Against the Grain | History | Smithsonian
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Against the Grain

Rebels by any name

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Novelist Francine Prose (A Changed Man, Blue Angel) says she has loved the work of Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio “for such a long time that I can’t remember ever not knowing about him. He’s very direct, and there’s nothing ironic about his work at all. I think that’s very appealing. When you stand in front of a Caravaggio—or when I do—something happens that doesn’t happen anywhere else. It has to do with the intensity of emotion and how beautifully it’s painted—the composition and the characters and his insistence on doing things his way.”

Prose, who wrote “On the Trail of Caravaggio,”, is not alone. A virtual cult of Caravaggio has lately erupted. Like religious pilgrims, some of its members tour the venues of his tumultuous life in search of...what? His genius? His refusal to compromise? His nerve? His darkness?

“His life is incredibly dramatic, and so romantic,” says Prose. “Here was a guy who absolutely knew he was right. He was a completely uncontrollable character who was going to do what he was going to do. When my son was in fourth grade, he came home from school one day completely excited because he’d heard Caravaggio had killed somebody over a tennis match. Of course, Caravaggio was very handsome too.”

As someone born in virginia, says historian Ernest “Pat” Furgurson, “I’ve been reading about the Civil War since I was a boy, and identifying with my ancestors who fought on the Confederate side. So the massive fact of George Thomas, a Virginian who fought for the North and became one of the Union’s great generals, grew upon me gradually, until I became fascinated with him. Tens of thousands of Southerners fought for the North, but Thomas was the one who was most resented because he was the most successful. What drove him to make the decisions he did? What kind of man was he? What kind of soldier? In his place, would I have done the same thing? The fact that he is such a towering figure, and so few Americans know anything about him, made me want to tell his story.” Which Furgurson does, compellingly, in “Reconsidering ‘Old Slowtrot,’”.

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About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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