What explains the current rage for the 17th-century Italian artist known as Caravaggio ? Is it his realistic, almost photorealistic technique of somber darkness contrasted with spotlighted rose-pink cheeks, lush limbs, and the naughty bits of teasing nudes? Is it his scandalous life a whirligig of recurring assault, debauchery, pederasty, and murder in that era fabled for hypocrisy and repression, the Counter-Reformation? Whatever the appeal, new biographies and critical studies, of man and artist have been appearing with increasing frequency, buttressed by recent discoveries in the libraries, studies, and most importantly, criminal court proceedings of Rome, Naples, Sicily, and Malta.

In a relatively brief life, which ended at age 37 or 39 by murder or disease in a place much disputed, Caravaggio certainly got around. He also dominated the Italian painting of his day, bringing ordinary humans to life as actors in the most touching, strange, and violent stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Peter Robb, an enthusiast who capably draws upon academic scholarship but brooks no constraints upon his own insights and creative inferences, has produced in M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio a lengthy, colorful, anecdotal, quirky, and totally engaging artist's biography. His puckish title sets the tone: His subject, perhaps named Michelangelo Merisi, was known by 15 different surnames, most beginning with the letter M, but is remembered as Caravaggio, the name of his hometown. In other words, though Robb hauls in numerous facts, the lives and careers of other painters, prostitutes, and cardinals, conflicts between the Spanish and French parties in the Catholic Church, politics in the papacy, and much, much more, he continually reminds us that very little is actually known about the most admired and notorious painter of his day.

Somehow amidst the turmoil, this inimitable genius created an indelibly original body of work. Robb traces his growth from heady sensuality to profound evocation of the human condition and his courage in defying the decorum mandated by the Church and enforced by the Inquisition. Sixteen pages of illustrations enhance these discussions.

A sprawling, not entirely disciplined work of ardent passion, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio could be a bit shorter and less repetitious but is a feast of art appreciation, storytelling, and witty speculation for anyone interested in Caravaggio's shadowy theater of the partly seen and the institutionalized banditry and brutality of 17th-century Europe.

Charles Flowers, who lives in Purdys, New York, is currently writing about Orientalism in American art.

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