Caravaggio

A Novel

Christopher Peachment

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One

To Begin

The painter should be solitary ... Leonardo da Vinci. The Book of Painting


Of my parents I will say little. God knows there is little enough to say. My father was in service to a local duke, a high-born one as a matter of fact, and so one for whom I had some time. My father called himself an architect and it was true he could draw up plans and oversee the making of small buildings or additions to buildings. He was a skilful mason, but the duke required him to be a steward, and so that was what he did for the most part. My mother did little but raise my brothers. A strange woman, for she often declared to us and to others that her marriage was unhappy, yet she continued in it like any other marriage, and did not seem so very distressed. I could never entirely understand them. The reason for this, I think, was that I realized at a very early age that I was cleverer than the both of them together. And that set me at an angle to the world.

When I was six I did a small sketch of the building next to ours. I had been drawing in secret for as long as I could remember. And my mother found the scrap of paper with my drawing and took it later to my father and from the next room I could hear them wondering aloud. And my father became cross, thinking I must have strayed and taken lessons from a stranger or a better architect than he. It was then I knew I had something that no other person had, although I could not put a name to it, being too young. And I would look at my parents from then on in a wholly new light. They were stupid. And I was not.

I think that most children have cause at some time or other to think that they are not the true offspring of their parents but foundlings who were taken in. Not surprisingly, it is a thought given mainly to the lower orders, who vainly dream of a better station in life. No prince ever thought to disown his parentage. But me, I knew that feeling most acutely. Not for any reasons of envy for a higher station. But because of my intellect. For how can it be that two stupid people can give birth to a child more intelligent than they? Surely, nature would not countenance such a monstrous oddity.

And I am monstrous, I know it. I had an eye for drawing but it began in odd ways that even now I cannot entirely understand. For I could not see the world then as I later found it to be. It may be that I had something awry with my sight, or some contortion of the brain, I do not know. But, when dark had descended and the place was full of shadows, I would often be startled by phantoms and ugly things, which minutes later I could not find. The foolish and the ignorant in the outer-lying regions are much taken with superstitions and fancy that they see fairies and spirits and such. I saw similar, but could not put a name to them, nor, being young and unknowing, could I compare them with other things.

But see them I did, and can remember their shapes still. Horned things, and creatures that could fly without wings, and near-humans of terrifying ugliness. They never frightened me. And as I grew older they came to me less and less. By the time I was six years old they had all but gone. Which is why I took to scrawling pictures on scraps of cloth and paper, to try to bring them back.

I never wanted my parents to see those drawings, and so I would always destroy them after by tearing them up and throwing them in the privy, or defacing them in some way.

I said I was monstrous and it is true. There were mirrors in our house, for we were not poor. But strangely I never believed what I saw in them. What the glass shows me is a swarthy man, not handsome, but not repulsive either, with large eyes, a fleshy nose and full lips. My hair is black and unruly, and my beard sparse. There is something of the Moor in me, some ancient blood unknown in my parentage. My friend Minitti sketched me thus, and that is what is in the glass, true enough. But it is not how I see myself.

From an early age I would look at my reflection in a large copper pot that was kept polished in the kitchen. And also in the backs of silver spoons that belonged in the duke's palace. And what I saw there, I believed. A bladder-faced monster with squinting eyes, huge carbuncular nose and a hideous thick-lipped mouth twice as big as any other person's and liable to gobble down his neighbour just to fill it. No matter that the glass said otherwise. What you believe is more important than what is.

Do other children scare themselves in such fashion? I do not know. Perhaps they do. You will be saying to yourself at this point 'yes' or 'no', for you will recall not just your own childhood but that of others too, and will have talked to others of their childhood and will know all sorts of things about that general state. But I do not know. I had no childhood like any other. I hated being a child. I did not like being smaller than adults, for I could see more clearly than most of them, yet I was at their mercy because of my size. And so my chief memory of childhood is of waiting. Waiting for the tiresome state to pass. Waiting to grow to my full stature, and take my place in the world. Nor did I involve myself with other children. I despised them. I had no taste for their games. And I knew I was different.

