Mark David Smith was born and raised in Vancouver. He teaches English for the Burnaby School District and has travelled extensively with his work, teaching in both Uganda and Kuwait. He resides in Port Coquitlam with his wife and children, a cat, a liziard, several fish and an ever-growing number of aquatic snails.
Caravaggio: Signed in Blood by Mark Smith (Tradewind $12.95)
from Louise Donnelly
Better known in the 20th century as Caravaggio, the artist who was born in Milan in 1571 as Michelangelo di Merisi led a volatile life. Although ostensibly Biblical in origin, his disturbingly realistic paintings—such as The Beheading of John the Baptist or David and Goliath—revealed his passionate and earthy character. He was a man given to hubris and impulsive violence.
By age 20, Caravaggio was toiling in a factory-like studio in Rome, having been forced to flee Milan after wounding a police officer. Underpaid and grossly over-qualified, he turned out hundreds of masterful paintings of flowers and fruit until his work was brought to the attention of an influential cardinal.
Caravaggio became one of Italy’s most well-known painters. Lucrative commissions and accommodating patrons afforded him the opportunity to develop a style of painting that fused a dramatic play of shadow and light with an insistence on working directly from life. This approach was a controversial deviation in a time of idealized piety in art.
In his fast-paced debut teen adventure novel Caravaggio: Signed in Blood, Burnaby English teacher Mark Smith picks up the story of Caravaggio’s tempestuous life just before Caravaggio kills a man in a street fight.
The narrator is an orphaned and resourceful 15-year-old, Beppo, an indentured servant, who has put in two long years with his “bloated pig of a master” scraping old wine barrels so they could be lined with “new wafer-thin oak planks” and fobbed off as still usable. When this wine merchant is killed by a young dandy in a yellow silk doublet, Beppo is accused of the murder.
On the run through the crowded Milano streets, Beppo chances upon “the most famous painter in all of Italia,” Caravaggio, who is taunting the murderous dandy and his brother at an out-door tennis court. A brawl ensues and Beppo watches in horror as the painter, despite serious wounds, casually kills the dandy.
Quick-thinking Beppo spirits the painter away and, at the home of Cardinal Del Monte, Beppo poses as the great artist’s servant. The risk of sheltering two men who are wanted for separate murders is too much for Caravaggio’s patron, so Beppo and Caravaggio must flee.
First, they seek refuge in Napoli, “the richest and most depraved city in the world,” where Beppo meets the courtesan Fortunata Fiammini and becomes besotted with her daughter Dolcetta.
Next, there’s a stomach-heaving voyage to Malta, then a battle with Barbary pirates, a daring escape and a fatal sword fight that makes young Beppo the recipient, “by every law of the sea,” of the considerable fortune on the pirate caravel.
Meanwhile, hot-headed Caravaggio has been imprisoned for shooting a Maltese knight, and it’s up to Beppo to set him free before racing back to Rome with a mad plan to claim the hand of the delectable Dolcetta.
History tells us Caravaggio did indeed escape from Malta, although he was stripped of his knighthood. He also travelled to Sicily and Naples, gaining ever more prominence for his paintings, and in 1610 he was returning to Rome for a papal pardon for his crimes when he died. It is assumed he succumbed to lead poisoning, a danger for artists of the day. There is also a theory that lead poisoning accounted for his violent nature.
Louise Donnelly writes from Vernon.