Rees, Matt: A Name in Blood

There is an assumption that those attending Monthly Book Group meetings have read the book. Sometimes members find little more than unintended humour in it,caravaggio-sacrifice-isaac but almost always there is something. Often the proposer shows that there is more than the member realized. Sometimes another member provides enlightenment. Commonly the doubts of the first 50 pages are dispelled or put into perspective. No such reservations were associated with “A Name in Blood” by Matt Rees (2012). There was a sense that folk had enjoyed the read. They were relaxed rather than enquiring or confrontational.

The proposer introduced the author as having made a name for himself by writing crime novels set in Palestine. Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet had influenced him. “A Name in Blood” was, however, not chosen by the proposer because of these earlier works, but rather as a whim in a bookshop, and why not?

To write the book Rees learnt to paint, studied the artist who inspired the book, visited galleries throughout the world and was taught sword fencing. What he then produced was a novel about power, love, duplicity and patronage. His use of language was effective and sometimes shone.

Thus the artist, Michelangelo Merisi (called Caravaggio after his home town) first sees the female he would come to love:

The soles of her bare feet were turned upward as she leaned forward to brush. They were soiled in such striations of black brown and grey that he could taste the dirt on his tongue”.

To add to the significance of this vivid sentence, Caravaggio saw her when he was visiting a Cardinal in Rome and she was his menial employee.

The proposer particularly liked the challenging conversations between the artist and his patrons. These were superficially the idle creation of the author. However, nothing can obscure the contrast between the sacred subjects he was commissioned to paint and, the actual works, which for the papal aristocracy of the late Renaissance were almost heretical. Often he used prostitutes as models for sacred subjects, and did little to disguise their earthy appearance, or indeed their identity. Caravaggio was revealed in his works to be brave to the point of folly, but saved by his sincerity and his genius. Rees was thus on sure ground when he explored Caravaggio’s art through invented conversations between a sophisticated religious elite and a rebellious artist.

We had descriptions of Rome in this period:  the beauty, the sin, the grace, the vulgarity and the cruelty. The proposer enjoyed all this and everyone agreed.

We were then invited to comment. What was the title about? Was this literally to do with the signature on a painting?  Or possibly, it was thought, to reflect the gradual change from the innocence of youth to the braggadoccio of the adolescent to the imminent prospect of death, which dominates the later chapters of the novel. As to the life of Caravaggio, the group discussed his paintings, noted that he fell out of fashion for a long period, and only re-emerged in the 20th century as a true great.

What of the detective in Mr Rees? DNA tests suggest Caravaggio was buried in Porto Ercole, so was he in fact on the return journey to Rome? Why did the Knights of Malta cooperate if Rees was to blame one of their number – Roero – for executing a great artist in return for the release of the rather doubtful Fabrizio? Why was the death not investigated by one of the artist’s important friends? This prompted one of our members to raise doubts about historical novels. Is your problem whether simply to read the novel and judge it as such or check it against historical record? “It is not just my problem, it is the problem” was the reply. The group discussed this and with reference to Walter Scott and his successors as exponents of this genre. The conclusion was that we make our own choice. Did this book ring true? Yes. Let each of us decide if there is a need to know more.

The early work of the artist was contrasted with the later. The sexual preferences of the artist may have been important to some at the time, but not to all. Derek Jarman’s film from 1986 was referred to, but he had an agenda. Caravaggio’s early work had a homoerotic quality, but his later work was religious, with messages not of a sexual nature.

What, belatedly, of the characters? The main relationship is between Caravaggio and Lena. He is presented with the classic “behave and live with me, or go off and die”. The way he goes off and dies could have been taken from an Italian opera. We have the wager on the outcome of the tennis match, the numerous scenes where he is urged to pay the debt, the elegant development of the feud until a duel with Ranuncio becomes not foolish but necessary. Having been engulfed in this he does not see Lena to try to explain. He flees. This sets up the remainder of his life.

And details? Do we appreciate his work less than those four centuries ago? Yes. However, the proposer was of Italian extraction. Did he understand the work better than we did? Possibly, but we all have to understand the Bible and Greek and Roman myths to understand so much of European culture.

The proposer drew our attention to a place name in the book whose shared surname will lead some to rename his house as such in future. We noted that the camera obscura was used to help portrait painting. We also read about the make up of a tennis ball of the period, which was self indulgent, as was the detail in the duel scene. One member thought that the lack of semi colons made the prose too staccato. Did the lead in the paint make Caravaggio “hyper”? Possibly.

It was hard to focus on the novel itself, as opposed to the art, history, religion etc, and if we digressed from Matt Rees the novelist, who cares! We enjoyed ourselves.