Caravaggio’s art is made from darkness and light. His pictures present spotlit moments of extreme and often agonised human experience. A man is decapitated in his bedchamber, blood spurting from a deep gash in his neck. A man is assassinated on the high altar of a church. Faces are brightly illuminated. Yet always the shadows encroach, pools of blackness that threaten to obliterate all.

Caravaggio’s life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights. He was one of the most original artists ever to have lived, yet we have only one solitary sentence from him on the subject of painting — the sincerity of which is, in any case, questionable, since it was elicited when he was under interrogation for the capital crime of libel.

Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. He lived much of his life as a fugitive, but is caught, now and again, by the sweeping beam of a searchlight. Caravaggio throws stones at the house of his landlady and sings ribald songs outside her window. He has a fight with a waiter about the dressing on a plate of artichokes. He taunts a rival with graphic sexual insults. He attacks a man in the street. He is involved in a fatal swordfight.

Anyone attempting a biography of Caravaggio must play die detective as well as the art historian. His life can easily seem merely chaotic, the rise and fall of an incurable hot-head, a man so governed by passion that his actions unfold without rhyme or reason. But there is a logic to it all and, with hindsight, a tragic inevitability.

A lot has been made of Caravaggio’s presumed homosexuality, which has been presented as the single key to both his art and his misfortunes. There is no absolute proof of it, only strong circumstantial evidence and much rumour.

The truth is that Caravaggio was as uneasy in his relationships as he was in most other aspects of life. He likely slept with men. He did sleep with women. But he settled with no one. From a very young age, and with good cause, he suffered from a deep sense of abandonment.

If any one thing lay behind the erratic behaviour that doomed him to an early death, it was the tragedy that befell him when he was just a little boy. To understand the experiences that most deeply shaped him, it is necessary to begin where he was born: in the town of Caravaggio, in Lombardy, from which he would later take his name. He lived both there and in the nearby city of Milan for the first 21 years of his life.

In the summer of 1576, when Caravaggio was almost five, Milan was struck by an outbreak of bubonic plague. A year later, the plague tore into Caravaggio’s own family. By the age of six, Caravaggio had lost almost every male member of his family, and the art of his maturity would be saturated in the ineradicable memory of night terrors, filled with images of turmoil in dark places.

‘Whore, bitch, tart!’ These are the words of an artist scorned, addressed to a courtesan who refused to sleep with him. They are preserved in a deposition in the State Archives of Rome for 1602. The man was before the magistrates for abuse and physical assault.

As well as insulting and beating her, he had actually knifed the woman. She had been badly injured, cut deeply to the face. The facial wound was an example of a sfregio, a slash with the blade inflicted as a mark of shame – doubly damaging to a courtesan, whose face was her fortune.

There are many such tales in the annals of the lives of the artists who thrived, floundered or failed in Counter-Reformation Rome. During his own 14 years in the city, where he moved after cutting all ties with his family at the age of 21, Caravaggio would become embroiled in more than his fair share of bloody vendettas. He was a violent man, but he lived in a violent world. Throughout 17th-century Italy an inflammatory code of honour prevailed. The fama of an individual, which referred to not only his fame or reputation but also his good name, was paramount. Any insult to it had to be paid for, and the price was often blood. Caravaggio went to greater extremes than his contemporaries, in life as in art.

The artists’ quarter of Rome at the end of die 16th century was a dangerous area. Fights were common and fists were not the only weapons used. The ultimate ambition of every young, jostling artist was the same: to work for the cardinals closest to the pope, to secure the most important devotional commissions and win lasting fame -with the money and security that went with it. In a world where rivalry was intense, stories of sabotage abounded – of collapsed scaffolding, of the painter whose rival poisoned his colours with acid so that all his blues turned green in a matter of days.

When Caravaggio arrived in the city, in the autumn of 1592, he was just another artist on the make. Having begun painting crude ‘heads’ – most likely those of famous men of the past – he eventually found himself a more exalted position in with the Cesari brothers, one of whom was among the most prominent artists in Rome. Caravaggio was employed to paint ‘flowers and fruit’ within the relatively new field of still-life painting.

In 1579, Carlo Borromeo, the dour Archbishop of Milan, had tried, unsuccessfully, to kill off the exuberantly joyful pre-Lenten tradition of Carnival. Caravaggio lived his life as if there were only Carnival and Lent, with nothing in between. His pictures are the legacy of his Lenten days. His carnivalesque alter-ego emerged in his early days in Rome, where, according to one biographer, Caravaggio liked to go about with a crowd ‘who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, “without hope, without fear”.’The most dangerous of these companions was a hot-headed architect called Onorio Longhi, who would patrol the streets of Rome on horseback, as if he was a knight and his servant was his page. Those who ran with him behaved like modern, debased versions of the ‘veray parfit gentil knights’ of the old romance tradition, whoring and fighting rather than slaying dragons and protecting damsels in distress.

Caravaggio was certainly friendly with prostitutes, some of whom modelled for him. His favourite was Fillide Melandroni, a dark-eyed girl destined to become one of Rome’s most famous courtesans. In 1598 or 1599, Caravaggio painted a startlingly sado-erotic Judith and Holofernes, with Fillide in the leading role. Like that of David and Goliath, the biblical story of Judith was a parable of underdog virtue triumphing over tyranny: a Jewish heroine seduces a ruthless Assyrian general and then slays him, with his own sword, in his tent.

