Margreet Hofland
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BEING CARAVAGGIO by Margreet Hofland (original titlle: Het genie van Rome)

Some chapters from the book translated by Hester Velmans

(From the Prologue — Opening paragraph of Lucia Aratori’s letter to her son, Caravaggio)

Caravaggio, June 23, 1589

My dearest Michele,

Sometimes something happens to you in life that you cannot ever tell anyone. From the very first moment when I saw the wisdom in your eyes, I have been trying every day to think of words with which to relieve myself of the terrible burden of my hidden story, your story. The right moment never came, I never found the right phrases. You will therefore not find this letter until after my death….”

(From Chapter Two)

Milan, 1576

A young boy’s dream

Panting, I ran down the palazzo’s long corridors, desperately looking for the Marchesa Colonna, flinging open one door after another,
“Donna Costanza, Donna Costanza!” Sobbing, I tore around corners, blinded by my tears. Suddenly my wild dash was barred by an enormous figure, dressed in the stately Spanish black of the nobility, the white collar clamped like a millstone around the neck. A bald pate loomed high above my own head, reflecting the light like the full moon.
Knocked off my feet, I crashed to my knees. The jagged edges of the cobble stones made me scream. I started hitting out wildly. Then, suddenly, I realized who it was that I had bumped into.
It is my hero, Marcantonio Colonna, Donna Costanza’s famous father!
It was the first time I’d seen him from up close. His greased boots smelled of the sea, of the foaming waves and of gunpowder.
Marcantonio, the admiral of the Papal fleet, was the most important personage of my childhood dreams. He was the head of one of the oldest and most powerful families of the Roman nobility, the Colonnas, and he was Donna Constanza’s father to boot. In Milan he had been adored by the people, and after he led the Pope’s fleet to victory, his name had gained renown outside his native city as well. In my eyes, he was mightier than the Pope himself. His victory over the Turkish fleet at Lepanto, the week after my birth, had made his fame. My mother had told me that she had awaited the news of the naval battle with as much anticipation as the arrival of her first born. Perhaps that was when my bond with the great man was first forged.

I had asked the Marchesa at least a hundred times to tell me the story of her father’s glorious arrival in Rome, when the entire population had thronged out to give him a hero’s welcome when I was two months old. “As he made his way to see the Pope along the Via Appia, the road of victorious Roman generals, he was cheered by a delirious mob.” She had described it for me so many times that if I shut my eyes I could clearly see the horses and soldiers driving the shackled Turkish prisoners along. So, my stinging knees forgotten, seeing Marcantonio’s gaze land on me like God’s gaze from heaven, those images flashed through my head in full color.
I saw my hero riding into Rome along the broad Via Appia, all dressed in black, except for the stiff white collar. Straight as an arrow he sat atop his white steed, followed by an army of over five thousand soldiers. The sun glittered off the myriad helmets and swords. Red plumes danced among the swarming multitude like poppies in a cornfield. Driven along ahead of him, where the dust from the cracking whips rose high into the sky, were one hundred and seventy shackled Turkish prisoners. The cheering spectators clapped their hands and kept shouting the victor’s name: “Viva Marcantonio, viva!” Trumpets blared, the golden light flashed on the copper helmets, dazzling the eyes of the streaming throng. On reaching the Ponte Sant Angelo, my hero crossed the Tiber, surrounded by twenty-five cardinals carried in open sedan chairs. The red cardinal’s hats were visible from very far away. From there Marcantonio made his way to St. Peter’s and the palace of the Vatican, where the Pope received him in the Sala Regia, a supreme honor.
Donna Costanza had often told me the story of the famous naval battle that had led up to this triumphant entry into Rome. Eight thousand Christians had perished that day, but even more Turks. The water around the ship of Don John Of Austria, the fleet’s commander, had slowly turned red; the sails shimmering in the sun like gaily fluttering banners, the canons poking out of the galley’s sides like so many spider legs. The best moment came when the head of Ali Pasha was brought to him on a stake. The stake was red with dripping blood. The hacked-off head stuck up high above the jeering throng like a trophy, its frozen stare turned heavenward, the eyeballs bulging out of their sockets.
In my mind’s eye I saw my hero surrounded by Turks, slashing his sword around, hacking off one head after another. And now here he was standing right in front of me, large as life; I was surprised not to see any blood on his hands. He grabbed me by the armpits and, roaring with laughter, swung me high up into the air.
“What’s this, a swarthy little devil trying to trip and bring me down,” he thundered in his deep voice. “No Turk ever managed it, but you made me stumble! When you are grown, you must come and report to our Roman palazzo; a mad dog like you could prove to be an important weapon in our struggle against the Moors!”
I stared at him, speechless; my jaw must have dropped open.
Then he lowered me back down to the ground, leaving me with the certainty that Rome was where I was meant to end up, and that one day I would be honored with a knighthood. With thundering strides and a roaring laugh, he walked off down the long corridors, where the echo of his heavy boots was magnified a hundredfold. It took quite a while for the sound to die away completely.

