On the upper floor of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in central Madrid, I wandered into a broad room where the masterpieces were arrayed like chocolates in a box. Just as with an assortment of sweets, I knew immediately and innately which one attracted me. I stepped into the arms of Caravaggio’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria. She still hasn’t let me go.
I was in Madrid on a book tour for the Spanish translation of the first of my Palestinian crime novels. The Thyssen is just across the wide, busy Paseo del Prado from the immense museum of that name. It’s a building with two wings: a traditional classical palace in burnt sienna and pink stone; alongside a block of bright white louvered walls and angled blue-glass rooflights, like an old auto factory transported to a sci-fi future. I had no idea what awaited me inside. It was a novel.
The Caravaggio works I had previously seen in London and New York had impressed me. I was aware of the conventional summary of the stylistic revolution he wrought: to fill his canvasses with darkness and, with a strategically placed lantern, to bring the central action shining out of the shadows. That technique has been a major influence on filmmakers like Scorsese and almost every professional photographer, which is why Caravaggio’s four-hundred-year-old paintings look so modern. I knew something about his life too, though largely through the weird distortions and art-house tedium of Derek Jarman, having seen the British director’s Caravaggio film in college. As a writer, however, I’ve found a confluence of impressionability and idea lies behind every novel, so that only at one given time can you write a particular novel. A few years previously, I might’ve seen Saint Catherine, considered her for a moment, then moved on, as I had done when I saw Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus in London’s National Gallery. But, for some reason, when I entered her room at the Thyssen and she spoke to me, I was listening.
I stayed in that room a long time. I couldn’t say quite how long. But it was at least an hour. The other paintings held my attention a matter of moments. I can’t remember them. (I’ve had similar experiences when I’ve traveled to see Caravaggio’s art around the world since then. No artist has such a capacity to make everything else in a gallery ignorable as Caravaggio has). In the Thyssen, I recall that the walls were of a beige rough fabric, a little like delicate sackcloth. The ceiling was white. Details as scant as you might retain from love-making. You might forget your mood or the immediate surroundings, but you’d have a clear picture of the way she looked at you or the feel of her hand on the back of your neck. Of Catherine, I remember everything. Even things that weren’t on the canvas.
The eyes of Caravaggio’s saint were possessive, grasping and sensual, clandestine and forbidden. For much of the time I was with her, we were alone. It felt as intimate as the languor after an act of love. There’s a question in that post-coital moment and Catherine asked it of me: Is this the last time? Will I see you again? Do you want to know more about me and where I come from?
Eventually I tried to leave the empty room. In her face I saw a plea. As if she wanted me to know that by leaving I would abandon her to her fate, represented by the spiked wheel on which she leaned (where the saint was tortured, before she was dispatched with the sword whose shaft she fondles.) What’s so compelling (and in his day was controversial) about Caravaggio is that he didn’t expect the saint’s suffering to be enough to keep you on her side. He gave her the sexual magnetism of Fillide Melandroni, the whore he used as his model.
The hold Caravaggio subsequently took on me amounted to what many people would call an obsession. I prefer not to use that term, because it implies a degree of madness and the inability to see when you’re mistaken about something. A writer needs to know when he’s gone wrong. Still, I traveled all over Europe and America to see Caravaggio’s works. I learned to paint with oils, to fight with a rapier. I grew a beard like the one Caravaggio sported just before his death at age 39. I did a few others things that paralleled the artist’s life and which were too intimate, shameful, or mystical to be recounted here. So, go ahead, call it an obsession.
After Madrid, my long road of research began with Peter Robb’s fabulous biography “M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio.” An Australian who lived a long time in southern Italy, Robb’s account of Caravaggio’s life is detailed in a non-academic way and deeply felt. He examines the mystery surrounding Caravaggio’s disappearance without prejudice, which earned Robb quite a deal of criticism from Caravaggio “scholars” when he published his book in 1998. The “accepted” version of Caravaggio’s demise is a tall tale of mistaken identity, a mad scamper along a malarial coastline, fever, death in a Tuscan convent and an unmarked grave. Academics tend to assume that considering anything other than this hashed-over version of Caravaggio’s death represents a foray into sensationalism, rather than simple curiosity about how this most dynamic of Italian artists simply vanished. (I had encountered a similar preference for the boring and quotidian in professors writing about Mozart’s death, while I researched the composer’s mysterious end for my novel Mozart’s Last Aria. Somehow academics seem committed to taking history’s dramatic events and making them appear as banal as another day in the faculty canteen, and they get inordinately angry with someone like me who decides to eat lunch off campus.)