Often I would look at my parents, and indeed at my uncle and his wife and at other married couples, and wonder why people got married. It is surely not for reasons of happiness, for I never saw one marriage that ever gave both parties happiness. Nor can it be for reasons of children. Most parents love their offspring from duty and fear, not for what they are. Nor can it be for sexual relief. It is always cheaper to get that from a whore. The price you pay, eventually, is lower than the price you pay for a wife.

As to having children ... I would sooner hack my balls and clacker off and live celibate than even entertain that idea.

One night my uncle died. Then my grandfather and then my father, all in the same night, all of the plague. All I remember is being the object of much pity, and being held a lot and kissed and caressed, which I did not like. Otherwise I was glad to be rid of them. They were a smelly lot.

I did not play with my brothers, did not even have much to do with them, bar what could not be avoided around the house; and at thirteen, my mother was relieved to see me go. I should have tarried a little longer, only so that I could secure a better position than I did, but impatience marks my life, and even at thirteen I was so marked.

Peterzano, known as Simone, had no great claims to genius, although that did not stop him making them. He told people he had been a pupil of Titian, and that claim much impressed the credulous, so that he got commissions for portraits that were clearly beyond his measure. He may well have met Titian at some point, perhaps sat at his feet and ground up some of his pigments. Perhaps even filled in some background detail of the man's work, I do not know. But I doubt he was a pupil, for his works are so far behind the master he can have learnt nothing. But I did not know that much of art at thirteen. And he was kind to me.

He took me in, and gave me food and a roof for four years and taught me all he knew, which God knows was not greatness, but was a good enough grounding. And indeed, truth to tell, I am grateful he was not a master. For I knew I would find my own style, and I knew that I would find it sooner if it was not clouded by another's. He was perhaps the sort of teacher all painters who aspire to greatness should have. A dogged craftsman who can teach you everything but that final thing. What that final thing might be I cannot name, but I know it when I see it. And of recent painters, only Titian will I acknowledge as having it.

Having it? I am sorry, I am wrong on that score. It had him, and it had him in spades. He was possessed by it, and it worked through him and shone like a burning tree in the desert night. I speak here unusually, I know, and not quite clearly. I wish I were a lettered man. But this is the only way I can describe it to you. I have known that state. And believe me: it possesses you. You toil and you toil and you labour even longer and nothing will come right and then suddenly, you will do a small stroke, without any thought behind it, and there it is. You will step back and wonder at it, for just suddenly, just so, there is perfection. And you know not where it came from.

Others, I know, work differently, but that is how it is for me. Some men, cultured men, men who are collectors and patrons, have a name for it; which I will not use here. I am more careful. And I do know this. It may come of its own accord. But it will not come unless you sweat hard first. You cannot make it happen just by sitting around and hoping for it to happen. Nothing comes of nothing. First you must sweat.

Where was I ... ah yes, Peterzano. What more can I say of him, I have already filled as much space as he deserves. Posterity will find him a good enough hack. And wonder where on earth I got my mastery from. Stay with me, and I will try and tell you.

Four years I stayed with him in Milan. And I worked hard and justified the money my parents had given him for my apprenticeship. And at night I would slip from the window to my room, and roam the streets in search of forbidden pleasure.

The aristocrats of Milan toyed with male love. It was not a serious pursuit for them, but it was like a secret fashion, and one which had to be affected, if they were to be thought refined. I did not hawk myself, like so many of the pretty young men hanging around their fashionable places. I am not pretty, and I have nothing of the feminine about me, and so have no taste for kissing; nor will I suck another man; nor let him into me. But if you want it up the arse, then I am your man.

Besides, Milan was ruled by the Spanish in those days. And a Spaniard will fuck anything with a heartbeat.

