Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Ottawa-based Mark Frutkin is a prolific writer with a passion for Renaissance Italy. In his latest novel, The Artist and the Assassin, he explores the life of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, whose dramatic use of light revolutionized Italian painting. While Frutkin presents fascinating insights in Caravaggio’s creativity and technical innovation, his novel mostly focuses on the wanton lifestyle of this Italian master and his alter ego, Luca, a ruthless murderer for hire.
Frutkin novelizes Caravaggio’s life from the latter’s youth to his death, while retaining a high degree of historical accuracy. Against this, Frutkin introduces the completely fictitious character of Luca Passarelli, a lowlife criminal who specializes in assassinations. The narrative unfolds in alternating chapters beginning with the artist and then the assassin. The Caravaggio chapters are written in the third person; these provide the reader with a general view of the artist’s life. The assassin chapters, written in the first person, fluctuate between envy and disdain for the famous artist and offer intriguing insights, all be they imaginary, into the Grand Master's personality.
Neither the artist nor the assassin are saints or devils, but amalgams of both. Caravaggio is obsessed with his art, but prone to drunkenness, whoring and brawling. Luca is on the constant edge of starvation, saved only by petty theft and contract killings. While Caravaggio’s art brings him fame with Rome’s elite, and even the Pope, Luca lurks in the criminal underbelly of the city. And yet, it is Luca’s face that inspires Caravaggio to create his greatest masterpiece, The Calling of Saint Matthew, and he pays the assassin to sit as the model for the tax collector apostle. The native intelligence of the assassin emerges during this long association, where Luca discovers and explains to the reader the brilliance of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro technique and realism that heralds the victory of baroque painting over mannerism. Like Saint Matthew, Luca’s words offer the “gospel” of his master’s mission, life and death.
When the sittings come to an end, Luca returns to his old ways of earning a living, and Caravaggio, stymied by pauses in creativity, descends deeper into his self-destructive drinking and brawling. When the artist kills Ranuccio Tomassoni, a rival for the affection of a courtesan, he must flee Rome. And Tomassoni’s brothers hire Luca to avenge Ranuccio’s death. Discovering Caravaggio’s new whereabouts is an arduous task. The painter’s art is sought after throughout Italy, and he can count on the patronage and protection of many. Luca finally tracks him down in Naples but fails in his assassination attempt. Caravaggio seeks safety from Luca’s reach by fleeing to Malta where the Grand Master of the Templar Knights offers him his patronage. It is only when a new pope agrees to pardon Caravaggio that he can envisage a return to Rome. But on the road back, the artist and assassin will cross paths again.
Frutkin’s descriptions of Renaissance Italy blend opulence with seediness, just like Caravaggio used light and darkness for dramatic effect. The author’s attention to historic details and insights into art make his novel not only enjoyable but instructive. This certainly incited me to pause my reading of the story to do some additional research on the Grand Master and the art milieu and society he lived in. It is Frutkin’s ability to perk the curiosity of his readers that is certainly one of his greatest strengths.
Overall, the novel is a quick read with a digestible number of plot twists and some foreshadowing. While the character of Caravaggio remains relatively constant, Luca evolves significantly as the novel progresses. Just as Saint Matthew was plucked from obscurity when Jesus called him to discipleship, Luca’s association with Caravaggio enables him to step out of the shadows. The passion and precision of Caravaggio’s work are mirrored by the meticulous planning and doggedness of the assassin. In the end, each completes the other.
The Artist and the Assassin is published by The Porcupine’s Quill.