott, I could not put this book down. The Folio edition is of course beautifully illustrated with many lavish full page coloured productions of relevant works of art. Five stars.