Under Caravaggio’s hand, sanctified execution in an Assyrian tent has become murder in a Roman whorehouse. The bearded Holofernes, lying naked on the crumpled sheets of a prostitute’s bed, is a client who has made a terrible mistake. He wakes up to realise that he is about to die. Fillide pulls on his hair with her left hand, not only to expose his neck but to stretch the flesh so that it will part more easily. She frowns with grim concentration, as he screams his last, and as the blood begins to spray from the mortal wound in bright red jets.

Caravaggio has imagined the whole scene as a fantastically extreme version of the violent incidents that he and his companions were so often embroiled in. He adds a sexual frisson to the violence: beneath the diaphanous fabric of her tight-fitting bodice, Fillide’s nipples are visibly erect. It is the sort of detail that Cardinal Paravicino may have had in mind when he made his famous remark about pictures that he ‘would not have wanted to see from a distance’. Judith and Holofernes divided Caravaggio’s contemporaries, many of whom found the realism rude and indecorous. Others were fascinated by it.

On July 4 1600 the painter received a final payment of 50 scudi for The Calling of St Matthew and The Martyrdom of St Matthew, two paintings destined to adorn Rome’s prestigious Contarelli Chapel. His matchless sense of drama and use of extreme contrasts of light and dark would prove intoxicating. It is no exaggeration to say that they decisively changed the tradition of European art.

The Contarelli paintings were controversial but they instantly established Caravaggio as one of the leading painters of the city. There is no sign that success mellowed him. During the winter of 1600 he injured one of Rome’s many unemployed mercenaries in a swordfight. On November 19 1600, he was charged with a nocturnal assault on a young Tuscan art student named Girolamo Spampa. The premeditated attack – Caravaggio stabbed Spampa from behind – reeked of vendetta.

Just over five years later, deeply in debt, recently evicted and in trouble, yet again, with the law, Caravaggio received a commission that must have seemed like a God-given chance for him to paint his way out of trouble. He had finally been asked to paint an altarpiece for St Peters, the central church of Catholic Christendom.

Caravaggio had finished the work in less than four months. The Madonna of the Palafrenieri, sometimes known as The Madonna of the Serpent, is monumental in scale. Almost 10ft tall and more than six across, it shows three figures absorbed in a confrontation with pure evil. The Virgin and the infant Christ together crush the head of a serpent beneath their feet. Strangely for Caravaggio, there is no sense of drama. Instead of telling a story he was obliged to embody an allegory and make a theological point. He did his utmost to produce an unimpeachable endorsement of the prevailing religious orthodoxy – which can only have made what happened next all the more painful.

Within two days of going up, the altarpiece had been removed, and was soon to be sold on to a private collector. It was almost certainly Caravaggio’s embodiment of the Virgin in a low-cut dress that caused the difficulty. Appealing once more to the mass of ordinary Catholics, Caravaggio had simply painted her as the kind of mother with whom real mothers might identify.

Despite this enormous setback, Caravaggio refused to change his approach. Shorty after delivering The Madonna of the Palafrenieri, he finally completed his long overdue altarpiece of The Death of the Virgin. This huge and deeply moving picture is stark evidence of the painter’s reluctance to compromise, and of his moral resilience.

Never before in the history of Christian painting had the mother of God been made to seem so poor and frail and vulnerable. Wearing a simple red dress, unlaced at the bodice to make her more comfortable in her last moments, she lies stretched out on the makeshift bier of a plank of wood. She looks shockingly dead. The church of Santa Maria della Scala, for which the painting was intended, belonged to the order of the so-called discalced Carmelites, the shoeless Carmelites. This may have encouraged Caravaggio to believe that his stark depiction of the Virgin might find favour. But no sooner was his painting delivered than he learnt that it too had been rejected.

The Carmelite brothers had reportedly found it ‘well made but without decorum or invention or cleanliness’. To say a picture had been created ‘without invention’ was shorthand for saying that it had been painted from reality rather than the imagination. The Madonna had been made to look ¡ dirty and indecorous. She was made to look real.

This second rejection must have cut Caravaggio to the quick. Looking back on it years later, Giulio ; Mancini, a physician from Siena who knew I Caravaggio well, wondered if the refusal of The Death of the Virgin might not have been the tilting point of the painter’s whole life. ‘Perhaps consequently, Caravaggio suffered so much trouble,’ E he wrote. It is just an aside, but it should not be taken lightly. Mancini had seen first-hand what happened next. In the immediate aftermath, Caravaggio committed a crime that would blight the rest of his life. He killed a man.

What were the circumstances that led to Caravaggio fatally stabbing the pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni in a duel on May 28 1606? Numerous theories abound but one thing is certain: a bitter enmity had been building between the men. Tomassoni had been the pimp who controlled Caravaggio’s favourite courtesan, Fillide. From the outset, Tomassoni would have been dismayed to discover their association: a mere painter was hardly a desirable client for Tomassoni s most beautiful courtesan. There is even evidence to suggest that Caravaggio might have encroached on Tomassoni’s territory by becoming a part-time pimp himself. Caravaggio needed models, so rather than be at the mercy of pimps, why not secure his own whores?

