The Drama of Caravaggio

David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, Courtsey of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

An 11-year-old boy is walking on the edge of a forest near his uncle’s farm in the Lombardy region of Italy. The year is 1582. The boy is out hunting birds, but something else catches his eye. He sees a shaft of sunlight in the dark core of the forest and notices how it illuminates a patch of leaves near the ground. The sunlight brings the leaves alive. He also notes that this clarity is impossible without the surrounding dark.

The boy’s name is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who would go on to revolutionize painting with his “chiaroscuro” technique and his determination to paint the drama of life as it appears to him, rejecting any restrictions or opposition to this vision. Caravaggio is the main character of a new, fast-paced, engaging historical novel, The Artist and the Assassin (Porcupine’s Quill), by Ottawa author Mark Frutkin.

This is Frutkin’s fourth novel to be set in Italy. The others include The Lion of Venice; the award-winning Fabrizio’s Return; and its sequel, The Rising Tide. Frutkin is at heart a literary artist. He is widely regarded for his skill in painting word pictures, and in effectively introducing elements of magic and mystery to his novels. In fact, there’s a touch of literary alchemy to most everything he does.

But he also knows how to tell a good story. That’s what attracted him to Caravaggio. “I have always been drawn to his art – its use of light and dark, and its sense of realism, such as painting a martyr with his throat slit rather than ascending into heaven,” Frutkin says. The tipping point occurred when he discovered the controversy around Caravaggio’s death. “The mystery allowed for a creative opening,” he says.

Early on in the writing, Frutkin decided to structure the book as a series of alternating chapters with the repeating titles, “The Artist” (Caravaggio) and “The Assassin,” a fictitious killer-for-hire named Luca Passarelli. In a neat twist, the seedy, resentful Passarelli first becomes involved in Caravaggio’s life in Rome as a model for one of his paintings.

This creative decision gives the work its motive power. On one level it’s a story about an artist making a revolution through his genius, prodigious energy and devotion to craft. On another, it’s about this same artist being in the grip of a tempestuous nature, especially a willingness to engage in street brawling and duels with rapier and stiletto. On a deeper, thematic, level it’s about the struggle of opposites – artist and assassin, light and dark, creation and destruction.

But Frutkin does not over-simplify. The Artist is not all “light,” nor the Assassin all “dark.” In fact, it is the former who struggles most with the two sides of his character, pouring out the resulting tension into great works of art, as if prefiguring William Blake’s “without contraries is no progression.”

Frutkin’s Caravaggio says it best: “Every saint was once a man or woman who had great temptations to overcome. That’s where the drama of true art lies – in the struggle between light and dark – never knowing which one will win out.”

The Assassin, in the meantime, shares some of the same qualities of observation, attention to detail, and even insight as the Artist. But these are subordinate to his main task, which is to kill people and get away with it.

It’s not giving anything away to note that Caravaggio died before he turned 40, and that his tempestuous nature probably hastened his early death. The historical record shows that he killed a man in a street quarrel and was forced to leave Rome as a fugitive, spending the rest of his short life in hiding or on the run.

Frutkin follows this same narrative arc, with the Artist eventually pursued across Italy by the same Assassin he once hired as a model, their fates moving together like a cloud after its shadow.

Despite the twists and turns in this story, Caravaggio keeps painting. He produces numerous masterpieces while in Naples, Malta and Sicily. That’s one of the things Frutkin likes most about the real Caravaggio. “He kept doing it, even while he was on the run. He couldn’t stop painting.”

Frutkin has a gift for writing about visual art, focusing on the way an artist sees the world and how that world is brought to life with pigment, brush and an inner vision. For example, there is a fascinating description of a trip Caravaggio takes to a monastery near Florence to purchase pigments. Included are observations of how the pigments are crafted by the alchemy-inspired monks of the Ingesuati order.

There’s also a Dickens-like passage in which the Artist recalls a day spent walking through the streets of Rome: “…he recalls his wanderings that afternoon and evening, what he saw with his own eyes; the endless display of humanity and life, a city throbbing with activity, with beauty and pain and suffering and anger and hatred and violence and love.”

The passage goes on to describe, in precise and evocative prose, the images that will make their way from the city streets to Caravaggio’s paintings. This complements yet another passage in which he insists to his mentor that the old masters are not his teachers – nature is his teacher, and the streets of Rome his theatre.

Even the Assassin grudgingly acknowledges the genius of the Artist he’s later hired to kill. Forgetting his own profession for a moment, he says: “There’s something wildly dramatic about it, the way the light stands out from the dark. Strangely, the dark parts brighten the light. On the other hand, the light makes the darkness darker and deeper. As if he has given us a view into his soul.”

As The Artist and the Assassin reaches its climax, one is left with the impression that the words attributed to the character of the Artist are really the words of Caravaggio himself, who did not live long enough to provide much commentary on his art for future generations.

While painting David and Goliath, and depicting his own head as the severed head of the giant, Frutkin’s Caravaggio says: “I have painted my own face with as much clarity and honesty as I am able… In that clarity, I believe, lies the essence of beauty.”

Mark Frutkin fell in love with Italy at a young age. He was a third-year student in 1967-68 at the Rome Campus of Chicago’s Loyola University. “We all learned Italian or basic Italian, and the school helped us to connect to where we were, giving us long vacation times to make the best of our year abroad,” Frutkin says. As a result, Mark was able to not only visit Rome, but also Naples, Venice, Florence, Milan and many other smaller locales throughout the Italian Peninsula. Since then, he has made many trips back from his home in Ottawa, including three for the attractive coffee-table book Where Angels Come to Earth: An Evocation of the Italian Piazza. The book was a joint endeavour with Toronto-based photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

Italy may also reveal something about Frutkin’s soul as a writer. One only has to read his celebrated Fabrizio’s Return to get a sense of what that might be, especially one scene involving “a violin to make one forget time entirely, and fall in love.” In the scene, a Cremona-based luthier and musician, Niccolò, picks up his bow and prepares to play the new violin, while his friend Fabrizio is about to paint the portrait of the woman he loves who is sitting in front of them.

Frutkin writes: “It was the ripe pause before something wonderful, that fulsome emptiness at the edge of a thing unknown, not yet existent but about to exist.” There is an echo of this notion in The Artist and the Assassin, as Caravaggio reflects on his life’s work: “It is the moment before the action that matters. That is where the power is most potent…nothing reveals the energy and power of awaiting the next moment, that sense of imminence, of being on the edge of destiny.”

It’s not unlike the way one feels when opening the pages of a new novel by an esteemed writer on a once-neglected master painter whose light and shadow have graced the art world, and our lives, for the past 400 years.

John Morris is the author of the poetry collection Loose Hay: Poems of Glengarry (2018) and a contributor to He retired as Director of Communications for NAV CANADA in 2016. He lives in Ottawa.

Read an excerpt from The Artist and the Assassin here.  

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