Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A Delayed Review!

Yesterday, one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive reviews of Caravaggio: Signed in Blood arrived in my inbox. I had submitted the book to the journal Studies in Medieval And Renaissance Teaching (SMARTfor review nearly four years ago.

Four years!

If I've learned anything about publishing, it's patience. (And it's good to have your advanced reader copies ready a year early!)

Here's the review:

Caravaggio: Signed in Blood
By Mark David Smith
Vancouver, BC: Tradewind Books, 2016
152 pages | Paper | $10.95 |
ISBN 978-1-896580-05-0 | 

Book Review

Roy Hammerling
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century ground-breaking painter, is both a perfect and a perplexing choice for a book directed toward youth in their teens. Perfect for two reasons: first, his genius helped lay the foundations of Baroque and modern painting (cf. Troy Thomas, Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity), and second, he lived one of the most colorful and controversial lives of his age. Out of this second point, however, emerges the tricky elements for a book intended for youth.

Mark David Smith’s first novel admirably negotiates the more troubling aspects of the story of Caravaggio’s life and career intended for teens by deflecting the central storyline away from Caravaggio himself onto a fictional character by the name of Beppo, a fifteen-yearold indentured servant, who early in the story is falsely accused of the murder of his master, a thieving and unsavory wine merchant. As Beppo flees Rome, he joins forces with Caravaggio, who himself also just happens to be escaping his own troubles because he has just killed a man in a street fight. Smith creates sympathy for Beppo by making plain that although the poor orphan is a youth of honorable character, he sadly is the unfortunate victim of circumstances. Then by having Caravaggio befriend and employ the young homeless lad, Caravaggio likewise comes off as a compassionate master, whose life has spun out of control due to a calamitous incident. The two find a bond in their similar circumstances. However, as the novel progresses, and as Beppo gets to know his new benefactor, a more complex picture of the brilliant artist emerges, mostly focusing upon an unpredictably brusk personality that fluctuates between being “choleric one moment and sanguine the next” (87) or between being “melancholic and mystic” (63). Caravaggio and his faithful retainer throughout the story are on the run pursued by unscrupulous men seeking revenge. The book ends before that later part of Caravaggio’s mysterious life and untimely demise. Smith presents the artist with certain heroic, if shadowy, qualities, but none are as endearing as the painter’s care for the boy Beppo. 
Middle and high school educators, who happen to be looking for a book that will supplement their discussions of Caravaggio as an artist, probably will be disappointed. If teachers, on the other hand, want an adventure story to peak their students’ interest in Caravaggio by means of the literary devices of danger, romance, and a happy ending, then this short book is their tale. Along the way, Beppo falls in love with the beautiful Dolcetto, who sadly has an arranged engagement to a wealthy man; Beppo has a ripping good sea exploit; and in the end, everything works out well, far beyond Beppo’s wildest dreams. And of course, along the way, he gets to know Caravaggio.

At best, the book touches on Caravaggio’s art only tangentially, mentioning just a few specific paintings and his revolutionary technique in passing. Some of Caravaggio’s famous works that are discussed include how Caravaggio employed “the most beautiful courtesan in Napoli,” who is as lovely as “Botticelli’s Venus” as his model for the Virgin Mary (68–69). However, for educators, this means that they will have to explain why such a choice was a scandal. Another episode tells of how Beppo and Caravaggio rob a grave in order to get a realistic model for a painting based on the biblical figure of the just-risen-from-the-dead Lazarus, a scene in which Caravaggio himself appears in the crowd as an onlooker (87). Smith even has Caravaggio portray Beppo as the famous boy King David in his David with the Head of Goliath, where Caravaggio places his own face onto the severed head of the giant. Another chapter tells of Caravaggio and Beppo’s adventures on Malta and the painting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist and how Caravaggio is said to have signed it in blood, a reference to the book’s title, but in reality, here Caravaggio simply dips his finger into red paint (138). 

In the end, Smith’s first foray into youth literature with a book that engages a tough topic is a successful, quick, and enjoyable read, if one’s expectations about the title character are not too high. By making Beppo the central focus and avoiding Caravaggio’s later life altogether, Smith is able to side step some of the more troubling elements of this brilliant painter’s life, and that perhaps is not a bad thing in a book for youth. The book ends with a brief historical note to supplement some of the stories in the text. 

Still, this reader cannot help but wonder what might have been, had Smith undertaken a more pointed look at one of the most flamboyant figures in the history of art. Smith appears to write his story in a way that hints at his own desire that the life of Caravaggio might have ended differently. There is a certain longing in this fairy tale of hope that hints at the idea that had Caravaggio had his own Beppo, he might have lived longer than his 38 years and painted many more works of wonder. The effectiveness of this short work for educators looking for a story to supplement their teaching about Caravaggio will depend upon the degree to which the reader longs for the same thing.

Roy Hammerling is Professor of Religion  at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

A New Book

I suppose I should have posted this back in September when it was actually "news"--at this point do I term it "olds"?--but I signed a contract with Owlkids Books for a picture book, something I have been working towards for the last 15 years! I can't reveal anything about the title or the publication date yet, as these are not confirmed, but stay tuned. I will say that this book is very close to my heart, and reveals much about my sense of what ought to be my priorities. Is that too cryptic? I'll try to be more forthcoming in future posts.