One other detail suggests that the cause of the fight may have been some kind of sexual insult. Tomassoni bled to death from the femoral artery. Caravaggio had struck him a low blow, aiming perhaps at the groin and missing by just a fraction. Wounds were meaningful. A cut to the face was a sfregio, but it was by no means the only form of symbolic, premeditated injury that Italians inflicted upon their enemies. It is possible that Caravaggio was not trying to kill Tomassoni, but attempting to make mincemeat of his testicles with a sword.

This time, retribution was swift: Caravaggio was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence*.This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so. To claim the reward, it would not be necessary to produce the painter’s body. His severed head would suffice.

Badly wounded himself, the painter had no choice but to flee Rome. Yet his yean in exile would be no less eventful or dramatic. Caravaggio first fled to Malta, where he joined the prestigious order of the Knights of St John, before clashing with one of their most illustrious members and finding yet another death sentence upon his head. On the run, once again, Caravaggio escaped to Naples, where, on the brink of securing a papal pardon for the murder of Tomassoni, he made an ill-advised visit to a seedy Neapolitan tavern. Here, his life of violence finally caught up with him. This time it was Caravaggio who was the victim of a ‘hit’ by a group of armed men who were almost certainly sent by Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, the ‘noble Knight’ he had argued with in Malta.

Caravaggio was badly cut on the face, which in the honour code of the day was an injury to avenge an insult to reputation. He would never recover, and it was almost certainly these injuries that would leave him so weakened as, in the summer of 1610, he made his way back to his beloved Rome after finally receiving confirmation of his pardon.

The artist was travelling by boat, with three of his unsold paintings, all of which were intended for Scipione Borghese, a papal nephew who was fond of the artist and had commissioned him before. With Caravaggio was a trusted skipper, Alessandro Caramano. It was this humble boatman who would be the source of the artist’s final movements. After docking at Palo, he told authorities, a misunderstanding with the captain had resulted in Caravaggio being jailed. The boat continued to Porto Ercole, where, presumably, Caravaggio attempted to make his way in a desperate attempt to recover his paintings. The stress of his arrest, and the frantic ride to Porto Ercole in the heat of July, was more than a man in his condition could take. Heat exhaustion, or a heart attack, may have been what finally killed him.

Caravaggio had lived much of his life surrounded by poor and ordinary people. He painted for them and from their perspective. In the end he died and was buried among them, in an unmarked grave. He was 38 years old.

Chapter 6: Can Art Really Influence Science?

Most scientists I asked about whether art had truly influenced science said in general, no, because they recognize the fundamental difference between the enterprises more than most artists, and the rest of us, do.  We are entranced by parallel images from subatomic particles and Zen brush painting, but we don’t think through the fundamental oppositions of such activities.  Science is a cumulative quest for the objective description of the way the world really is, with each stab towards the truth subject to rigorous scrutiny, logic, and possible repeatability.  Art is a stab in the dark, a quest to make a strong statement, to feel ‘true’ in the gut by doing something polished and complete enough to cause an instant stir in the heart.  You can analyze, you can test it, you can try to explain it, but the greatness will be more than the sum of its parts.  It may be an easy gesture, or a labored effort, be done in minutes with the turn of the hand or a sudden glance.  As much as one may speak of similar gestures in science, they represent an aesthetic part of the scientific work, not the main gist of it.

Science and art have different criteria for truth. They present their conclusions with a different sort of stance, a different weight.  An artist can convince by the splendor of his work, or just the conviction of this presentation. Even the image of a whole that doesn’t quite make sense, and cannot exist apart from its presentation.  Like a fine bird song, which has no message or meaning outside its performance. It is what it is, and if it touches enough who experience it, it will endure.  But not science.  Every conclusion is subject to the intense scrutiny of the whole field, and will most likely be superseded by new discoveries over time.  In science there is most definitely progress.  In art, we recognize changes in taste over time, but not aesthetic advancement.

Most of us would not say today’s art is better than that made in the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods.  It is certainly different, and we may or may not prefer different things today. Art is primarily expressive and evocative, not needing to be useful and informative.  But I would like it to help us, to improve our lot, in a way to progress. I want to imagine it can change the way we see the world, and improve our understanding. So should it then at least sometimes positively influence science? Taylor and his colleagues believe Pollock anticipated the discoveries of fractal mathematics, though maybe he is instead saying that what is great in Pollock’s wild imagery is the fractal naturalness of it, which is more like an accidental secret code than a real insight.  In the end he too is showing how mathematics might explain art, giving science the upper hand, a kind of solid exact power that comes with science’s ability to do things, to make things, to physically improve the world.  Compared to the changes in our world that science has wrought, art can seen downright frivolous, but it does make us laugh and cry.

