Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) lived probably the darkest and most dangerous life of any of the great painters. The worlds of Milan and Rome through which Caravaggio moved and which Andrew Graham-Dixon describes brilliantly in this book, are those of cardinals and prostitutes, prayer and violence. The great patrons of the church competed to have the most celebrated artists of the day in their households, and the artists jostled for their favour. On the streets surrounding the churches and palazzos brawls and swordfights were regular occurrences. In one such fight in 1610 Caravaggio, a particularly violent man, killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, a pimp, and fled afterwards to Malta, where he escaped from prison, and Sicily. He disappeared somewhere off the coast of Naples in the middle of July 1610 and was never seen again.
In the course of this desperate life Caravaggio created the most dramatic and original paintings of his age, using ordinary men and women (often prostitutes or the very poor) as models for his depictions of classic religious scenes. Andrew Graham-Dixon's exceptionally illuminating readings of all the main surviving paintings, which are the heart of the book, show very clearly how he created their drama, their immediacy and their humanity, and how completely he departed from the conventions of his time.