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Coming somewhere between Peter Ackroyd and Perfume, Doubting Thomas is an innovative and fascinating novel about the renowned Italian painter Caravaggio. The plot centres around the events of a May evening in Rome in 1606, when Caravaggio was challenged to a duel and killed a man. Who was this man Caravaggio? What happened on that fateful night? What was the cause of the fight that forced him to flee Rome? Different narrators, including a drunken architect, the painter's own brother, some ladies of the night, a town clerk and a close friend of Caravaggio all present their versions of the events that took place that night, shedding light on what happened and, as a result, on the painter's revolutionary art. Doubting Thomas is a book about ideas and about a period in time that witnessed the coming of enlightenment and dramatic changes in thinking. It is first and foremost a novel about human destiny, sensuality and purpose of mind; brutality and love, exploration and devotion. How far can a painter go? Where is the line between what is sacred and what is profane? How can a drunkard and a womaniser such as Caravaggio create art that speaks of fervent aesthetics and even religious devotion?
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A Novel about Caravaggio
By Atle Næss, Anne Born
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 1997 Atle Næess
All rights reserved.
The Account of Innocenzo Promontorio
It is the route I always take. I follow St Peter's road to martyrdom, up the steep southern slope of the Gianicolo Hill where he had to carry his cross. The little church lies there for that very reason, built on the actual place where the Master's disciple was nailed to the cross, which was then raised with his head down, in accordance with his last request.
S. Pietro in Montorio. The whole city lies beneath me. The lovely warm evening light brings grace to all the seediness; it illuminates all the hideous heathen ruins out in the Campagna and brings out hundreds of shades of yellow and red in the densely massed houses on both sides of the Tiber. But the churches and palaces rear up like rocks, seamarks among the waves of roofs.
The Franciscans in the church here know me and they leave me in peace. The little brothers walk around quietly, watch me light a candle before the fresco of the flagellated Christ in the side chapel just to the right of the door. They are well aware that I do not come here to meditate on Peter's martyrdom, to follow his road of suffering up the hill from Sta Maria della Scala on the outskirts of the Trastevere and on here to the place where Peter fulfilled his calling and, in truth, became a rock.
It is quiet up here. The average Roman is not so strikingly pious that he takes the long – and hard – road hither. I can sit on the steps outside the church for as long as I like. The monks know I am here to pay homage to another martyrdom than that of Peter: that of ordinary sinful people, banal, humdrum. I recall sudden death and incomprehensible suffering, with none of the sublime significance that makes Peter's end convey both light and darkness, joy and pain.
The Franciscans say nothing. But they were the ones who took in the body of Beatrice Cenci and gave it a grave.
Our time is not a happy time.
The signs are clear enough. They can be seen even in the heavens. New stars appear, independent bodies strayed from the great Order; they portend unmistakeable chaos, war and earthquake. There are tales of blood-red crosses that suddenly become visible on people's feet, halfway up their ankles; in precisely the place where the nail was hammered into Christ's foot. The colour of the crosses changes into yellow before they disappear, without doubt a sign of coming plague and epidemic.
But we have no need of these signs. We do not even need the tales of patricide and crimen bestialitatis. It is enough to go out on the streets and surreptitiously study the violent, immoral and dissolute life being played out there. Law-abiding citizens are defamed or even attacked and robbed. Virtuous women are assaulted while those who are fallen shamelessly offer themselves. Many will say that the six thousand years which Our Lord God in his divine mercy has been pleased to set as the limit for the age of the World is running out. The final result approaches; the last day, when a greater Judge shall put us in his scales and find us wanting.
I wish to state this firmly at the commencement of my account, since I am aware that my own share in it is not merely that of reporter. I myself have taken part in actions that unfortunately have added to the sum of vices, as has also my friend, he who is the subject of my writing. But if my account is to help anyone, it must hold to the truth. This is the story of a painter and a murder, but also of a man who lost his faith and found it again.
Consequently this account will not be concerned in the least with Beatrice Cenci. All the same it is for her that I write it. So let me begin by describing what happened on 12 February, AD 1599, all the more because my proper story in some respects begins on that date.
The grotesque ruins that still encircle our city are, according to what is thought, the remains of enormous structures built by the heathen emperors. Of all the misdeeds of these fearsome potentates the worst were undoubtedly those where they maltreated and killed good Christians, in vast spectacles with wild animals and professional fighters.
The princes of our day do nothing like this. Yet, all the same, the exercise of justice has become a kind of public performance. I know very well that this custom has a moral purpose. It sets out to show the populace the terrible consequences brought upon us by sin, not only in eternity but now in our imperfect earthly existence. The people must see the consequences of evil passions and actions, hear the shrieks of the sinners when justice strikes.