One scientist who has thought quite deeply on this is the Nobel prize winning chemist Roald Hoffman, who has also published several books of poetry and is famous for organizing the monthly “Entertaining Science” events at New York’s Cornelia Street Café, one of the longest-running series of informal gatherings to present science and downtown culture together, the forerunner of the great “Science Festivals” now popping up in major cities all over the world.  Chemistry, he says, surprisingly, is often all about drawing. The vocabulary of chemistry can get so technical that even its practicitioners cannot understand all the words in a typical journal article in the field!  But when they see molecules drawn, with their elements and their interconnections, in the standard and universally understood way, then it all makes sense.  Chemists are trained connoisseurs of a particular kind of illustration, which, in its universality, has more currency in explaining its concepts than the confusing gobbledegook of words, which outsiders like to call jargon.  Even within the field it is jargon, and there are too many terms to ever know.  The image is the key, the drawing tells all.

“The communication of molecules’ architectonic essence by little iconic drawings (rather than photographs or etchings), and by ball and stick models, is of proven value – remember it’s been more than half a century since the Watson and Crick paper. They didn’t synthesize DNA, they reasoned out its structure, almost willing a model into being,” writes Hoffman in a special issue of the journal Hyle on aesthetics in chemistry.  “It never ceases to amaze me how a community of people who are not talented at drawing, nor trained to do so, manages to communicate faultlessly so much three-dimensional information.”

He is amazed, but also shocked by his colleagues’ resistance to a more aesthetic approach to the world.  Why is it, he wonders, “that people who have learned to communicate visually in such a variety of artistic styles—chemists—are not more tolerant of expressionist and abstract artistic ways of communicating knowledge and emotion?”  I would say it is the classic sense that in science the march of knowledge is rigorous and cumulative, while an artist can just get up there and say something, make a gesture, do something different or out of whack, and demand to be taken seriously and his culture will sometimes take him seriously, without needing to ask all these questions that situate the work in its context.  Art does not work the same way as science, so if you talk about their relationship or how to combine them, you will want to tell your audience if what you present is to be taken as science, or as art, and in each case it will need to be enjoyed or assessed differently.  This is not to favor one or the other ways of knowing, just to recognize that they will always be different, and if something is to be both art and science then it will have to allow these two different ways of interpretation.

So as a musician, I can sail off the coast of Hawaii and try to play music live with humpback whales, and sometimes I get those whales to sing along with me and the interspecies results might once in a while be interesting to listen to as a kind of music that crosses many aesthetic lines.  All I have to do is get one beautiful recording, show that it really is a live interaction between human and whale, and present the work as such. It might be successful. Is the whale really responding to my clarinet?  How is he adjusting his song in response to mine?  To say something scientific about this, I’m going to have to go out on hundreds of trips and collect a lot of data of whale/human interactions that can be statistically analyzed. To turn this into a scientific experiment, such data is essential. Only then could I make more objective conclusions about what I hear as beautiful. As an art experiment, one beautiful human/whale duet is enough.  It is easier in that it takes less time, but you have to be musically prepared to take such a thing seriously.  That’s the harder part.

Hoffman has thought much more deeply on this. He has considered how science might learn far more subtlety from art.  After being amazed by how much chemists can express to each other using drawing, a fundamentally artistic techniques, he thinks more daringly on how art might inform science.  What of abstraction?  We have spoken of abstract art for more than a century—can there also be something called abstract science? For one, we cannot really be sure any art is really abstract; if it doesn’t represent the appearance of nature, does it not idealize nature by seeking to exalt pure form one way or another?

Abstraction, when it was introduced, seemed to be put forth as in opposition to something, a more naïve notion that art could basically represent the world.  So, let’s try for an abstract science.  Is there any sense in which chemistry could be seen as in opposition to something?  It too is sometimes opposed to nature. Hoffman says: “Chemists in the laboratory are torn between emulating nature and doing things their own way. A protein, through its own curling and its tool kit of sidechain options, shapes a pocket where, say, a molecule with only right-handed symmetry fits. But it not only fits, it has something done to it—a specific bond in that molecule is cleaved, or an atom is delivered to it. The chemist’s fun, much like abstract art, is in achieving the same (why not better?) degree of shape control that nature does, but doing it differently, perchance better, in the laboratory.”  With greater abstraction may come greater fun.

And greater attention to form and simplification, the basis of science’s tendency to break things down into their simplest parts.  Yet it is not the elegance of the rules that most impresses Hoffman, but the sense that the playing of the game can trump the results, like Hermann Hesse’s vision of the mysterious spiritual/technical activity he introduced in The Glass Bead Game, an activity never quite defined but consuming its players like a whole sci/art culture, always a vision that impressed me for years as a college student, especially the fact that it could never quite be described because its totality was so immense.  So it’s either a metaphor for life itself, or a call to generate the great games of today, intricate structures in cyberspace or playing themselves upon total digital machines.  But that’s still probably not it, it’s still more likely that great sense you feel when, against all odds, all the processes one thinks through at any given moment suddenly seem to make sense, and all fit together like some great “aha” moment that finally really works.

Hoffman gazes at the cool geometrical forms of Rothko, amazed by their exactness and fuzziness at once.  Art has evolved to depict tendencies, hazy eminences like the unclear parts of the brain that may light up when one or another thought process happens.  Science of the mind not like a device, with gears and cogs churning the machinations of thought, no, hazy areas on the screen light up, we have a glimmer of idea we might begin to chart. Data? A diagram? Proof, some clear result?  Not really, but a century where art can be blurry and with this blurriness offer a new kind of precise meaning inspires many disciplines of science where inexactness does not stop us.

