Close up detail of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's, Michelangelo Buonarroti ("The Creation of Adam") inspired "Calling of Saint Matthew" (on right).
As I may or may not by now have expressed, I almost deliberately avoided studying the most in-depth details of the real Caravaggio's life before writing the novel Bar Fight, intending to create a character of my own as opposed to a strict interpretation of the real man. I already knew great deal about the painter at the time but only recently have I finished Andrew Graham-Dixon's 445 page long biography offering all sorts of perspective on what the painter's life (which remains largely a mystery) was actually like (I intend to review this book later). It was also important to me that I devised my own perspective on his paintings (trying to see firsthand as many as I could as opposed to having someone else's interpretation fed to me).
The resemblance of the spirit of this character I have created to the real Caravaggio has only grown more striking upon diving further into the details. The coincidences have been phenomenal, social issues, prejudice, identity and the fear of terrorism in the immediate aftermath of September 11th make up some of the major driving themes of Bar Fight. Little did I know then—that at the time of Caravaggio's birth, Italy was swept by widespread concern over the threat of Islamic invasion, contributing to a movement towards a fundamental, radical form of Christianity and even inspiring Caravaggio's parents to name him after the archangel Michael (the protector of the faithful responsible for separating the blessed from the damned—the guardian of the Hebrew Nation).
Bar Fight is fiction, yes, but there is an idea of truth driving any work of fiction that speaks to us (if we are so attracted to listen). There has always been a story below the surface of what is often glorified as wild and random on behalf of Caravaggio's lifestyle.
Even this blog at times re-iterates and will continue to exploit some of the wilder ideas of Caravaggio's life, mentioning in an article below that one of Caravaggio's depictions of the Virgin Mary was rejected due to its "obvious sensuality"—historians have repeated this for years although it is just as likely if not very plausible that Caravaggio's depiction of a poor and populist version of the Holy Mary (as opposed to one more Saintly and Queenlike) simply fell out of touch with the theological trends of the time thus playing an equal role in the rejection (and the naked baby Jesus probably didn't help).
The underlying message was clear. His art (himself as a man) was something to be appreciated but not quite for the masses, because it spoke to the poor and humble instead of demanding them to revere the powerful and holy—and it was downright sexy.
Madonna dei Palafrenieri, Caravaggio,
Image taken from public domain.
Close up of
Madonna del Palafrenieri, Caravaggio,
Image taken from public domain.
In the same light, it is much more likely that Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a prearranged duel, fair and square, as opposed to (what very may well be the cover up perpetuated by history) that he killed him because of an impulsive disagreement over a tennis match. The murder was likely gang related, a meeting of four on four (and dueling was a capital crime in Rome).
The protagonist of Bar Fight is pursued by a similarly ragtag gang and the climax plays out very much like a duel. The hero, Michael, is held responsible for the death of one person in the novel, mishandling her after she is accidentally shot directly in the upper thigh by someone else. When I wrote this I was unaware that the real Caravaggio's fatal blow was given directly to the upper thigh near the groin, in what was most likely, inadvertently—literally, an overkilled attempt to emasculate Ranuccio Tomassoni with a sword—a pretty serious insult, naturally, at the time.
The penalty for cutting off someone's testicles in Rome was a fine of probably around 200 lire per testicle plus 500 lire for castration (as was law in Caravaggio's hometown of Milan during the mid 16th century).
Could the duel have been over a woman? History suggests Ranuccio Tomassoni's wife may not have been all that great of a wife. Tomassoni was Fillide Melandroni's (the prostitute Caravaggio was quite close with) pimp. Could it have been politics? Caravaggio seemed to have loose ties to the French and Ranuccio Tomassoni to the Spanish. Nothing like this actually happens in Bar Fight but clashing ideologies and mindset certainly play a role in the conflict.
The truth is, the times Caravaggio lived in were violent, many members of his family died from the black plague during his childhood (and the black plague was blamed on a religious minority), the church took a census of who did and did not receive communion, people were racist, and heretics were regularly tortured to death in public as Christian martyrs were revered. There is no doubt that all of these extreme ongoings and contradictions had an effect on Caravaggio's strong chiaroscuro style (extreme black vs. extreme light) but much of his life remains shrouded in mystery, attributed to sensationalism and semi-myth. The idea of Bar Fight is to take you behind the scenes and show you what a man like this would really be like, how he would think. The spirit of Caravaggio is very much alive in Bar Fight, be it in 2001. What is the world like today, beneath the surface? Are there contradictions in thoughts and belief? With all of the parallels that can be drawn, both planned and unexpected, it almost seems as if this story was meant to be. It just sort of happened.
Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni,
Image taken from Public Domain
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. (2010). Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.