Here’s a sample chapter from my novel about the great Italian artist Caravaggio, A NAME IN BLOOD:
The Calling of St Matthew
‘He’s the most famous artist in Rome.’ At the end of the nave, Scipione Borghese crossed himself. His hand passed across his scarlet robes, slow and voluptuous, as if he were stroking a lover’s breast. ‘Do you think you can keep him to yourself?’
Not now that your uncle is anointed as Pope Paul, Cardinal del Monte thought. The appointment of the new pontiff had made Scipione the most powerful prince of the Church in Rome. He’ll force my protégé to sign his letters ‘your humble creature’. ‘If you think it’s possible to control Caravaggio, my gracious Lord, I shall be happy to introduce you to him so that you may attempt it. He answers to a higher power than you or I.’ He gestured to the golden crucifix glimmering on the altar in the light from the high windows. ‘And I don’t mean the Holy Father, may he be blessed by Our Lord.’ Scipione prodded his wrist downwards, his index and little fingers extended like the horns of the devil.
Del Monte grimaced to see such an earthy gesture formed by the manicured hand of the new arbiter of art and power in the papal city. ‘From what I hear of his behaviour, Caravaggio’s authority comes not from above, but from below,’ Scipione said. ‘Artists are all rough sorts. I know how to bend them to my will.’
With 200,000 ducats a year bestowed upon you from the Throne of St Peter, I’m sure you’ll find a way. Del Monte guided Scipione to the chapel in the left aisle. ‘Here they are.’
Scipione shifted his scarlet beret on the back of his head,scratched his jaw, and pulled ruminatively on the point of his goatee. His tongue ran along his upper lip. He was young and delicate, but something in his face made it easy to foresee what he would look like when he became fat. And this one’s certainly going to be fat, del Monte thought. The body can barely contain the avarice of the man. Just give him a few years with absolute power and unlimited budget, his stomach will swell and his chins will multiply.
‘The famous pride of the Church of San Luigi of the French,’ Scipione said.
The two cardinals passed beyond the green marble balustrade into the Contarelli Chapel. ‘St Matthew and the Angel and The Martyrdom of St Matthew, these are wonderful of course.’
‘Yes, but it’s this one. This is the one.’ Scipione turned to the massive canvas on the wall at the left of the altar.
‘The Calling of St Matthew.’ Del Monte opened his hands wide. ‘I admit that even I, who recognized his talent before all other patrons, never expected a genius of such virtuosity to emerge.’
‘It’s revolutionary. Everywhere such darkness.’ Scipione spread his feet and rested his hands on his stomach. He worked his jaw, rippling his cheeks, as though he were consuming the canvas before him.
The Calling portrayed five men at a table. Three youngsters wore showy doublets and cockaded hats; the other two were grey-haired. A plain room, its walls dun-coloured; one window, dirty and lightless. But from the right, where a vivid sun illuminated the chapel itself, a shaft of warm yellow and brown tones angled as if cast through a high window into a basement. Just beneath that soft beam, obscured by shadow, his hand reaching out to call his future disciple, the bearded face of Jesus.
‘What a brilliant stroke,’ Scipione said, ‘that Our Lord should be displaced from his usual position at the shining centre of the composition.’
‘And yet He still dominates the painting.’
‘Quite so, del Monte. The meaning of the work isn’t forced upon us by bright skies and radiant angels. We must search. Like St Matthew himself. Search within ourselves.’ Scipione pointed at one of the seated figures who seemed to be gesturing towards himself, questioning whether it was he whom Christ was calling.
‘When these were delivered to San Luigi five years ago,’ del Monte said, ‘I knew they’d transform painting forever. In any church in Rome now, you’ll see that every new work of art is either a copy of Caravaggio’s style by one of his admirers or an angry rejection of it by someone who wants to stick to the manner of the last half-century. Caravaggio is present in every work these days, whether painters admit it or not.’
He snapped his fingers. A manservant came from the rear of the church in del Monte’s turquoise livery, bowing low. ‘Command Maestro Caravaggio’s presence. I will receive him at my gallery.’
‘Yes, my Lord.’ The manservant genuflected towards the altar and went into the piazza at a trot.
‘He paints without any of the usual preparation, you know,’ del Monte said. ‘No sketches. He works directly onto the canvas from life – from the models he positions in his studio.’
‘The moment is simply captured.’ Scipione rolled his fingers across each other, like a thief limbering up to pick a pocket. ‘As Jesus passed forth from thence, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs house: And He said to him, “Follow me.” And he arose, and followed Him.’
