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Muscular Writhings: Alexander the Great, Caravaggio and the Scholars* Who Loved Them

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth
Norman F. Cantor
HarperCollins

Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles
Francine Prose
HarperCollins

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

*****

Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth
Norman F. Cantor
HarperCollins

Like episodes of VH1's Behind the Music, biographies of the great military strategists tend toward a certain sameness: first the young hothead's rise through the ranks, followed by endless descriptions of battles, councils of war, innovative use of weaponry, and so on, until we reach one of two obligatory endings: death and glory, or death and disgrace. In Norman F. Cantor's life of Alexander the Great ? his final book prior to his death in September 2004 ? the often-controversial scholar managed to avoid the trap of monotonous academicism, painting instead a vivid psychological portrait of a very unusual man.

A thorough historian, Cantor was blessed with the ability to choose the most intriguing anecdote, to draw attention to the actions of long-dead men and women in a way that made them seem most familiar and real. This talent served him well in writing about Alexander, whose relentless advance across Greece, Egypt, Persia, much of Asia Minor, and an empire of two million miles in between ? all before an early death at the age of thirty-two ? makes him much easier to mythologize than to understand.

Cantor managed to set this legendary warrior within the proper context of his time, reconciling, for instance, the seeming contradictions between Alexander's bisexuality and the warlike, masculine world of battleground and military camp in which he spent most of his life by giving the reader a well-researched account both of army life and the sexual mores of the day. The application of the sociological eye to the bare facts of history was another of Cantor's signature strengths as an historian, and in Alexander the Great we benefit from that strength with an intelligible portrait of a man who was both typical and extraordinary.

The book has its shortcomings, and they are those that have plagued many of Cantor's other books. His field of vision could be narrow at times, and he was fond of categorical assertions where qualified suggestions might have served him better. In the case of Alexander, he rebuked historians who might attempt to write about the warrior's life without employing a psychoanalytical approach: ?Alexander's relationship with his father and mother can be understood only in Freudian terms,? he wrote, with virtually no acknowledgment of the case against psychoanalyzing long-dead biographical subjects. His only concession is a token argument to dispense with the whiff of anachronism that taints the relevance of the 20th century Freudian interpretation of the story of Oedipus to events that took place when the play was still about hubris, human frailty, and the consequences of defying the gods, rather than about subconscious desires (which, as an explanation of hidden motivations, hadn't yet been invented in Alexander's time).

But in addition to being an historian, Cantor was a storyteller, and the flaws of a psychoanalytical approach are irrelevant to the story he wanted to tell about Alexander. It was partly this quality that made Cantor's The Civilization of the Middle Ages the popular and enduring textbook it has become, and it served him well in bringing to life a man whose achievements were those of a hero, but whose end (presumably from typhus, as he was returning home to Macedonia from conquests in India) was both tragic and mundane.

*****

Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles
Francine Prose
HarperCollins

Francine Prose gets a chance to put her gift for narrative and her skill as an art critic to good use in this brief, novelistic biography of Michelangelo Merisi, the Italian Renaissance painter better known as Caravaggio.

The book belongs to HarperCollins' Eminent Lives series, which matches prominent writers with historical icons for short, easily digestible biographies. It's a clever match in this case: Caravaggio, whose life story has more to do with plot and character than that of most great men, needs a fiction writer like Prose to do him justice. Prose deftly brings out the contradictions in his volatile nature, and allows the most lurid and interesting of his exploits to carry the reader forward through the story of his life.

She does this without neglecting to give full prominence to the importance of Caravaggio's paintings. Her discussion of his works, like most of Prose's writing about art (she writes regularly on art and culture for the Wall Street Journal), is lucid and mercifully jargon-free; one of her strengths is her ability to locate exactly what it is about a work that speaks to the viewer without becoming entangled in complex or circular critical arguments. (There are a few rare exceptions, as when she describes Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes: ?There's a faintly distasteful sexuality in the general's naked muscular writhings, the blade just slicing through the neck, the spurting blood that looks more like blood in a painting ? indeed, like red paint ? than like blood in 'real life.'? Perhaps it's my own lack of insight, but the idea that red paint looks a bit like, well, red paint doesn't seem to add much to a critical understanding of the work in question.)

As with almost any recent biography (see previous review), there are also opportunities to wonder just how relevant the current fashion in biographical writing to locate the subject's sexual identity precisely along the spectrum described in the personal ads of today's paper ? Gay? Straight? Bisexual? Bi-curious? ? will appear to future generations. Prose is careful to provide perspective from the social atmosphere of the painter's own time for her musings, and her analysis of his personal proclivities makes for interesting reading. But squinting at Renaissance sexual practices from the distant vantage point of modern times sometimes seems about as relevant as wondering whether Caravaggio, had he lived in, say, present-day Los Angeles, would have voted Democrat or Republican.

The book's brevity has its drawbacks, too: many of the works Prose discusses in detail aren't included among the color plates. But these are minor flaws in a work that succeeds overall, and it's no mean feat. Caravaggio is one of those difficult subjects ? so pivotal, so significant, so scrutinized, so catalogued ? that the task of sifting through what is known about him and extracting anything resembling a coherent story for a short biography must have been a daunting one. Prose accomplishes it here with grace. The result will likely prove too much of a highlight reel for hard-core Caravaggio scholars, but the book is just what it was intended to be: a quick and thorough look at one of the most important careers in the history of art.


* It must be said that the reader should probably consider Francine Prose ? who, by the way, is still alive ? more of a free-range scholar.


We are pleased to inform readers that Lara Kristin Lentini has given birth to Kay, a six-pound, fourteen-ounce, nineteen-and-a-half-height bundle of spiky-haired joy. Kay came into the world on 28 January at 12:30 in the afternoon, which makes her ? for those who buy into that sort of silly nonsense ? an Aquarius. Congratulations, Lara.


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