A Name in Blood by Matt Rees
|A Name in Blood by Matt Rees|
|Genre: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: This book about Caravaggio (the man, the life and the mystery he left behind) is historical fiction with a twist on reality. You don't have to be art-curious to enjoy this look at the dangers and intrigues of 16th century Rome, but by the time you've finished, you may be.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: July 2012|
|External links: Author's website|
Artist Michelangelo Merisi is best known by a location: Caravaggio, his home town. He grew up acquainted with the ugly side of life and death, having witnessed the plague-ridden deaths of his father and grandfather on the same day. However he was also born with the ability to create beauty in his art. He's able to make a living adorning the churches and fine houses of Rome, but Caravaggio walks a fine line. On one side is the wildness and carousing he needs to feel alive and on the other is the need to placate the powers that be. When those powers happen to be a pope who's a Borgia and a patron who's a Borgia's nephew, then the line is very fine indeed. Add complications like a beautiful woman and a life-long commitment to preserving the well being of a headstrong noble, leading him to the knights of Malta, and a life of difficulty becomes one of impossibility. Then something else happens... Caravaggio completely vanishes from history, taking the intrigue up to a whole new level.
Journalist and award winning crime novelist Matt Rees is drawn to historic mysteries. Having attempted to solve the riddle of Mozart's sudden death in Mozart's Last Aria he now turns his attention to visual art and Caravaggio's disappearance in A Name in Blood. As the author mentions in his notes, the artist does indeed disappear totally. His friends' and contemporaries' demises are all traceable (even those of lower birth and significance) but there's nothing documented about Caravaggio past a certain point at which he's still fit and healthy. Matt Rees provides an excellent, reasonable suggestion of what could have happened, but before he reveals his solution, he reveals the man.
Rather than appearing to be someone of fey artistic temperament, Caravaggio comes across as a man's man, enjoying the more ribald pleasures in life as if hoping to obliterate daily problems and death that's lurking to slowly pick off his loved ones. He longs to care but daren't as, in 16th century Rome, life is less than cheap, it's totally disposable. Caravaggio battles for survival against the ravages of disease, the torture of the Inquisition and (in Caravaggio's case anyway) the constant duelling to uphold family honour against long memories and vendettas. However, throughout the drinking, whoring and dissipation of his fiery temper, Caravaggio remains a sympathetic character just wanting to be happy with the beautiful Lena, but not knowing how. He may be a troubled soul, but the author has combined our understanding and empathy with his apparent misbehaviour.
This is one of the many interesting aspects of the novel. The 'goodies' (Caravaggio and, for instance, his drinking mate Onorio) have human shortcomings explained via their history and experiences so that they may be flawed humanity but loveable with it. On the other hand, the 'baddies' (e.g. the exquisitely manipulative Cardinal Scipione and the pitiless pimp Ranuccio) have just as many roughened edges and traits, but no positivity to draw us. We're in no doubt for whom we're cheering, but such is Matt Rees' skill that we cheer gladly.
Matt Rees also manages to inhabit Caravaggio's mind. Each chapter, named after the painting the artist was concentrating on at that moment, becomes intertwined with the story and shows his thought processes developing with the picture. It's also interesting that the saints and holy figures in Caravaggio's paintings, designed to hang in the homes and churches of the great and the good had been modelled by the whores, drunks and vagrants that the establishment denigrated.
This is no high handed art book; this is a novel shows that the man was his art and vice versa, but not in a way that impedes the story. If you begin to read as a Caravaggio fan, it may offer insight. If you aren't familiar with him or his work, by the end of the book you will be. If you're totally art-averse, this is still a good novel, bringing to life the conflicted life of 16th century Italian just wishing to live and paint without politics and passion getting in the way. Unfortunately, for Caravaggio, this was a wish in vain.
I would like to thank Corvus for providing Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.
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