From Chapter XVIII

Rome, August 25, 1605


With heavy tread I climbed the hill to Rome’s center of power, the Quirinale Palace. I walked passed the Palazzo Colonna, empty without Constanza in residence, past the two enormous statues of Castor and Pollux that, flanked by their horses, stared gravely across the Piazza del Quirinale. I was on my way to the Pope’s summer residence. I had an appointment there with Scipione Borghese, the new cardinal, nephew to Pope Paul V. Scipione, who happened to have the same name as my son.
I felt more dejected than ever. On returning from Genoa, I had found the door of my house locked against me, my possessions impounded. At the time of my hasty departure I had not been able to raise the money for the rent. As soon as the landlady heard I had left, she had rented the place to someone else. I still owed her for the damage to the wall that I had smashed with a chair on the ill-fated night when I had discovered Lena bleeding on my doorstep.
I was now a vagabond, on top of everything else. I found temporary shelter with Andrea Ruffetti, a friend of Onorio’s. I had located Lena, pale and silent, at her mother’s house. She was frightened, and I could not get through to her. There was a sadness in her that I couldn’t reach. The scar on her cheek had shrunk to a narrow pink line, her figure was no longer that of a young girl, but I loved her more than ever. In her eyes I read the grief of a mother who has lost a child. She spent most of the time sitting by the window, staring out, repeatedly raising her hand to the pink line on her cheek. I felt so very helpless!
Nothing surprised me anymore, not even the fact that I had been summoned by the most powerful cardinal to discuss my affairs. What else could possibly befall me? From my host Ruffett, I had heard that Scipione Borghese had been elevated to cardinal not five weeks earlier. and had in the past few days also been given a governing role. His job was to increase the prestige of the Borghese family, and outdo the Colonnas, among others, in pomp and splendor. According to Ruffetti, he was extremely clever and loved art more than money or any other possessions.
“You should take advantage of that preference of his,” he had told me. “Offer him a painting, it is your only hope.”
I had taken this message to Del Monte, so that he might pass it along to the new cardinal. And perhaps my ploy had worked.
I was shown into Scipione Borghese’s private apartments. As he walked toward me he began to speak rapidly, unleashing a gush of words. He fluttered around in his red robe, which he was clearly not yet used to. It hampered his rapid movements ,and from time to time he would catch the wide sleeves on a chair back or arm. Meanwhile his shrewd eyes looked me up and down with great interest — admiration, almost. He wanted to take the time to hear me out, and sat down, even though he looked ready to jump to his feet again at a moment’s notice. He tried to put me at ease and asked me all sorts of questions. He inquired what had led to my outburst at the Piazza Navona, and listened to my story without interrupting me. I told him of my love for Lena, my unacknowledged son and the son who died. When I saw the sympathy in his friendly face, something in me broke. I began to weep. Like a felled tree, a cracked rock, I sat in the opulent red velvet chair and shed the tears of a small, lonely boy.
Scipione placed his hand on my head and said, greatly moved, “I will help you, my son. God has put me in your path, and I shall help you ward off the evil that hangs over you like a heavy cross. I know your paintings, I can see quite clearly that God must have guided your hand in creating such beautiful works. Go home, go to work, start a painting for me and come back tomorrow. We shall see to it that everything is resolved.”
The next day, in Scipione’s rooms, in the presence of his assistants, I signed a declaration promising I would never again attack any representative of the government. In return, Pasqualone was to withdraw all his complaints against me; but I still got my comeuppance from him, that very evening. On my way home I was set upon by a gang of five men. I didn’t have a chance and was seriously wounded, in the neck and the ear. I could not muster the energy to fight back.
At Ruffetti’s place I slowly recovered from my wounds, both physically and mentally. My life seemed to be set back on track again, but I would have to start all over. I was still dependent on Cecco, who took care of me and on Prospero, who kept a close watch on me. Cornacchio, too, remained loyal. I didn’t have a Scudo to my name. I completed the painting for Scipione for a negligible sum and he arranged a commission for me — a portrait of the Pope. I hoped that this would lead to more church commissions. At the end of October I was commissioned to paint a picture for St. Peter’s.