 

Roald Hoffman, “Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry,” Hyle, vol. 9, no. 1, 2003, p. 7.

Roald Hoffman, “Abstract Science,” American Scientist, vol. 97, no. x, 2009, p. 450.

Ch. 6, Survival of the Beautiful, by David Rothenberg, © 2011. Used with permission by Bloomsbury Press

 

Why did you decide to write a book about Caravaggio? Is there anything new to say about him, after all these years?

It might seem strange, but even though Caravaggio is one of the most obsessed-about and massively popular artists of all time, an extraordinary amount of devastatingly interesting and revealing new information has come out about him in recent years. I am talking about new, hard, archival discoveries, a truly astonishing treasure trove of documents from the distant past – new facts about the prostitutes with whom he consorted, the women (and perhaps men) with whom he had sex; the soldiers, mercenaries and thugs with whom he fought and argued; the other painters with whom he contested; the man he murdered in a castration-attempt on a tennis court in Rome in the summer of 1606; the man he shot and near-fatally wounded on the brutal military island of Malta a few years later; the gang of four who pinned him down and cut his face off in Naples, condemning him to a terrible, slow, lingering death …

 

What sets your biography apart from others that have been written about him?

All of this new stuff had been discovered by scholars working in different places in different, disconnected ways. Some of it had been published, but generally only in aracane or extremely academic corners. No one had put it together, however. So I did. Whether the reader thinks I have done a good job with the information, the information itself is transformative in terms of what we know and think about the painter. I think it’s like a bomb dropped into the still waters of existing Caravaggio literature. Basically, my book is the first to bring all of this information together for the general reader. As a result, I believe it is the first book about him truly to tell the full story of who he was, why he did what he did, and ultimately what happened to him.

 

How do you hope to change perceptions of him?

For centuries Caravaggio has been regarded as a mysterious, rather mad outsider. After ten years and more of detective work, I believe I have finally been able to make sense of him, and of the patterns that shaped his life – deeply tragic patterns from the start, going back to the death of all his male relatives, of plague, when he was just 5 or 6 years old. I hope that my book releases him from the many stereotypes he has been subjected to in so many of the other books (and films and novels) that have taken him as their subject: Volatile Lunatic, Tragic Outsider, Protypical Gay Icon. For me, he’s none of those cardboard cut-outs. He’s a real, complicated, dangerous but also deeply sympathetic human being.

 

Are there any other ambitions behind your book?

Most definitely. The nature of the Caravaggio archival treasure trove, as I have called it – different sets of documents unearthed in archives in Rome, Naples, Malta and elsewhere – is that it doesn’t just give you this extraordinary, troubled man’s life. It gives you his whole world, and it is a truly fascinating world, one where people live by very particular, apparently strange but ultimately logical codes of honour.

So for example, in this world, if a painter insults Caravaggio behind his back, Caravaggio will go up behind him late one night and smash him on the back of the head with the back of his sword: the logic being that if you insult me behind my back, I attack you from the back. If a woman insults Caravaggio’s reputation, he will smear excrement on the windows of her house: the logic being that if you attack my honour, which is my face, then I besmirch the front of your house, the architectural face you present to the world. If a man argues with Caravaggio about a woman, Caravaggio will attempt to castrate him in a duel: the logic being that if you insult me sexually, I will wound you sexually. What I hope you get from my book is a true and deep understanding of the codes and the logic – however twisted that logic might be – by which Caravaggio and his friends and enemies lived their lives. In other words, he was not some freak or weirdo, but a dangerous man in a dangerous world.

Because I find that world utterly, transfixingly interesting, I have tried wherever possible to give the reader the documents that survive in full: the whole of a trial transcript, for example, or the entirety of a prostitute’s account of attacking her rival. I explain who the people involved are, I come to my conclusions, but I also give the reader as much as possible of the raw history, so they can decide for themselves whether they agree with my conclusions and inferences. Also, by quoting these documents – the few other books to make limited us of them have abridged or summarised them – I feel I put the reader really in touch with the feel and the smell of seventeenth-century Rome, or Naples, or Sicily.

 

What about the paintings? 

Well, they are the reason I wrote the book in the first place. If you like, my book is three books interwoven together: the story of Caravaggio’s life; the portrait of the world in which he lived with all its codes and customs etcetera; combined with deep, lengthy analyses of each and every painting. The part I would most like to be judged on is the last. My analysis of his pictures – those dark, dramatic, deeply profound depictions of men and women in extremis – well for me that is the heart and soul of my book.

I hope I have proved for once and all that Caravaggio was not just some flash in the pan, some gifted proto-photographic master of realism; he was an immensely subtle, emotionally profound, intellectually complex artist. I don’t use the genius word lightly and there aren’t many artists or writers I would apply it to, but he really was a genius. I also think he was one of the most touchingly, deeply humane and human human beings ever to have lived.

 

What’s your most vivid memory of writing the book?

Sitting in my study late and night and suddenly realising that I’d solved the supposed mystery of how he died and who had killed him. I started crying, for Christ’s sake! I even realised that I knew the name of the man who was the last person to see him alive: a humble boatman called Alexander Caramano, who took Caravaggio to his death on a boat named Santa Maria dello Porto Salvo, Saint Mary of the Safe Harbour. History can contain such astonishingly cruel ironies.

