Rees, Matt - 'A Name in Blood'
The waiter set down the plate. A man in a broad-brimmed hat reached his thick, dirty hands for the artichokes, pulled away the ears, and rubbed them in the olive oil on the plate. He curled an arm around his dish, as though he expected someone to grab it from him.
Rome, 1605. The painter Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, is at the height of his success in Rome. He is summoned to the palace of his patron Cardinal Del Monte who, in the company of another cardinal, goads the artist by displaying his latest acquisition which is a portrait of St Francis by Caravaggio's chief rival and denigrator, Baglioni. Caravaggio rails against what he sees as Baglioni's fashionable and empty style and is cross-examined by the unknown cardinal whom Del Monte then introduces as Cardinal Borghese, nephew of the new Pope Paul V and the man who runs the Vatican. Borghese wishes to commission Caravaggio to paint a portrait of the Pope. As he bows humbly to thank the Cardinal, Caravaggio notices yet another tear in his clothes. How had that happened? He vaguely remembers a wager and a scuffle last night. A lost bet. But to whom does he owe money? Such an incident is nothing new in a life lived in the brawling streets and taverns of Rome. However with the commission of a portrait of the Pope Caravaggio feels assured of patronage. More commissions from ecclesiastical patrons follow. In the meantime Caravaggio has become infatuated with Lena, a vegetable seller living in the poorest quarter of Rome. As usual Caravaggio takes his models from the whorehouses and taverns that he frequents and increasingly he uses Lena as his model for Mary, the Holy Mother. But his insistence on portraying the reality and humanity of his models soon becomes more than a point of gossip. With Baglioni's jealous, disparaging criticism being whispered into the ears of his patrons, Caravaggio finds that his finished commissions are being refused. Their naturalistic portrayal of the Holy Family and the Saints is seen as sacrilegious by his church patrons. His successful career is faltering. When he kills a young man in a duel – the time has come for him to leave Rome and run for his life.
Matt Rees is the author of the much praised crime series "The Palestine Quartet" featuring Omar Yussef and A NAME IN BLOOD is Rees' second historical novel, his first being MOZART'S LAST ARIA, a historical crime novel investigating the composer's death. A NAME IN BLOOD is a story that covers the last five years of the painter Caravaggio's life. It depicts his downfall and the perilous years until his mysterious death and disappearance in 1610. Triggered by Rees' love of Caravaggio's paintings and a desire to research and write about the bad boy genius painter, his rackety life, notoriety, and his prodigious skills and bravery in art, I think this is first and foremost an historical novel rather than crime fiction. As such the book is fascinating in its detail, not least the accounts of the paintings themselves. It gives us the flavour of the religious politics of the time, not just the of the Vatican but the Knights of Malta and the foreboding presence of the Inquisition. Most of the characters referred to in the book can be traced historically and for those who want to follow through in further detail there are reproductions of the featured paintings on Matt Rees' own website.
Whilst I appreciate the research and imagination that has gone into the writing of A NAME IN BLOOD (and Caravaggio's end here is just one possible version of the mystery) I will make a clean breast of it and say that Rees' writing style in this book is not for me. Writing with great descriptive detail including the state of mind of his characters can conjure up scenes and atmosphere to good effect. But I found that the descriptive prose slowed everything down. I also think that writing or portraying the inner world of genius is tricky territory and led to some overly wrought turns of phrase. There. I have made my confession. This book was not for me. But if you have enjoyed Matt Rees' previous books and have a taste for historical drama it may well be for you.
Lynn Harvey, England