Nicholas Poussin once said that Caravaggio had come into the world to destroy painting. Helen Langdon's marvellous new biography Caravaggio: A Life suggests that rather than destroying painting the Milanese painter gave it a new lease of life. Upon his arrival in Rome Caravaggio boldly ended a tradition of Italian Renaissance painting, and created a radically new naturalistic style which continues to dazzle and influence today.
Beautifully poised between biographical scholarship and artistic appreciation, Langdon's biography provides the reader with a complex, fascinating Caravaggio, still the rebel and outsider of the popular imagination, but also immersed in the Roman world of art, politics and patronage. Some of the finest sections of the book vividly bring to life the streets and brothels of early 17th- century Rome, which provided Caravaggio with the inspiration for so many of his early works. By contrast, the later sections which deal with Caravaggio's exile and commissions in Naples, Malta and Sicily seem rather brief and truncated, giving the final third of the book a rather unbalanced feel. This is however partly due to the elusiveness of Caravaggio himself; with little direct contemporary documentation on the painter, he often slips into the shadows, evading the scrutiny of the biographer.
But Langdon's achievement is to produce a compelling portrait of the artist which throws new light on his paintings. Here is a painter who is proud, difficult and arrogant, yet highly intellectual in his appreciation of the changing face of both Catholicism and scientific enquiry. Written with great historical clarity, and supplemented by 42 magnificent colour illustrations, Helen Langdon's Caravaggio is a worthy contribution to scholarly study of this artist. --Jerry Brotton