The Artist and the Assassin

The year is 1596. The young Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio has recently come to Rome and is working for an older, established artist, Cesari, doing busywork helping to complete Cesari’s commissions. In the text, Caravaggio is referred to as M.

A week later, M goes with Cesari to visit a cardinal who has commissioned a painting from Cesari’s studio. On the way to the cardinal’s palazzo, Cesari explains to M: “Cardinal Del Monte is a most learned and educated man. He comes from Florence and is able to read Latin, of course, as well as Hebrew, Greek, and several other languages, including German and Dutch. He appears to have an interest in everything: art, music, science, perhaps even alchemy. In any case, that is the rumour. His palace contains a number of workshops, where he and his associates can pursue various interests: clock-making, the construction of musical instruments, and so on. He is a most unusual and genial cardinal. It would be good if you held your tongue in the presence of this august man. Let me do the talking.”

M doesn’t trust Cesari. He recalls the old saying, “Before you can truly know a man, you have to eat a bushel of salt with him.” That’s a lot of meals. He believes even if he did eat a bushel of salt with Cesari, he would still distrust him.

A servant leads them up wide stairs to the piano nobile level of the palace and ushers them into the presence of two cardinals who are seated in Del Monte’s study. M notes the room has high windows with real glass in them, not simply wooden shutters. The wood-paneled room is simply, yet elegantly, furnished: two chairs only – the ones in which the prelates sit – and a heavy desk of dark wood on one side. On the desk, a stack of three leather-bound books, an inkwell, and a brass candleholder with a fresh ivory-coloured candle inserted. And, somewhat incongruously, a little terracotta dog sitting on a silk cushion. Across the room, before a crucifix on the wall, a prie-dieu with tortoise-shell columns and a leather-padded kneeler. On the wall a tapestry depicts what appears to M as an imaginary scene of Jerusalem: a domed church, a winding road, a hill.

The two prelates, in scarlet cassocks, their arms resting on the high armrests of their chairs of red velvet, look supremely confident. According to tradition, both visitors place a perfunctory kiss on the gold ring of each cardinal.

M places the painting on an easel where the cardinals can consider it. His Eminence Cardinal Del Monte is thickset, with a high forehead and large round curious eyes, seemingly in his forties, with a kind and friendly look about him. A small trimmed black beard juts straight down from his lower lip like a hairy tongue. The other cardinal is thin as a sword and older, with a perpetual sour scowl on his face. He looks tired and has the habit of tapping his long index finger with its unclipped nail on the armrest. Both cardinals wear their four-pointed hats perched on the tops of their heads.

Cesari and M listen in silence while the two cardinals discuss in Latin the work that Cesari is delivering to the younger prelate. At the last moment, Cesari invited M along to the showing. “You might as well come. Cardinal Del Monte always asks who the artist is and, if I say it is me, he knows I am lying.”

The sour-faced prelate, introduced as His Eminence Cardinal Borromeo, gestures at the painting, as if to wave it away. “Finally, Cesari, you deliver a piece on time. But a bowl of fruit and a vase of flowers? We need saints, martyrs, crucifixions, the Blessed Virgin, religious images to instruct the people in their faith. This looks like the work of a Protestant from the Low Countries, or worse, something a Frenchman might do. Keep in mind, these days the Holy Father is making life difficult for artists, as well as for prostitutes and especially sodomites. He forbids any painting that does not express the discipline of our faith. No more grotesqueries.”

Unexpectedly, the younger prelate, Cardinal Del Monte, speaks up. “I must say, Your Eminence, my opinion in this case differs. The Holy Father has suggested we leave austerity to the Protestants and, more so, that we counter that austerity with imagery, colour, ornament, a delightful celebration of our Christian life. Let us reaffirm the predominance of the Vatican and Rome.” Del Monte adds a few lines in Latin which the other cardinal understands but not the two artists. He continues, “I believe this painting before us is the furthest thing from the grotesque. I have never seen such exquisite detail, as if from life. Miraculous. You see the window there in the painting, reflected in the glass of the vase and again on the surface of the water?”

“Yes, quite fine. But still…”

“And the fruit. It appears real. I can almost smell it.”

Cardinal Borromeo shakes his head. “It appears far too real. The peach has a spot of rot starting, and several gnats circle above the plums. The vine leaves are speckled with stains, and that pair of overripe figs have split open and are oozing a viscous liquid. We need perfection, as a sign of Heaven. Fruit is the work of God, it must therefore be perfect.”

M steps forward, although Cesari puts his arm out to try to stop him from speaking. M ignores him. “Your Eminence, God made the fruit but not all fruit is perfect, and all fruit rots eventually. God, it seems to me, also made the gnats.” The painter’s stance indicates a natural aggressiveness, his stocky body, thick eyebrows, eyes black and penetrating, all speak of a sense of resolve approaching arrogance.

