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Modigliani: A Life

Biographer Meryle Secrest tackles the messy, "cursed" life of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.

Modigliani:
A Life
By Meryle Secrest
Knopf
416 pp.

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His friends called him “Modi” but behind his back they grimly joked that it should have been “maudit” – accursed.

As it has been most commonly told by his biographers, the life of Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani is a study in decadence. Although he eventually managed to achieve a reputation as one of the great Europeans artists of the early 20th century, Modigliani is also remembered today as a drunkard and drug addict, a man who lived in squalor and begged for money, a heartless seducer and abandoner of women (who nonetheless seemed to find him irresistible). He died – in terrible pain and perhaps starving – at the age of 35.

For a biographer it’s a life at least as messy as it is colorful. Meryle Secrest, however, is no novice when it comes to tracking unusual lives. Secrest is the author of 10 biographies – her subjects include Bernard Berenson, Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Stephen Sondheim – and a recipient of the 2006 National Humanities Medal. She approaches Modigliani: A Life with a conviction that the record of his decadence is exaggerated – and yet her telling of his life seems to re-enforce the legend at least as much as it challenges it.

Modigliani grew up in Livorno, Italy, in a Sephardic Jewish family living in “an atmosphere of genteel poverty.” As a child, the boy was “beset” with various illnesses, at least two of which were considered life-threatening and one of which (tuberculosis) would plague him for the rest of his life.

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