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SYNOPSIS


On January 14, 1571, Lucia Aratori and Fermo Merisi are wed in their native village of Caravaggio. Less than three weeks later, while on her way back to Milan, where she works as the Marchesa di Caravaggio’s chambermaid , Lucia is raped by a handsome stranger with a devilish stare. Nine months later, Michel Angelo da Merisi is born, later known by the name of Caravaggio. Caravaggio is raised in Milan, in the palazzo of the famous Sforza family.

In a little village in the southern Dutch province of Brabant, nearly four centuries later, Lucas Antheunissen is born on January 3, 1951. Lucas’s mother, Anna, has done all she could to prevent this birth; she does not want to have the baby because she loathes and fears her abusive husband. When Lucas is fourteen, Anna commits suicide on finding out that she is pregnant again. Lucas grows up into a man with a forceful personality; he discovers that he can influence people through sheer force of will. He becomes a theater critic.

Eline is a city girl. Needy for the attention she never had as a child, she becomes an artist and teacher. Eline and Lucas are drawn into a passionate affair. Lucas is a difficult man, as Eline finds out to her chagrin. On a visit to the Louvre in Paris, Lucas is greatly struck by Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin. It is the exact mental picture he has of his mother’s suicide: a dead woman in a red dress lying on a table. The painting affects him deeply. It leads to an urgent desire to draw and paint, and it turns out that he is a gifted artist. His second encounter with Caravaggio occurs when Eline shows him Caravaggio’s self-portrait, printed on an Italian 100,000-lire bank note. It’s the spitting image of Lucas.

Back in the 16th Century, Caravaggio leaves Milan for Rome, where he soon gains fame as an artist. His work is loved and highly praised, but it also causes consternation because of its uncannily lifelike quality. He finds his models on the street and chooses to portray saints with filthy bare feet dressed in threadbare clothes. His first patron is Cardinal Del Monte, with whom he has a brief homosexual affair. Caravaggio moves in the highest political and ecclesiastic circles of Rome, but he also haunts the narrow back streets around the Piazza Navona, populated by pilgrims and unemployed mercenaries, and is often involved in fights. He meets Maddalena Antognetti, a courtesan, and he falls in love with her. She bears him a son; but theirs is an impossible love. When it is discovered that the model for the Virgin Mary was a courtesan, his painting is hastily removed from walls of the church for which it was commissioned.

Caravaggio cannot control his temper; he kills a rival who taunts him during a tennis game at the home of the Tuscan ambassador. He is banished, and there is a price on his head. While hiding in Paliano he completes a painting of David and Goliath, remarkable for the fact that the giant’s decapitated head has Caravaggio’s own features, for Caravaggio anticipates that his own end will be by decapitation too. He decides to use this painting to bribe Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a great admirer of his work, to put in a good word for him in Rome. Cardinal Borghese is also the nephew of the Pope, and wields a great deal of influence in Rome. Caravaggio hides a little sealed tin vial within the picture frame; it contains his mother’s letter confessing the rape that led to his birth, and a letter to his son, for Maddalena refused to divulge the identity of the child’s father, and Caravaggio is worried that the boy will never find out.

Lucas and Eline set out for Rome. Lucas immediately feels at home in the city, and becomes convinced that this is where he belongs. He decides not to return to the Netherlands, jeopardizing his relationship with Eline. We also find out that a Professor Giorgio Misura, a pathologist, has been carrying out research on bones illegally exhumed for him by grave robbers. Lucas studies all of Caravaggio’s paintings that are to be found in Rome, and takes up painting. He meets Christofano Spiteri, the curator of the Villa Borghese, and assists in the restoration of the villa’s frescoes. He becomes obsessed with the David and Goliath painting, which hangs in the villa, and detects the letters H.A.O.S. painted on David’s sword blade: HumilitAs Occidit Superbium (Humility Vanquishes Pride). The phrase, an ancient adage coined by the Emperor Augustus, refers to Caravaggio’s unremitting struggle with his inner demons, a struggle Lucas must contend with as well. Lucas suspects that the painting’s frame may conceal a message. His hunch is confirmed by a letter purported to be by Caravaggio, that has just come to light, discovered by a friend of Spiteri’s in Malta. Lucas takes advantage of Spiteri, who is gay, to gain undisturbed access to the painting one night at the Villa. His notion that he is a descendant of Caravaggio’s is confirmed when he finds the little tin canister concealed in the picture frame containing the two letters; further confirmation of his origins comes from the Sant Agostino church records. His “burglary” is discovered and the police are after him; unable to return to his lodgings, he takes to the streets.

For the rest of his life, Caravaggio’s only goal is to return to Rome. There is an exchange of letters with the Pope. His last hope is that Borghese will come to his aid. In the meantime he sails to Malta, where he receives a princely welcome. Notwithstanding his humble origins, he is made a knight in the Order of Malta, a long-standing wish of his. The Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, a great admirer of his work, intervenes in his behalf, and the Pope, ignorant of his true identity, grants him absolution so that he may be admitted into the Order. In Malta Caravaggio completes his masterpiece, The beheading of St.John. Fate, however is about to deal him yet another blow: he is involved in another sexual scandal and is thrown into a dungeon. He makes his escape by scaling the walls of Fort Sant Angelo. Sailing with the Knights of Malta’s fleet, he finds his way to Naples, under the protection of the Colonna family.

Lucas wanders the streets of Rome, thinking that he is Caravaggio, and in his lucid moments conscious of the fact that he will shortly reach the age Caravaggio was when he died. On the anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, Lucas gets drunk, and is attacked and killed by a vagrant. No one steps forward to identify the body; his remains are sent to the morgue, where the pathologist Giorgio Misura makes the astonishing discovery that this body’s DNA is identical to the exhumed bones of Caravaggio. Eline returns to Rome only to find that Lucas has disappeared.

Caravaggio finally receives permission to return to Rome. He has bribed Cardinal Borghese to have his sentence lifted by promising him three new paintings. On disembarking at Palo outside Rome to stretch his legs, he is mistakenly arrested and thrown in jail. When he finally manages to talk his way out, he sees his ship sailing away — with his belongings and the commissioned pictures still on board. In a frenzied rage he takes after the ship on foot, in a mad dash along the beach. The heat and the mosquitoes get the better of him, and upon reaching Porto Ercole he succumbs to the fever — dead at the age of thirty-nine.

Eline finds Lucas’s room ransacked by the police. She discovers a note that leads her to understand that he has left her a message on the Palatine Hill. In the spot where the two of them once made love in broad daylight, Eline finds the little vial containing the two ancient letters, as well as a note from Lucas to her. Lucas’s letter is dated two weeks earlier. Eline goes to the police and finds out that Lucas is dead. She is pregnant with Lucas’s child. She pays a visit to the morgue for a final goodbye. Professor Misura spots her there, but decides to keep his extraordinary discovery to himself for the time being.

The son born of Eline and Lucas’s union is named Michael. When he is a young man, Professor Misura tracks him down and requests that he visit Rome so that the professor may test his DNA. Michael is the spitting image of Lucas, down to his demon-plagued spirit.

 

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

MARGREET HOFLAND BIO

Born in Naaldwijk, the Netherlands,

Trained at the Art Academy of The Hague; teaches at the Hogeschool of The Hague.

Has conducted annual art excursions to Italy for students since 1996.

After four years of research and travels throughout Italy, Being Caravaggio published by In De Knipscheer in March 2003.