It’s a considerable undertaking to write a novel about an artist whose works are dispersed around the world, whose pictorial skills you don’t share, and whose life was lived in such a distant time. But I didn’t think for a moment that I shouldn’t write the book. Well, okay, so it really was an obsession…
I traveled throughout Italy to see the places that touched Caravaggio’s life. In particular I spent a lot of time in the historic center of Rome, the neighborhoods around the Piazza Navona which are now the tourist heart of the ancient city. In Caravaggio’s day, this was the “Evil Garden,” where the Pope decreed the whores should live. Naturally, where there were whores, there were artists and trouble. In Rome, once more I found a communion with a Caravaggio painting. This time it was perhaps deeper even than the one I shared with Catherine. At the Galleria Borghese, I sneaked around the guards who usher on lingerers so newcomers may pile through the galleries built by Caravaggio’s patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese. I needed more time with the Madonna with the Serpent. This Madonna is based on a girl named Lena, who I made a major character in my novel. I wouldn’t even quibble to say I obsessed about her. I fell in love, and it was clear to me that Caravaggio couldn’t have painted her the way he did unless he had shared that emotion. Here is where some of the mystical aspects of my research come in. I won’t go into detail about them. I’ll only say that I feel as though I’ve met this girl Lena. Certainly, when I learned to paint with oils so as to be able to describe how Caravaggio worked, I painted Lena over and over.
From Rome, I went on to Naples, where Caravaggio took refuge. In the chapel of the Pio Monte della Misericordia, I stood before the great painting now known as Seven Works of Mercy, which is topped by another Lena Madonna (Caravaggio called it Our Lady of Mercy.) The noise and chaos of Naples’s narrow streets spilled through the door of the chapel, just as they had in Caravaggio’s day. I wondered at the force of personality and the drive to create that enabled him to paint this phenomenal work of devotion and love, while separated by a single door from a raucous crowd in which may have lurked the men who wanted to kill him (By the time he went to Naples, Caravaggio had a price on his head for a fatal duel.)
Dueling was another element of my research. I had to know how it felt to wield both a brush and a rapier. By coincidence (in my obsessive state, I sometimes thought it was fated), the Academy for Historical Fencing happens to be located in the town where I was born and where my parents live: Newport, South Wales, a former steel town with little apparent connection to historic chivalry. Nick Thomas, a Medieval and Renaissance sword enthusiast, started the Academy there and so I found myself driving up to Caerleon, the Newport suburb where the Romans once had a fortress, on a Friday night with my Dad, ready to do battle. Within moments of strapping on my chest protector and pushing down a visor tight over my big Celtic head, I found myself amazed at the balls it must have taken to duel with these five-feet-long swords without protective gear. The tip of my opponent’s blade mesmerized me. To fight, I’d have to ignore this point that—in Caravaggio’s circumstances—would’ve killed me in one thrust. It took some doing, I can tell you.
I journeyed on to Malta, where Caravaggio fled and became (briefly) a member of the Knights of Malta. I spent December there in a cheap hotel in a four-hundred-year-old building that was without heating and insulation, in a room where one of the windows didn’t close. I got sick. I took some drugs, staring across the harbor at the sheets of rain plummeting down on the Castel Sant’Angelo, where Caravaggio was imprisoned for a time. It got damper in my room. I took too many drugs. I hallucinated, slept at unaccustomed hours and was awake when everyone else was in bed. I saw things that weren’t there. In this condition, I stood all day before The Beheading of Saint John, Caravaggio’s largest canvas and one of his most gruesome and disturbing. It’s the painting where he signed his name—the only time he ever signed a work. And he did it in a deep red, mingling with the blood spurting from the dying saint’s neck, giving me the title of my novel. At night I wandered the narrow, deserted, windswept streets of Valletta’s Baroque center, weaving light-headed over the flagstones under the sad Christmas lights that rocked on the wind. In the alleys, I imagined Caravaggio here, knowing that men sought to kill him. I panted in fear and slugged down some more drugs from the pocket of my raincoat and felt his horror of the dark. I knew why he had painted his figures emerging from the threatening shadows into a light so luminous that it glows straight through your skin and eyes and into the seat of your capacity for love, wherever that may be. I had an answer too, to the questions Catherine posed when she and I parted in Madrid.
Stumbling down the steps toward my hotel above the gate where the Knights used to display the heads of Muslim pirates on spikes, I knew I was ready to write.