As Willy Wonka says in “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator,” the wisest men know that they need to indulge in some nonsense from time to time. Which is why I like to take my research for my novels just a bit too far.
For A Name in Blood I did more than just read about the great Italian artist Caravaggio and look at his work. I learned to fence with a sixteenth-century rapier and to paint with oils, for example. A bit beyond the call of duty, but so far so reasonable.
But then I decided to follow Wonka’s advice. So I grew a beard and dyed it black, because that’s how Caravaggio’s beard looked. I cut my hair in his style. I communicated with the spiritual energy of the artist and his lover in a what might be described as a very New Age fashion. I was gripped by fear and panic at night in Malta, as was he, and I got into a little, ahem, trouble in a bar in Naples. He, of course, found trouble everywhere.
The result was twofold. For one thing, it’s a stunningly good novel out in the UK on 5 July. (If I can’t blow my own trumpet, then what’s a blog post for?) But also the extra stages of my research took me so deeply into Caravaggio’s experiences that they changed my own experience of the world.
Caravaggio’s story is usually told as a tale of a brilliant painter whose tendency to violence, leading ultimately to his death at the age of 39, ruined what could otherwise have been a much more productive and happy career. After all my research, I decided the central feature of his life had been something else entirely: Caravaggio was looking for love.
How did I know this? I found it in his paintings. Look at his amazing Madonna with the Serpent and you’ll fall in love, as I did, with Lena, the model for the mother of Jesus. But more than that, behind all the dressing up and role-playing of my research was the sense that Caravaggio’s experience of life had been similar to mine. Not absolutely parallel, because fortunately my father and grandfather didn’t die of bubonic plague as Caravaggio’s did. (There were no recorded outbreaks in Wales in the early 1970s.) But his psychodrama was close enough to mine for me to feel a kinship with him. I’d summarize it thus: like him, I have a deep creative urge that’s rooted in what felt to me, at least, like childhood upheaval; I’ve often been compelled to work for people I despised; our romantic histories are complicated; anger has been… a problem; neither of us lived long in one place; we both found love.
That’s why I didn’t leave my interest in him on the gallery wall. I had to make of him a book, because I believed his story would help me make sense of my own emotions.
Without giving away the story of A Name in Blood, I’ll tell you that Caravaggio’s early paintings show a yearning for love in a man with little control over his life. His middle paintings reflect a sense of the love that he found. The late paintings show a man on the run (under sentence of death) who only then appreciates the depth of his love, both physical and spiritual.
Now that A Name in Blood is about to be published, I don’t have to keep dying my beard. But Caravaggio’s still with me. I hope he’ll soon be with you, too.