His life had the patterns of a tragedy, the patterns of a work of art, almost. You couldn’t have made it up. It was such a sad, sad life, in the end. But what dark gold it produced.

 

What made you want to write a book on beauty?

This world is a beautiful place.  Sometimes that is easy to forget.  I have always wanted to be able to explain this beauty as something objective, a fact, a quality about the way the world evolved, not just some subjective human opinion.  It turned out that realization of beauty was one of the motivating factors behind Darwin’s discovery of evolution, a fact that science seems to have forgotten.  I wanted to bring this history back into today’s discussion about what life is and how it got here.

 

You’re a musician.  What are you doing writing about visual art?

Right, I have no idea what I’m talking about.  But everyone around me is a visual artist—my mother is a painter, my father was an architect, my wife is an artist, I grew up with discussions of modernism and postmodernism and surrealism and impressionism all around the house.  Over the years I became fascinated with the idea that paying attention to abstract twentieth century art has led us to see nature in a new way, and I was surprised no one had written about this.  I really wanted to see in what ways art has specifically influenced science, and how it might have more influence in the future.

 

Isn’t the ‘beautiful’ a kind of old-fashioned concept when it comes to talking about art today?

So they say, but I believe that the most enduring conceptual/situationist artworks will be those that leave a direct aesthetic impression on the viewer.  They still have to be beautiful if these works expect to survive.

 

How does it feel to criticize scientists when you yourself are not a scientist?

Yes, sometimes scientists have gotten angry with me when I make outlandish claims like “you people are not asking the most interesting questions.”  Who do I think I am?  In my earlier book Why Birds Sing I was more critical of science when it comes to what it wasn’t asking about bird song, but now, six years later, I find myself collaborating with bird song neuroscientists trying to develop new approaches to analyze the deeper, musical structure of this beautiful natural phenomena, the kind of structure scientists previously refused to recognize.  So maybe my prodding is having a little bit of influence.

It has long been my belief that among the many human forms of knowledge—art, music, poetry, science, philosophy, religion—no one approach will encompass the others.  Often the practitioners of each seem to think theirs is the best or most total way.  That sense of primacy or entitlement can never be completely correct.  Our minds and senses are too diverse for that.

I want to explore how art might best influence science.  Too often when these disparate approaches are combined the blending is either too easy: “art and science both value elegance and creativity” or else too condescending:  “artists dare to dream and play Reality is far more nuanced and interesting than that.

 

There are a lot of pictures in your book, how do those connect with the words?

If you put all the pictures together and gaze at each of them for a while before moving onto the next, you may be able to get the same ideas as the words describe in greater detail.

 

What should science really learn from art?

The beauty in a moment’s creative expression may be unique and unrepeatable, but in that moment’s greatness can exist an important truth which must be accepted, even though it may never happen again.

Art can sometimes accomplish the impossible, and then science should not deny it but can try to explain it, as long as the method of explanation does not serve to remove the magic from the aesthetic moment.

 

What should art learn from science?

Art can learn diligence, perception of details, asking of questions, and perhaps above all the subjecting of any wild idea against the test of rationality or data.  Don’t just trust your instincts!  Don’t get stuck on your own ideas!  Look, listen, wait, think, scrutinize.  Your goal of expressing an essential insight that can be expressed no other way can easily take itself too seriously and not pay enough attention to the real world.  Science should teach you to question your own assumptions and really learn from careful attention to the way nature works, not just the way it appears.

 

What do you want the reader to get from your book?

To look up from the pages and see the world in a whole new way, where beauty is a fact, and science and art both conspire to reveal different aspects of this same, genuine fabric all around us.

 

What are you working on next?

Something much easier than a whole theory of art, science, and evolution!  Back to something I know more about… how to make music with bugs…. should be out in time for the return of the seventeen years cicadas to New York in 2013.  You can watch a preview here:

 

It would pain us, years ago, not to touch one another. In Key West, maybe a couple months after we met, Louisa and I celebrated an early-love sort of holiday—you know, the eight-week anniversary of the first French kiss, or something blissful like that—with a dinner at the now-defunct Cafe des Artistes on Duval St. Atypical for me, I remember little about the actual food, though snapshots of warm foie gras, port wine reductions, diver scallops and saffron decorate the memory, accurate or not. More than anything, I remember the size of the table, a massive dark wooden number, way too big for a two-top, Louisa and I perched at opposite ends. It took our full wingspans to reach one another across that expanse, surely dodging fresh flower, the vase that held it, and burning candle. All for a mere brushing of the fingertips, an actual, if chemical, recharging of our batteries, our blind feet searching in vain in the gulf beneath the white linen tablecloth.

It was a window table, and I remember looking through it at her standing in streetlight on the sidewalk, enjoying her mid-meal cigarette, her blonde hair glowing orange in the night. Somehow, even though it was Key West, and probably at least 70-degrees, I impose, in memory, snowfall on this scene—some dramatic anomaly, some fictional meteorological introspection, the kind of nostalgia that, for a Midwestern boy, can only reside in light ice falling beneath the orange pool of a streetlamp, smoke pouring from the lips of an early lover in the dark, through a restaurant window, at a too-big table pushing flutes of hazel champagne into the air.