I shall say nothing here of Beatrice's guilt, particularly as all discussion of the reasonableness of the sentence was expressly forbidden, a ban which is still in force. Moreover, at the time I was perhaps completely unable to see any blame in her. She herself admitted under torture that she took part in planning the murder of her father, but maintained it was because he wished to commit unmentionable acts of violence against her, acts so totally contra naturam between father and daughter that they excused every imaginable defensive action. Perhaps things would have taken a different course if she had pleaded this at once. But she had denied all guilt and did not produce this explanation until the chief examiner slowly crushed her knuckles in the thumbscrew. Let me merely mention that no one had any doubt that Francesco Cenci was one of the worst scoundrels who ever took his unworthy steps on our fruitful Earth. If his family – and Beatrice among them – really planned his demise, they certainly committed a great crime, but it was not without reason.
I can feel my pen slip from my grasp. How I flinch from writing the few sentences to describe what happened on the Ponte Sant'Angelo that day in February. But first I must admit that I was not myself present. It was the painter, my former friend, who is to be the leading character in my account, who recounted it to me.
Even though all four of them – Signora Cenci and the three children – were condemned to death, it pleased His Holiness to pardon the youngest son, Bernardo, who was fifteen. But he was ordered to remain beside the scaffold and watch all the executions. It was intended that he should assist the executioner by handing him the axe, but he fainted so often that he was more dead than alive while it was all going on. Afterwards he was sent immediately to the galleys.
Never in our days has Rome seen so great a crowd. From the Palazzo Orsini to the Tor di Nona, indeed, right down to S. Giovanni de'Fiorentini, horses and carriages were packed close. At least four people were killed in the crush, some fell under the horses' hoofs and some were, quite simply, squashed to death. The crowd uttered threats when Beatrice, her mother Lucrezia and brother Giacomo were led out of the castle and on to the scaffold erected in the centre of the bridge. Some screamed 'Death to the patricide!' but most called out that she was innocent. It pains me deeply to say it, but taunts were even directed at His Holiness himself.
But Clemens VIII – blessed be his memory in eternity – was not present in person. He was celebrating a mass in S. Giovanni in Laterano for the souls of the condemned.
Well, to the point: Mother Lucrezia swooned. Some say she had already died of fright, and her head was parted from her body without further ado.
But Beatrice was alive, and all agree that in her pallor she was more beautiful than ever. She cried out that God must never forgive those who allowed this injustice, and the crowd responded to her in such an enraged manner that the soldiers on guard began to drive people back with force, causing even more to be hurt. Among these was my friend the painter, who received a blow on his shoulder from a club. The revolt was so violent that the executioner did not dare to delay further but forced the girl, who was still crying out, to her knees, with her hands bound behind her back.
Then he struck. My friend was so close he could see the blood gush out; and more, he swears that he could see Beatrice's expression after the beheading, how spasms of hate and contempt passed over her beautiful face as the head rolled down from the scaffold and over the bridge. The executioner left it there. He did not lift it up by the hair and hold it out to the crowd as is customary. It was as if he was afraid that the bloody head would go on calling out curses and excite the crowd still further.
But the sight had had its effect. The waves of the human sea no longer thundered. There were only a few faint cries when Giacomo was taken up, held firmly by four stout men and pinched with iron tongs made red hot on a small forge, so the smell of burned flesh merged with his cries of agony. Then he was dragged to the scaffold and thrown down. The executioner struck him several times on the head with a big wooden club. He might have died of that before his throat was cut, like the carcass of a beast. Then the body was divided into four and flung aside like bloody slaughterhouse refuse.
But shortly afterwards, when passage through the streets was clear again, Beatrice's body was fetched and brought here to the Franciscans of S. Pietro in Montorio, from where in the fullness of time her maltreated body will rise again. So she rests in consecrated earth. How this was possible I do not wish to enlarge upon.
Well, then. I heard all these monstrous details of the execution over countless glasses of grappa that same evening. Afterwards I vomited miserably in the gutter outside the inn and had to put up with not a little scornful jeering.
But when I woke up next morning I had not only landed in prison and was feeling a cohort of small devils playing havoc inside me, I had lost my faith in there being one indivisible truth.
From that night on, Ambiguity became my new God. And I did not have to search far before I found the symbols of my new divinity.
It is the popes themselves who have had the obelisks erected, and of course I do not worry about their decisions. But for impressionable souls, like myself at this time ... Are they not extremely ambiguous signs, stretching a finger towards heaven in so many places here in the city? Ha, who says it is a finger? Learned folk maintain that the great stone phallus on the Piazza del Popolo was once raised in honour of the Sun God. Anyway it is a fact that Blessed Sixtus V, who instituted so many splendid initiatives for the renewal of the city, also had this colossus moved from what was the Circus Maximus of the heathens to the dominant position it now occupies, just outside the church where the revered and beautiful Madonna di Popolo is venerated by so many pious souls, a church which also has a part to play in the story of my friend the painter.
Ambiguity? It is true that His Holiness had this and the other obelisks sprinkled with holy water and adorned with a cross on the top. It is true that it must be a pleasing act, a triumph for the Church to convert the heathen monument; to force this index finger of the devil – or his sexual member – to draw attention to the Lord in his heaven.
