________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 18 . . . . January 16, 2015


Caravaggio: Signed in Blood.

Mark David Smith.
Vancouver, BC: Tradewind Books, 2014.
152 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-896580-05-0.

Subject Heading:
Caravaggio, Michaelangelo Merisi da, 1573-1610-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ruth Latta.

**** /4



I mulled the madder red in circles, smoothing it until it had the consistency of butter. All the while, I tried to work out how I could get Caravaggio to take the warning seriously. I scraped the paint into a small pot and handed it to him. He accepted it without so much as glancing at me, and scooped it onto his palette.

"God's bread, the patron wants choirs of angels and fat, fluttering putti, Cherubs. You'd think the Don was testing me. Pah!"

"Signore, did you not hear me? Bounty hunters are close at hand. They mean to kill you."

He dipped his brush into the red, and drew long streaks down the lower corner of the canvas.

"Bounty hungers, signore," I repeated.

Caravaggio whipped around, his brush red with paint, and waved it in my face. "Do you think I've forgotten that I'm a wanted man? Here, take a look."

I gazed at the canvas and what I saw took my breath away. Caravaggio's severed head hung from my hand, its mouth gaping in agony.

"It's 'David with the Head of Goliath'," he explained. "Painting is not just my livelihood, Beppo, it's my life." He breathed deeply. "It is painting that ensures my protection and that keeps me alive. It is painting that will get me back to Roma."

The subtitle of this novel, Signed in Blood", refers specifically to Caravaggio's famous painting, "The Beheading of John the Baptist", in which the painter's signature is in red like the blood gushing from the Baptist's neck. In Mark David Smith's fast paced, intriguing novel, the signing takes place when the protagonist, 16-year-old Beppo, is spiriting Caravaggio out of a Maltese prison. Caravaggio, who must leave the painting behind, dips his finger in red paint and signs the work as they are heading out the door.

      Caravaggio: Signed in Blood opens in Rome in 1606, with the fictional Beppo scraping wine barrels for his master, a wine seller. Beppo is an indentured servant with no living relatives, except for a stepfather who lost his fortune at sea and cannot support him. One day while Beppo's boss is out, the Tomassino brothers, Ranuccio and Giovanni, show up at the shop and bully Beppo about his master's business dealings. One of the Tomassinos is a "capo" who controls the district.

      The next visitor, a surly man in tattered black, demands money owed him for a painting. Beppo knows that cash is hidden behind Caravaggio's painting, "Basket of Fruit", on the wall, and he recognizes the famous artist, but since he isn't authorized to handle money, he seeks to placate Caravaggio by offering him a bottle of wine. The painter opens it on the spot, tastes it, and pronounces it "merda".

      The following day the Tomassinos return and demand money from Beppo's employer. They argue, and Ranuccio Tomassino slashes the older man's throat. Beppo hides in a barrel in the cellar. Then, fearing that he will be blamed for the murder, he flees, taking his boss's money with him.

      Beppo's wandering through Roma allows the author to present colourful street scenes and landmarks. Eventually, Beppo comes to a street where a pallacorda (tennis) game is going on, and he sees, to his alarm, that Ranuccio Tomassino is one of the players. Tension builds when Caravaggio appears and picks a quarrel, trying to take Ranuccio's racquet from him to show him how to play. In the ensuing fight, Caravaggio suffers a head wound, and when a spectator loans him a sword, he slashes Ranuccio "between the legs". In the resulting confusion and before the police arrive, Beppo pulls Caravaggio away, saying, "Run!"

      They flee to the casa of Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio's patron, who smuggles them by night overland to Napoli. After taking refuge in the palazzo of Don Marzio, Caravaggio and Beppo become friends, with Caravaggio teaching the youth how to fight. The author's depiction of the temperamental artist ties in with historical accounts. Seventeenth century Italy is a dangerous, unpredictable place, and Caravaggio fits right in. "Art is the only law," he tells Beppo.

      Because Caravaggio is in hiding, Beppo goes out to buy his art supplies and learns how to mix paint. The author includes enough information on technology of 17th century art to be interesting but not boring. Readers learn, too, that Caravaggio hired the urban poor, including prostitutes, to pose for the figures in his paintings. He tells Beppo that he hired a "courtesan" to pose for the Madonna in a painting for the Chapel of the Papal Grooms in Roma, but that the cardinals, recognizing the model, had the picture taken down.

      When Caravaggio sends Beppo to the villa of a well known, wealthy courtesan to ask her to pose for him, the subplot develops. Beppo meets the woman's daughter, Dolcetta, and adores her immediately. There are obstacles to their love; Dolcetta's mother wants her to marry a rich man, and Caravaggio and Beppo must leave Naples. Beppo is merely banished from Rome, but Caravaggio has a price on his head for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassino. They travel to Malta, where Caravaggio is made a Knight of the Order of St. John. Beppo, a page, shows talent in fencing, and the Grand Master orders him to accompany his vicar to Venezia, promising him a squireship on his return.

      When Barbary pirates capture the ship, all appears lost, but Beppo's courage, with aid from an unexpected source, brings about a complete reversal of fortune, enabling him to seek Dolcetta's hand in marriage and come to Caravaggio's rescue. While Beppo has been at sea, Caravaggio has attacked another knight and is thrown into prison.

      Smith wisely ends his novel on a positive note, with a marriage, knowing that the rest of Caravaggio's story is tragic. After escaping from the Maltese prison, Caravaggio eventually returned to Naples where his victim found him and attacked him in the street. The artist's face was disfigured, and the effects upon his vision and brushwork show in his later paintings.

      In 1610, Caravaggio left Naples by sea for Rome in the hope of a papal pardon for the murder charge. Just after landing at Port Ercole, he died mysteriously, at 39 or 40. (His date of birth is uncertain.) Rumours of foul play abounded, but scientists in our own time who examined his bones found high levels of lead. The paints of his era were high in lead content which caused mental illness and eventual death.

      Within the constraints of a young adult novel, author Smith has done an excellent job of presenting a complex artistic personality. Caravaggio was unique in his day for using live models in his religious themed art and for depicting revered figures as human beings rather than idealized types. He was criticized by his contemporaries for depicting St. Matthew as grubby and bald, and, in "The Conversion of St. Paul", for making the horse, not the saint, the centre of attention.

      Biographers have written that Caravaggio had one known assistant, a youth named Cecco, who appears in his paintings and who accompanied him when he fled Rome in 1606. Some suggest that Cecco was more than just an assistant. In Smith's young adult novel, however, it is Beppo and Dolcetta who are a couple.

      Caravaggio is also famous for his careful detail; for instance, he even showed a fungus spot on a leaf in "Boy with a Basket of Fruit." Mark David Smith, too, displays considerable artistry in his smooth blending of the politics, technology and customs of 17th century Italia to make a compelling tale. The quotations from such luminaries as Dante Alighieri, Horace, Machiavelli and Petrarch, which set off each chapter, elevate the novel and add to its ring of authenticity. Caravaggio: Signed in Blood quietly educates while keeping readers on the edges of their chairs.

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta's most recent novel is The Songcatcher and Me, for young adults (info@baico.ca). Visit her blog at http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

Next Review | Table of Contents for This Issue - January 16, 2015.

CM Home
| Back Issues | Search | CM Archive | Profiles Archive