Often, it’s still like this—how we’re driven by the need to touch, how our memories are inflamed sometimes by this lack, the distance we must breach. Here, on the other side of the Zócalo tracks, there is no distance at all to breach; we are wallpaper-glued together and we cling to one another not out of need, but incidentally. Actually, we cling to a whole bunch of people, the streets jammed with the chaos of familiarity—the kind that represents a close-knit neighborhood. Really close—like someone’s-knee-in-another’s-tailbone close. I think of my ancestors in the Jewish ghettoes of Poland, the wild social structures and hierarchies within. Here, in Mexico, land of living ghosts, I commune with them. Some apparitional great-aunt with ham-hock arms juggles pierogies, catching them in her mouth before they fall. Her smile bears the sheen of sour cream, bridging Poland and Mexico with a single ingredient. I want to wrap my arm around this burly ghost, sway, gather the streets into a frenzied We Are the World.

But all we can do is succumb to the rhythm, decide not to fight the current. My great-aunt’s ghost fades into the multitude. In these streets, the Cafe des Artistes two-top would be ground to sand. The undertow carries us into Tamale Alley, literally an entire street lined with outdoor food-stalls, each of them peddling their unique takes on the corn-husked delight, not a single one stuffed with huitlacoche. When we ask for it, utter those four corn-smutty syllables, we are, each time without fail, greeted with wrinkled foreheads and dismissive waves. We are obviously absurd foreigners, belted with occasional bursts of tamale steam as the vendors lift the tin lids of their water baths. Crowds of mid-day eaters huddle six-deep, eating together in front of the stand from which they bought their food, pulling bits of golden cornmeal stuffed with mole negro chicken, carnitas in salsa verde, whitefish in mole amarillo, from the corn husks wrapped in greasy crinkling waxpaper, laughing, arguing, working things out. One portion of the alley prepares only mole negro, another the amarillo, another the verde. Tamale Alley has cliques, cornmeal turf wars.

Cars, bikes, mopeds, garbage trucks, skinny shirtless guys hauling cardboard boxes on dollies cascade around the standing diners, swinging wide to avoid them, snaking sidewalk and street, wherever there’s a breathe-hole, a crack of space through which to push. No table gulfs here. No place to put your elbows except against your ribcage, your wrists doing the all the work, fingers pulling strings of meat from the husk, dripping with psychedelic sauces. The smells of garlic and diesel commingle overhead.

Commingling beneath, Louisa and I push to the front of a tamale stand, dare not ask for huitlacoche. Deep in her handbag, our stone knife is surely twitching, longing to halve some brave foodstuff. From a fat old woman we purchase two mole negro tamales. An old sinewy man in a dirty Chicago Cubs baseball cap begs two pesos from us for a tamale of his own. And we dine together silently, the three of us wrapped in crowd on the street. Louisa croons. The old man smacks his lips. I save my energy for the unwrapping of the corn husk, wet with a tawny grease that runs along my wrists as I lift the pillow of cornmeal to my mouth. It gives easily to my teeth, bursts with an outer earthiness—the smells of the Midwest, drives along the farm roads of Central Illinois, Indiana, the sun reflecting from armies of silos. But inside, it’s all Mexico, the molasses sap of the mole negro, penetrating as fresh oil, tar, all sweet burn and toast, the threads of chicken soaked with the charred sauce, lingering flavors of grassy chile, sesame, almond, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate. This is a tamale to span the length of all meals—it is amuse bouche and appetizer and entree and dessert. It is a four-hour meal at a giant table, and your lover pulling the last drag from her last cigarette beneath some final moon. In this tamale, the swings of Buffalo Grove’s Tartan Park regress, go squeakless again, and the tornado slide cleans itself of the old purple of all childhood blood. In this firecracker mole negro parents live forever.

With one hand, I snake Louisa’s thigh. With the other, I raise the tamale to my mouth for a second bite, wondering what this one will evoke. Louisa, nearly finished already, throws her head backward and knocks the old man’s Cubs hat to the asphalt.

Dear Friends and Readers:

As some of you know, I’ve published three novels in the last ten years and while every story has attacked disparate and challenging subject matter, and each book was written in a dramatically different style from the last, I have struggled with a common and recurring problem that I am now going to attempt to neutralize, nullify, expunge, annihilate and liquidate once and for all.

In Miranda July’s latest film we are asked to identify with a cat in a cage that could potentially be euthanized.While many film critics cite using a cat as a narrator as another one of July’s drives toward sentimentality, I actually view this move as incredibly, unequivocally ballsy.A recent New York Times write up of July cites her as a somewhat polarizing figure, and, indeed, many reviews of July’s latest film, The Future, characterize the film as being contemplative while also imperfect and uncomfortably sentimental.