But the signs on the sides of the colossus are still there, ominous images. They are not ordinary pictures; they hold a sombre meaning even though we cannot read them. How can we know that these signs, birds' heads, lions' bodies, do not hold some or other curse strong enough to be unaffected by any holy water and every prayer? How can we know it really is the Church that triumphs when these slender dark stones are erected in the most prominent squares in our Eternal City?
On the very square outside that St Peter's Church which now towers above the old Vatican meadows where the apostle finally found his grave – even there the good Sixtus placed one of these stone monsters. To be sure, this obelisk has no inscriptions, but is it not therefore equally ominous in its dark silence? As if that were not enough, His Holiness had to call out 900 workmen, 150 horses and forty-seven cranes to get the monster moved and erected. Even so, there was nearly a disaster; for it is told how Sixtus ordered the crowd of onlookers to keep absolute silence as it was raised under threat of sentence of death and how a sailor in the crowd saved the day by breaking the ban and calling out that they must dampen the ropes before they snapped.
I ask myself whether this titanic effort might not have been better expended on something else – not because I doubt the Holy Father's judgement but because all human activity is a choice. Our actions are not presented to us by nature; when we execute one, we exclude another.
No, no. Now I am jumping around far too wildly in my account. I who used to praise myself for my clear brain, which comprehended things swiftly and put them in their correct context! I must go back to the Osteria della Torretta near the Via della Scrofa where I heard the description of the executions and then drank myself senseless.
It was my friend the painter Michel Angelo da Merisi who depicted the horrific scenes on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, who now intrudes into my account in earnest.
Merisi is the family name. He was probably given the name of the angel from someone who knew the excitable tendencies of the Merisis in the hope that it might give the bearer a calmer cast of mind. In which case it was hardly the name of the warlike leader of the hosts of heaven he should have been dubbed with.
For that matter, most people now just call him Caravaggio after the small town near Bergamo from where the family hail.
The painter is not a big man. At the time of the execution of Beatrice Cenci he was not yet thirty years old. His slim, lithe figure is in constant movement, so full of restlessness that he cannot sit quietly at a table – indeed, even when he paints, his movements are singularly impetuous. His face is not remarkable – presumably women like him because of his gaze, from the dark brown eyes in the restless features that come to rest and look. It is the gaze of a painter, which makes things he sees remain visible for ever. Women see themselves in that gaze, I think, or the dream of themselves. And his eyes are all the more compelling because he has big, beautifully arched eyebrows, which almost form a semicircle. His hair – when I last saw him – was quite long, thick and slightly curly, although seldom well-combed; and at that time he had just a moustache and a rather well-groomed goatee, which could not hide the sensual mouth.
Anna Bianchini was with us that evening. She did not like me but tolerated my company for the sake of sitting at the same table as Michel. I knew quite well why she did not care for me; it was because of a foolish business a year or two earlier when Michel, the painter Prospero Orsi and I were sitting in an inn together. Anna came in with two women friends. Michel glanced at them with that gaze of his and remarked sotto voce: 'Look at Anna. What a lovely arse she has!'
But Anna heard what he said, perhaps that was intentional. However it was, she turned towards us and said aloud: 'Maybe, painter, you too have a lovely arse, that I am not allowed to get my hands on ...'
Michel took it quietly, but I stood up, went over and gave Anna a box on the ear. That is not the sort of thing a man can allow himself in a public place. Anna looked as if she was about to fly at me, but instead mine host appeared – in fact, he was her pimp at the time – and said we had all better simmer down or we would be asked to leave.
But after that Michel and the red-haired Anna established a kind of friendship. He used her as his model several times. It was not hard to see that she loved the painter, although perhaps not in the down-to-earth way in which she practised her trade – I don't know much about that. On that evening when we sat drinking grappa after the executions on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, I couldn't help thinking of the The Penitent Magdalen.
That is certainly a painting with a double meaning: Anna as Magdalene, the model as reality, the whore disguised as a whore – or maybe we were the only ones who saw the picture like this, we who knew the artist and his model. It is a serene picture, rather different from later paintings by Michel, with no trace of that wild, slashing light of his. The skin colour of Anna's neck and face is in subdued, golden tones. Her beautiful red hair is in shadow, her silk blouse falls lightly and tenderly around her, her damask dress is in shades of brown and gold. Only the scarlet cloak she wears, half enveloped in it for protection, is really dramatic, almost tangibly bringing guilt and sin into the picture. And then the expression on her face, the lowered gaze, so gentle but moved by a great sorrow.
Excerpted from Doubting Thomas by Atle Næss, Anne Born. Copyright © 1997 Atle Næess. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Account of Innocenzo Promontorio,
The Account of Onorio Longhi,
The Account of Pater Giovan Battista Merisi,
The Account of Phyllida Melandroni,
The Account of Maddalena Antognetti,
The Account of Prospero Orsi, Painter,
The Account of Peter Paul Rubens, Painter,
The Account of Ignazio, Municipal Clerk of Naples,
The Account of Ottaviano Gabrelli, Bookseller,
Postscript by Innocenzo Promontorio,
Concluding Unscholarly Comment by the Editor,