Someone asked me why I chose to write a novel about Caravaggio (‘The Caravaggio Conspiracy’ is out now). Well, really I’d be mad not to. In all my art thrillers I’ve had strong characters, famous painters like Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya and Titian, but Caravaggio is somehow out there on his own. We all think we know his story, but do we?
Bacchus, by Caravaggio
To some he is a gay icon; to others, a reprobate. To his apologists, a genius; to his detractors, a lunatic. All of which is true. Caravaggio was all this and more. Which is why he is so intriguing.
He was a handsome man who slept in his clothes until they fell apart. He was a lover of men at times – especially when he arrived in Rome as a kid and had to feed himself – and yet he was passionate about women. In fact, court reports show that he was arrested hitting a man with an axe for talking to his mistress. And another time he was arrested from throwing bricks at a prostitute’s house. And of course, we can’t forget that he tried to castrate his rival for the affections of Rome’s most famous whore, Fillide Melandroni.
Fillide Melandroni was a Roman prostitute Caravaggio often used to model for paintings of Mary Magdalen or popular Saints.
No one escaped Caravaggio’s rage. A waiter once served him oysters in bad butter. Caravaggio’s response was to throw the plate over the unfortunate man’s head with the immortal line
“Do you take me for some kind of bum?!
(True. It’s in the court records. Of which there are many….)
People feared him, avoided him, petted him, and then – after he killed his rival in the bungled castration attempt – they hunted him.
I have a theory that he was too big for the world. Too much of an enigma. He lived like an animal and yet he could paint angels, which suggests that he must have had some inkling of heaven. He went on the run from the Knights of Malta, a group of men determined to kill him, and he escaped. They caught him again, slit his face, but they couldn’t finish him off. No man could kill Caravaggio. Only Nature was big enough.
Judith Beheading Holofernes, by Caravaggio
The final tragedy of Caravaggio’s overheated life was when he headed for Porte Ercole. He was going to catch a boat home to Rome, where his pardon for murder had finally been granted.
But the boat sailed without Caravaggio. It sailed, taking all his paintings, the artist running along the shore desperately trying to stop it. Without success. In despair, Caravaggio ran in the heat of the noon day sun, finally collapsing. Heatstroke lead to a fever, the artist dying three days later.
He never got home. Never got his pardon. But he caught the imagination of the world.
Caravaggio was an artist who knew his worth and transformed art. He was an innovator, a criminal, a genius and a madman. And in that lies his appeal. All his faults didn’t stop him. He achieved greatness and fought for what he believed.
The Taking of Christ, by Caravaggio
As gifted as Rembrandt, no man could match his talent. He spat and roared and belched his way into infamy and painted his way into immortality. For me, Caravaggio is the fascinator of art. As wily and hard to kill as Rasputin – and impossible to forget.