Del Monte watched Scipione’s face transform with each detail he noticed on the painting, moving from perplexity to understanding and admiration.
‘Look here, do you see?’ Scipione touched del Monte’s sleeve. ‘It’s as though when Our Lord lifts his hand everyone holds their breath. It’s truly alive.’
The two cardinals left San Luigi, their footmen going before them to part the crowd of Romans passing between the Piazza Navona and Santa Maria Rotonda, the church inserted within Emperor Hadrian’s great Pantheon. They crossed the street to del Monte’s palace, named after the illegitimate daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor who had been known as the ‘Madama’. They climbed the broad stairway.
Scipione paused at the landing so that he might recover his breath. ‘This painter didn’t train in the town of Caravaggio, I’m sure. I’ve been up that way. It’s a backwater good only for producing the silk in my underwear.’
Del Monte measured his step to the younger man’s laboured ascent. They reached the floor where he kept his private apartments. ‘He apprenticed with Maestro Peterzano in Milan.’
‘Milan, now I see it. You can find something in his work of other great artists of that region. I’m thinking of Savoldo’s use of light and dark. But an artist has to come to Rome to make anything of his career.’
Del Monte inclined his head. Come to you, you mean. ‘It wasn’t merely the grey skies of the north that compelled Maestro Caravaggio to quit Milan.’
Scipione opened his palm, questioning.
‘It was something to do with a whore disfigured and the wounding of her jealous lover, who also happened to be a policeman,’ del Monte said.
Scipione’s shrug indicated that such circumstances neither surprised nor perturbed him.
‘When he came to live at this palace,’ del Monte said,‘Caravaggio was just a Milanese neckbreaker. In some ways he still is. His work changes more than he personally seems to do. There’s something sweet and spiritual in his depths, and it’s there that he finds his art.’
‘He came directly to you when he arrived in Rome?’
‘He stayed for a time with a priest who kept him as a favour to his patrons in the Colonna family.’
Scipione’s eyes became distant. Del Monte saw that the Cardinal-Nephew was reckoning Caravaggio’s place in the calculus of influence and domain that a man in his position maintained at all times. The Colonnas were among the most powerful of Roman families.
‘I see.’ Scipione’s movements slowed, as though he needed all his functions to estimate the political advantages he might contrive through the artist.
‘He came to me a decade or more past,’ del Monte said. ‘I gave him a room and a studio, and a place at table with the musicians and men of science who live at my pleasure.’
‘The Tuscan embassy under your direction is renowned as a place of art and of reason par excellence. Does Caravaggio have no other protector?’
Del Monte barely restrained his smile. He wants to know who else he must brush aside to take possession of Caravaggio? This man’s in even more of a hurry than I expected. ‘The Mattei family has commissioned some works.’
Scipione’s arithmetic of prominence and prestige seemed to spread across his features as though he sketched out its equations in fresco. ‘Cardinal Mattei is—?’ He rolled his wrist to suggest the question, as if it would be indelicate to speak it.
‘Not an art lover. But his brothers are great admirers of Caravaggio and are inclined to spend money on pleasures the honourable cardinal denies himself.’ Del Monte waited as Scipione assessed the connections he might cement with the gift of a painting or whose gallery he might raid to sequestrate one of Caravaggio’s works.
I’ll allow him to discover for himself just how many other links Caravaggio has built in a dozen years here, del Monte thought. Soon enough Scipione would learn about the commissions from Marchese Giustiniani, from the banker Don Ottavio Costa, from Monsignor Barberini whom many believed would be pope one day. As for the works in the collection of the Lady Olimpia Aldobrandini, he thought it best they remain unspoken. She was the niece of old Pope Clement, whose family Scipione was engaged in denuding of all influence and wealth now that his uncle controlled the Vatican. ‘In spite of his range of admirers, Maestro Caravaggio has remained under my ultimate protection.’
Scipione twitched his moustache, as though deriding the value of such security as del Monte afforded the artist. ‘He needs you to vouch for him when he’s arrested and thrown drunk into the Tor di Nona, I’ll wager.’
‘He has been known to call upon my guardianship on such occasions. As you said, these artists are rough sorts. His work, however, is incomparable.’ They came to the top of the staircase. ‘My own collection is through here,’ del Monte said. ‘It includes seven canvases by our Maestro Michelangelo of Caravaggio. Please, Your Illustriousness, this way.’
He drew Scipione into a wide gallery. The walls were hung almost to the ceiling with paintings. The best were at eye level, hidden behind green curtains to protect them from sunshine and fly droppings. The cardinals crossed the room. Del Monte took hold of a yellow brocade cord to draw back one of the curtains.