As I will tell you, the penalties for sodomy were extreme. But if you made sure you only fucked the high-born, then you were moderately well protected. No ordinary policeman was going to drag a duke or a cardinal from his salon and throw him in jail with a bunch of Jew moneylenders; not unless he wanted a dozen lawyers howling down on his arse and getting him thrown out of his job. No, the police stuck to chasing the lower orders; and so I stuck to 0fucking the upper. You know where you are with nobility.

Besides I knew that if I was going to make my way in the world as a painter I was going to need a patron, and that meant a patron who had connections as much as money. I need very little money in this life. Material goods hold little value for me. But I knew even at an early age that I was going to need all the protection I could get. And since I do not have a taste for friendship, then I would need to forge the bonds with a protector by other means. Sex seemed as good a way as any.

So I fucked the prettier ones and I even fucked the ugly ones, for when they are turned away from you, what is the difference? Besides, the ugly ones were so grateful. And I fucked women too, even though I sometimes paid for it. They feel different, and it is often more soft and more pleasant and sweet with a woman. But it lacks that element of danger. And sex without danger is like meat without salt.

I did not care for Milan. A large city, but an unhappy one, with grey skies and little by way of good building. I did not like the Spanish rulers, a stupid, vain and cruel bunch, who strutted around proclaiming their superiority. I do not mind arrogance, especially if it is justified. Sprezzatura is becoming in a man, but only if he has earned it. The Spanish think they can affect airs without having made the slightest justification for them. They lack cunning too and so will never be good rulers. They cannot placate or flatter their subjects and so the people under them will become sullen and prone to revolt. And the Spanish like to put down dissent with steel and fire. They will never be loved, only feared. Every race in the world has some good reason to hate the Spanish. I have seen it all too often.

Milan was a town of arms and armourers. Some of the finest suits of armour in the land were made in Milan. Princes came here for their fancy hand-tooled suits of armour which were only ever going to be shown off in some parade of vanity. But then there were the serious armourmakers. These men knew something of war and they designed their armour most carefully, with angles and rounded edges and special curves, which were so fashioned as to deflect an arrow's flight, or make a sword glance off it. They were masterpieces and lovely to look at in their way.

I saw a landsknecht once, a huge, bearded Switzer, whose arms were covered in scars and open gashes. He was ordering a cuirass for his mighty chest from one of the smaller armourers and he took great pleasure in discussing its shape and where the curves should go, just so, and just so. And he demonstrated to the smith how the piece was to be hammered and what thicknesses it should have and where. And he showed the man how sword thrusts came at a soldier and which were the deadly ones and which were the harmless ones, and how they were best parried or deflected or ignored.

He would adopt a stance, whether the defensive or the offensive, and he would twist his body to show how his armour should take a blow. And how the area where the arm joins the body is most vulnerable, because it must be mobile and so unprotected, and how there is an artery in there which if cut can let a man bleed to death in minutes. And how he therefore used chain mail to cover that spot, even though it chafed and a light foot soldier could still sneak a dagger in though the gaps. You could only minimize the risks, never eliminate them. Besides he was a soldier. And the minute a soldier begins to worry about risk, then he had best go home.

I sat in the shadows in the corners and listened for a whole afternoon without noticing the time, so taken up was I. And I pondered on a soldier's life. It had its attractions; but not for me. I had my own colours calling me home.

The main thing that Peterzano had me do was grind his colours. I could already draw better than he, and anyway I had lost the taste for it. He was supposed to teach me fresco work too, and sure enough I mastered it quite quickly, but, as I will explain to you later, I found it tiresome and gave it up, only to try it once in my life, with nearly fatal consequences. Fresco colours are pathetic, all milky and anaemic. Oil colours were what I liked and they alone would be my mistress. The ochre and the cerulean and the rest.


Arms and Armour

The painter should be solitary and consider what he sees ...
Leonardo da Vinci.


Copyright © 2002 by Christopher Peachment