Caravaggio: Painter on the Run

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
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Vivid bio of genius painter has mature content, violence.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Life and culture of Rome in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Caravaggio's life and work. Italian phrases and some names translated. Role of Catholic Church in the arts, especially how it commissioned works. How artists were able to live while working by being housed, clothed, and fed by wealthy patrons. Other famous artists of the day, especially how their work compared to Caravaggio's, and how Caravaggio was different, especially in his method. Church's dominance over people's lives, especially through the Inquisition.

Positive Messages

Art has the power to change the way people think about things, and the way they understand the world around them. Stay true to yourself and your own artistic vision, even if it goes against what's popular or what's seen as the right way to do things. One or two sexist messages about women, such as it's the woman's fault she got pregnant and when Caravaggio says he can't talk meaningfully to women because they're not very smart.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Caravaggio is a genius who stays true to his own artistic vision, even against the Catholic Church. He shows in his paintings that everyday people and situations have a spark of the divine, and that sacred stories and people from the Bible were in many ways regular folks. But his very short temper and spending each night drinking and carousing get him into fights and land him in jail almost too many times to count. He's also arrogant and frustrated when he doesn't get what he thinks is his due.

Violence

Lots of fights and brawls with punching, kicking, swords, and daggers. Blood's mentioned but only described once or twice as spurting or gushing; no other gore described. Mention or brief description of various forms of torture and execution, such as pulling off skin with hot pincers, hanging by the wrists until shoulders tear from their sockets, beheading, and burning at the stake. An execution by clubbing with a mace is briefly described. A lurid murder case mentions savage rape that almost kills someone, a man raping his wife in front of his teen daughter, attempting to rape his 15-year-old son, and "brutally assaulting" the same teen daughter. Murder by poison mentioned. How a Halifax gibbet (for beheading) works, and mention that heads are placed on display afterward. A minor character dies.

Sex

Mostly innuendo or alluding to sex like "a different kind of payment" other than cash to a landlady or holding being pulled down onto the bed. A few kisses mentioned but not described. Breasts mentioned and their attractiveness is described briefly. Renting a room in a brothel and mention that they'll have to pay if they want one of the girls. A courtesan is an important character and her pimp becomes important. Mention that women are "on offer" in taverns and trying to decide which one to take. A pregnant woman with eclampsia is described. A woman becomes pregnant unexpectedly and theres' talk of being sure who the father is and whether to get married; the woman is blamed for becoming pregnant. It's widely known that a cardinal sleeps with men. Celibacy of the priesthood is understood as a concept but people don't expect it to be a real practice.

Language

"Whore," "slut," "piss," "butt," and "crap." Name calling includes "snot," "ass," "boob," "bastard," and "jackass."  

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Caravaggio goes out almost every night to get drunk in taverns as a way of letting off steam or of coping with difficulties. Consequences like jail time are shown, but his behavior doesn't change much. Many scenes mention drinking wine in homes, many others take place in taverns, which are important gathering places and sources of news and gossip.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Caravaggio: Painter on the Run is a fictionalized account of the famous Baroque painter's life, meticulously and accurately brought to life Marissa Moss, author of the popular Amelia and Mira's Diary series. The target audience is a little older here, with matter-of-fact, adult attitudes toward sex, prostitution, and drinking. Caravaggio drinks to excess almost every night and frequently gets in fights and lands in jail as a consequence. Violence includes brief descriptions of fights and details of a notorious murder trial with mention that the victim raped and terrorized his own family. Various methods of execution and torture are mentioned, with the execution of one family in particular described with some detail but no gore. Some sexual innuendo and brief mention of a few kisses. Caravaggio lives for a time in a brothel where the madam and prostitute are mother and daughter. His wealthy patron, a cardinal, is known to have sex with men; Caravaggio doesn't care about that. Lots of educational value about life and art during the Renaissance, a timeline of Caravaggio's life, and an Author's Note that explains the impact of his art and why it was important as well as the basis in reality for all the events and characters in the story.

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What's the story?

CARAVAGGIO: PAINTER ON THE RUN fictionalizes the life of one of Italy's greatest painters, from the time he came to Rome in 1592 until his death in 1610. After leaving an unfulfilling apprenticeship with a staid, traditional artist, Caravaggio and his friend Mario put their paintings up for sale in an obscure art-dealer's shop. A powerful cardinal discovers Caravaggio's work and becomes his patron. Despite achieving great fame by sticking to his guns and painting the way he wants to, Caravaggio becomes increasingly frustrated because he still hasn't received a commission to paint in St. Peter's church, which is still under construction. His frequent late nights drinking and getting in fights land him in jail many times, until he's forced to flee Rome when a confrontation goes too far. After hiding out in Naples for a while, and earning a knighthood on Malta, Caravaggio is at last able to return to Rome and pick up where he left off. Unfortunately, he never makes it back to the city he loves so much, but his masterpieces continue to move art lovers around the world to this day.

Is it any good?

Veteran author Marissa Moss' thorough research brings the master painter vividly to life, along with the sights, sounds, and even smells of Rome at the end of the 16th century. Although his arrogance and obsession with fame make him difficult to like, there's no denying the innovative genius of Caravaggio: Painter on the Run. Mature tweens and up who can put the violence and attitudes about sex in historical context will really enjoy the richly detailed people, places, and events surrounding the groundbreaking artist. They'll also relate to Caravaggio's desire to use real-life models as a way of making the divine topics of his paintings more relatable to everyday people, and his constant battles with the stodgy status quo.

Caravaggio's life makes quite a page-turning story. Including diary-like entries from those who knew him brings broader perspective to the man and the events in his life, and the real-life police blotter entries add realism, and even humor. Readers may want to seek out his paintings after reading this bio, since the only examples of his work here are small black-and-white sketches of some details found in his paintings. Kids should be encouraged to look him up online or at the library or a museum to compare his actual images against descriptions in the text and what they imagined as they read.

 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in Caravaggio's Rome. How are attitudes different, or the same, today?

  • How might Caravaggio's life have been different if he hadn't spent so much time drinking? Would it have ended differently? Does the book glamorize drinking?

  • Why doesn't the author show any of Caravaggio's paintings? What do you think they look like? Search on line or at the library to find some of the paintings described in the book. Is it different from what you pictured?

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