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Caravaggio: A Passionate Life

The greatest painter of the Italian Baroque, Caravaggio was also a quick-tempered, murderous swordsman. Few artists have had a police record like his. When painting, however, he became a mystic. The models for his Virgins and his saints were prostitutes, but his pictures are deeply spiritual.

At the height of his fame, just after painting the Pope's portrait, Caravaggio killed a man in a duel and had to hide for his life in the wild hills outside Rome. Outlawed, he became a Knight of Malta but, for half-killing a fellow knight in another duel, was thrown into a dungeon from which he escaped, leaping over the prison walls with a rope. After fleeing along the coast of Sicily on small boats, pursued by a nameless enemy, he was caught in a Neapolitan brothel by his enemy's assassins and left for dead, so disfigured by sword cuts that he was unrecognisable. Trying to return to Rome, he was shipwrecked, mistaken for a notorious bandit and arrested, before dying on a Tuscan beach in mysterious circumstances when he was still only thirty-eight. All this time he had been painting furiously, in cellars by lamp light, pictures that are masterpieces. Some must still await rediscovery.

Was Caravaggio a homosexual, whose religious scenes are secretly suffused with homoeroticism? What were the causes of his self-destructive binges and endless brawling? Did the Knights of Malta murder him? Just where did he die and where was he buried? Making use of very recent discoveries in Italy and elsewhere, Desmond Seward answers these questions.

His book is at the same time a gripping adventure story and a study of a moody, violent genius, playing dramatically on the contrast between wonderfully creative art and a vicious private life. It uses both the pictures and contemporary crime reports to peer into Caravaggio’s mind.


"Seward does a fine job of piercing together circumstantial evidence of the painter's turbulent life, while skilful juxtaposition of Caravaggio's personal narrative and art illuminates the origin of his dramatic style."

Kirkus Review

"Seward does a good job of bringing together recent scholarship and background material on Caravaggio's milieu."

Michael Ybarra, Boston Book Review

"Seward ... seeks to clarify the facts and establish a context for the shaping of Caravaggio's notoriously tormented sensibility. He spares no gruesome details in his staggering descriptions of the plague years, during which young Caravaggio lost most of his family, or of the treacherous streets of Rome where nightly knifings and daily public executions made for a macabre world ... Seward's emphasis on Caravaggio's religious convictions goes much further in explicating the power of his art and the nature of his soul than speculation about his sexuality."

Donna Seaman, Booklist

"he has written a well researched biography of Caravaggio which, in his own words, "Uses the pictures to peer into his mind." Aimed at the general reader, rather than the specialist, it certainly succeeds ... In many ways his treatment is reminiscent, as he admits, of Peter Schaffer's treatment of Mozart in 'Amadeus'."

Donald Lee, The Art Newspaper

"Seward's scholarship is pointed, unpretentious, often amusing ... He does his "modest best" to get inside Caravaggio's head through the use of original sources and an adventurous exploration of the world that Caravaggio inhabited ... Caravaggio is a lively read, and a rewarding one. Seward's "modest best" is very good indeed."

Lynn Roberson, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Buy Desmond Seward