Meg Tuite’s novel-in-stories, DOMESTIC APPARITION, is a riveting, somewhat heartbreaking romp through the growing up years of a Catholic girl, Michelle. She gets high with and worships her rebellious lesbian sister, admires her nerdy, genius brother, and is afraid of their sometimes violent father.  The book travels from childhood where Michelle and her sister trick their cousin into chugging a glass of straight liquor, to her early twenties where Michelle works at a job she hates with a woman she learns to admire.  In between there is stolen art, lessons on the Papal history, and a tall girl who gets a thrill from defecating on a neighbor’s lawn.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

There has been a lot of discussion in recent days of what it means to be a gay writer, probably because June is gay pride month. I suppose I tend to see the idea of a gay writer in two ways as it relates to me, sort of like a chameleon with two independently floating eyeballs connected to one brain—to one instinctual purpose. I can see (I hope to see) myself in one thousand years being pored over by a group of eager young scholars at the University of Olympus Mons on Mars. Each would be an immigrant, a muscular mix of Japanese, Ukranian and Nigerian origins. Each would be between the ages of 23 and 35.

My parents have had subscription tickets to the New York City Ballet for over thirty years, dating back to when the company performed at The City Center.  They moved up and up as better seats became available and settled in the exact two center seats of the eighth row.  Until the recent renovation, courtesy of David Koch, one ticket read “enter from left,” the other “enter from right.”

I started and finished Jesus Angel Garcia’s new book, badbadbad, on a flight from Baltimore to California.  In those six hours, I read more sex scenes than I’ve read in the past five years.  It’s one of those books that will keep you from putting on your headphones and watching the lamely re-edited in-flight movie (something I’d never even heard of was playing on this flight).  Music runs through the novel  (go to www.badbadbad.net for the playlist) in a way that makes the book feel like a loud, thrilling, invigorating concert. A concert about sex, religion, music and violence.

In 2007 I left university. Before founding Beatdom and fleeing Scotland I was suffering a bit of an identity crisis: I defined myself as a student, and yet for the first time in my memory I was about to leave education. I was about to head off into the big bad world and so I went mad. My brain worked too much and made little sense. I wrote thousands of words every day, painted pictures and played guitar on stage – despite having no real talent for any of these things. I was just desperate, I suppose, to find my place in the world.

*

That first paragraph assumes that the answer to the question posed in the title is me. I am Rodney Munch.

That’s not necessarily true, as you will see. I have called myself Rodney Munch for various reasons at various times, but so have other people. Presumably, there is someone out there who was given this unfortunate title at birth.

I grew up in Montana, a state where high school basketball was a thing as strong as family or work, and Jonathan Takes Enemy, a member of the Crow (Apsáalooke) Nation was the best basketball player in the state. He led Hardin High, a school with years of losing tradition, into the state spotlight, carrying the team and the community on his shoulders all the way to the state tournament where he averaged 41 points per game. He created legends that decades later are still spoken of in state basketball circles, and he did so with a fierceness that made me both fear and respect him. On the court, nothing was outside the realm of his skill: the jumpshot, the drive, the sweeping left-handed finger roll, the deep fade-away jumper. He could deliver what we all dreamed of, and with a venom that said don’t get in my way.

The last words in my book Living in Twilight were written last night. I celebrated in a not-very-bold statement on Facebook, tempered by my wuss-tastic addition of “I think” preceding “I’m done.” This raises these points:

The book isn’t done.

I have a lot of laundry to do.

My son is not impressed.

My skills as a writer will now be tested to pen a really excellent cover letter to faceless people who will judge whether or not my book is a worthy book or just another book.

If it’s deemed just another book, I will be depressed. Then I will look at the bookshelves in Powell’s and weep because there are so many “just another book” books being sold in great numbers.

If my book is a worthy book, it will be a very long time before I hold a copy in my hands.

Also, people will read all about my family and what a bunch of heathens we are. I fear a great backlash from the Religious Right.

On the other hand, nothing speaks to PR like backlash. Maybe I’ll send a copy to the Religious Right.

The title has nothing to do with vampires, Edward, Bella or werewolves. People who look at my book because they associate “twilight” with “Edward” will be gravely disappointed when they read a book about my Dad.

Dad really liked vampire stories though.

Maybe it is about vampires!

No, it’s really not. It’s about cancer.

The New York Times Book Review already hates my book because it’s about a parent with cancer. They said so in a column written last month. This is disconcerting.

Who the hell is The New York Times, anyway? Some old Grey Lady? Whatever. My book is a Four-Color Diva with attitude, bitches!

Speaking of color, because my book has full-color paintings and drawings on almost every spread, it’s going to be an expensive MF to print.

iPad.

Wait. Am I cheating on my beloved books if I recognize the value of digital bytes?

Damn. This book really deserves ink and paper.

This is just a subjective opinion, of course.

Though the correct one.

The book is done in one sense: I wrote the last line. Now I have to find all the dimensions of all the art featured in the book. There’s a lot of it. All the titles. Dad was pretty crummy about writing titles on things. Re-shoot pictures which are blurry. I’m a fairly crap photographer. Thank god my brother is a pro – he shot everything else.

Oops. There are two unfinished chapters.

Lucky for me the last line of the book is, “There is no last chapter.”

Please explain what just happened.

Rain.

 

What is your earliest memory?

I called my dad a pig and he was flabbergasted.

 

If you weren’t a musician, what other profession would you choose?

Travel journalist, food critic, and a yoga teacher. Who does just one thing nowadays?