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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Caravaggio: Signed in Blood, written by Mark David Smith. Tradewind Books, 2014. $12.95 ages 12 and up

"All I had to look forward to was my daily visit to the apothecary, to get fresh herbs for the poultice on Caravaggio's head. Salvatore seemed to enjoy my regular visits and chattered away to me about the people he'd known, the changes he'd seen in Napoli over the years and the disrespect that the new generation had for its elders. "Not like in my day," he asserted."

I knew little of Caravaggio. I had never studied his works, or read anything about his life. So, I was interested in learning more when I received an email from Mark David Smith asking me to review his novel. I am always quick to state that my love of reading makes me no expert. But, I know what I like ... and I very much like Mark's book.

Once I started reading, I had great difficulty setting it aside. I learned a great deal about Caravaggio and his art, about the tenuous nature of life in the seventeenth century in Italy, and about two complicated people whose lives became intertwined through a series of quite horrific events. It is fiction, but it has roots in history and certainly made me feel as if I were living right there with Beppo, an indentured orphan whose chance meeting with the artist changes both of their lives in the most significant ways.

Beppo is working for his 'bloated pig of a master', cleaning wine barrels, when two men come into the shop to bully Beppo about his boss and his business dealings:

"Ranuccio and Giovan Tomassoni were brothers who controlled the alleyways and taverns from the Ponte District to Campo Marzio. Giovan was Capo Distrettuale, District Head, a position of authority just below magistrate. He was always bragging in the tavernas about how his family had served under the Duke of Parma, fighting against heretics."

They are not welcome visitors; Beppo is right to be afraid of them. When they have departed, following a smash on the bridge of Beppo's nose with a contraband book, another visitor makes his appearance:

"The visitor was dressed all in black, silhouetted against the sunlight like a threat. I invited him inside. His clothes were tattered and filthy, as though he slept in them and never bathed: black leggings with holes at the knees; breeches and doublet faded to charcoal. Even his beard and the thick, curly hair under his hat were dark. Only his linen shirt and collar were white. If I had not known him, I might have thought him a beggar or a traveller who had been accosted by bandits - not the most famous painter in all of Italia."

He wants the money that Beppo's boss owes him. The servant cannot help him. A murder, a worry that he might be blamed for it, and another chance meeting with Caravaggio, who has gotten himself into a jam with the Tomassinos, sets the two on a course that is filled with tension, fear, and flight. They become friends in exile. Caravaggio teaches Beppo to handle a sword. Beppo attends to the artist's needs, buying his paint supplies and caring for him when he gets himself into further trouble. He also acts as a messenger when Caravaggio hires the poor people of Napoli to be models for his work.

It is through this work that Beppo meets Dolcetta, and falls in love. Flight to Malta and a frightening encounter with high seas pirates prove Beppo's courage and resourcefulness. By the time he returns, the artist is in need of help, he is a welcome suitor to the woman he loves and the course of his life is improved.

It is obvious that Mark Smith has done his research. He has much to share, and does it in a way that allows us a clear look at a complex artist and his work, while never overpowering his story with too much information. We come away from the reading with knowledge of a life very different from our own, knowing a great deal more about the customs of Italy so long ago, and with elegant quotations we might add to our own gathering list.

Are you in? I hope so. If you are, get ready for a fast-paced, dangerous, and ever-changing adventure. You will certainly enjoy the ride!

Thanks for sharing your book, Mark. I am honored to been one of its many readers.  

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