From Chapter XIX

Rome, Villa Borghese, 1985


The late afternoon sunlight shines in through the windows almost sideways; it is brighter than normal. It grazes the surface of the canvas, creating an unusual effect. Every area where the impasto is thickly applied casts a slight shadow, as if the paint is coming away from the canvas. Lucas’s eyes scan the pleats of David’s white shirt, Goliath’s wet lower lip and the wound on his forehead; Goliath’s open eye stares at him probingly, as always. His hunch that Caravaggio’s secret is to be found in this painting gets stronger every time he stands in front of it. He examines every square inch, and stares at the patches of color. The canvas is composed of two pieces sewn together. The seam is clearly visible.
His gaze is arrested by the sword blade, where some built-up layers of paint applied in a regular pattern become obvious in the flat light. He can’t help taking a step closer, and hears the guard’s discreet cough. As if he would be capable of ruining this painting! He cocks his head to the side and examines the sword blade intently. Some kind of marks, clearly. Letters? He can get no further. The first mark could be an H, and the next an A… But of course! “H.A.O.S., read the sword. You will recognize my Caravaggino.” In that age, the sword smith would often etch letters into the blade, but this could be something different. Caravaggio’s lost message— the letter discovered by Cutajar! Is this the missing key I’ve been looking for? Who might that Caravaggino be?
Lucas feels himself grow hot. He tries to control himself. How could he examine this more closely? He realizes he does not want Christofano to find out about his discovery. It is his own secret, meant for him alone.
The next morning, as soon as the shops open, Lucas borrows a magnifying glass from the optician on his block. When he arrives at the Villa, the Museum is not yet officially open, but the visitors are already crowding around the entrance. A tourist bus spews its occupants onto the gravel. Luckily, the guard is already at his post. Lucas makes an effort to act friendly. Shaking, he takes out his magnifying glass and leans forward. Slowly the letters take shape under the convex glass.
“H.A.O.S … … … Humilitas Occidit Superbium” — Modesty slays Pride: the abbreviation in Cutajar’s letter.
So it is definitely in this painting that the secret is concealed, thinks Lucas.

From Chapter XX

Rome, 1606


For three days I remained in the palace of Giovanni Niccolini, the Tuscan ambassador. I was in great pain and the bed canopy seemed to spin before my eyes. From time to time I felt so ill that I had to empty the contents of my stomach into the porcelain dish at my bedside At times it felt as though I were lying in the burning sun; sometimes I was so cold that I thought I must already be floating in the icy water of the underworld. I saw Del Monte a couple of times; he addressed me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
This time, however, he came early in the morning; my fever had gone down and I felt relatively lucid.
“I cannot save you again, my son. My power is uncertain, under this new Pope. The only one who can rescue you now is Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who has a soft spot for you. As do a number of others, fortunately.” He paused briefly. “You have never learned to rein in your passions, which has its good side and its bad side, but this time you have made an unforgivable mistake. Perhaps even your last mistake. Tomassoni is dead and buried. His father was an important man, and what you did in self-defense is generally regarded as a brutal murder. The way in which your victim was … er… degraded doesn’t help matters. It’s all over Rome!”
He walked over to the window as if he didn’t dare look me in the eye.
“My friend Niccolini can’t keep you sheltered here any longer. I have been warned that tomorrow there will be a house search. You will have to flee again, but this time you will have to stay away longer. Your powerful friends of the Colonna family are prepared to come to your aid once more. You’ll have to spend some time at one of the family’s estates outside Rome, at Palestrina, Zagarolo or Paliano. It is less than a day’s journey. A coach awaits.”
Del Monte helped me dress; his hands shook as he buttoned my jacket and inadvertently brushed my skin. When I tried to speak, he said, “Don’t say anything, my boy, I quite understand.”
His mouth turned down at the corners. He supported me and walked me out to the carriage himself. I took nothing with me. Everything I owned had been confiscated. As the carriage drove away, I watched as his robe shrank to a speck of vermilion in the distance, like a drop of blood in one of my paintings.




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Click here for a preview from some chapters of the book

translated by: Hester Velmans


Writers usually start off cautiously. With a short story collection for instance, or a novella. But not so in the case of the publishing house In de Knipscheer. HET GENIE VAN ROME (Being Caravaggio) is a 550-page novel by Margreet Hofland that interweaves the life of the master painter Caravaggio with contemporary characters. So Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is given a 20th-Century counterpart in the person of Lucas Antheunissen, a fictional descendant of the master of chiaroscuro. The author paints a colorful and nuanced portrait of the prematurely deceased master painter and his times. Caravaggio comes to life so brilliantly in this novel that one wonders if Hofland might not simply have written a straightforward historical novel about his life. Hofland has succeeded in turning it into a riveting story.
Haagsche Courant, May 9, 2003

This original first novel alternates between the 20th Century (1951-1985) and the 16th-Century world of Caravaggio. This lively tale will appeal especially to lovers of Italian Renaissance art. A colorful debut.
Biblion, June 2003

A captivating formula, the concept especially. A book in which the storylines flow together seamlessly, and in which the past and the present are ingeniously woven into a satisfying whole, making for a most enjoyable read.

A historical novel, thriller and travelogue all rolled into one. A very readable biography in the form of an absorbing novel. Delightful.
Patrick Vandendaele, Belgium, October 3, 2003

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