Years later, when M looks back on this meeting, he will recognize it as a pivotal moment in his life, when he stepped forward out of the background and into his future. In that instant, he senses something of fate in his action as if it is ultimately out of his hands.

From the side, Cesari glances at M in silence, his mouth grim, wondering if this northerner will lose him the commission to paint the vault of the Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, which he is hoping to start the next week. Cardinal Del Monte commissioned it several months earlier and Cesari has yet to begin work on it. Cesari, M has noticed, is skilled at gaining commissions here, there, and everywhere, but seldom finishes anything. He has too many projects going.

To M it seems that Cardinal Borromeo resembles a vulture dressed in scarlet robes. “Well,” the older cardinal declares to Del Monte, “it is up to you if you want to accept the painting. It has nothing to do with me. But I would suggest you only deal with artists who know how to hold their tongues. I plan to suggest to the Holy Father that we need a list of forbidden subjects, that is to say, prohibited images, for painting, just as we have now the highly effective Index of Forbidden Books. You might reflect on it. In any case, I must now take my leave. I have countless duties awaiting me. Te salvere jubeo.” He rises from his chair and departs, his long robes swishing with a subtle susurrus, hissing in distaste as he sweeps out the door.

Del Monte watches the door close, waits a moment seemingly deep in thought, and then turns to Cesari. “Tell me. Who painted it? And don’t lie to me, Cesari.”

Cesari, with a nod of his head, indicates in silence M standing next to him. “I would gladly take credit for it, Your Eminence, in fact the subject was my idea, but I must be truthful. This young artist who works under me painted it, following my instructions.”

“It is marvellous. Life itself. What is your name? What else have you done?”

“I am Michelangelo Merisi from the village of Caravaggio near Milan. I have done little but small heads, flowers, and fruit in the background of larger paintings since I came to work in his studio.” He indicates Cesari, who shrugs and nods. “Nevertheless, I have been able to paint a few of my own works in what little spare time I have.”

“You have a tongue on you. His Eminence Cardinal Borromeo did not like what you said, or that you said anything at all, but I believe it is a sign of independence, a good indication in an artist. I believe I am an excellent judge of men and an even better judge of painters.”

“Indeed,” Cesari nods.

Thinking only of his commission, reasons M.

The cardinal turns to the older artist. “Cesari, please begin the work I commissioned from you for the Conterelli vault. It is time. I have waited in patience for you to get started. We must have it ready for the Jubilee Year, for the arrival of Christian pilgrims in the city. What is the delay?”

“The Jubilee Year? 1600? That is still over four years away.” Cesari pauses, glances to the side, trying to come up with a good excuse for what M knows now is simply gross incompetence.

“There is much to be done and all of it will take time. Hold your tongue. I do not want to know why you delay. But get started this week. I tire of these excuses.” He turns to the younger painter. “Do you have any other works of your own? Anything with figures?”

“I have one other painting in my room. It is my only painting with a figure. A self-portrait.”

“Only a self-portrait? Why?”

“I cannot afford models.” M smiles, liking this cardinal. “I myself am the cheapest model I can find.”

Cesari comments: “I believe the painting will not be to your taste, Your Eminence. I find it dark, rather brooding. He was ill at the time that he painted it.”

And you did nothing to help but dump me at the Consolation Hospital, where I had to earn my keep by doing quick paintings for the prior.

The cardinal bristles, “I alone will decide, Cesari, what I like and what I do not like.”

Cesari nods slightly, takes a half-step back and remains silent.

“What happened? What was your illness?” the cardinal asks M.

“It was not an illness, Your Eminence. I was injured. Kicked by a horse.” M decides not to mention that he actually grew up on a farm and feels profoundly stupid for not knowing better than to walk behind an animal.

Del Monte turns again to Cesari, “Now, is this Michelangelo Merisi here contracted to you?”

M speaks before Cesari can reply. “We have no term of contract, Your Eminence. I do piece-work, as required.”

“Good. Then, by God’s grace, you will come to work for me. I want you to move into my palazzo and I will serve as your patron. I will provide a studio for you to work in and commissions for you to earn your bread and more. And as many models as you require.”

Cesari scoffs. “But, Your Eminence, you have seen but one painting. Only one.”

Del Monte gazes at it again in silence. He does not speak for a few moments. The two artists wait. M watches the cardinal as he stares at the painting. Never taking his eyes from the canvas, the cardinal says, “Yes, a single painting. But look at it. Like nothing I have ever seen before. With this one work, he obliterates all the mannerists of our day. With a single peach, he makes the rest of the painters in this city look like amateurs.”

An excerpt from the eponymous novel based on the life and mysterious death of Caravaggio, Porcupine’s Quill, 2021. 

Mark Frutkin is the author of over a dozen books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, several of which are set in Italy. His books have won or been shortlisted for major literary prizes, including the Trillium, Governor General’s, Commonwealth Writers and Sunburst awards. His most recent novel, The Rising Tide, was published by The Porcupine’s Quill (2018). He lives in Ottawa.

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