Review of Walter Ellis, ‘The Caravaggio Conspiracy’

Walter Ellis, The Caravaggio Conspiracy, Liliput Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1843511984 (also available as ebook). Link to amazon here.

This is the first in a planned series of reviews of novels and other fictional stories that use either an artist, an art historian or an art work as a narrative device, as a means of exploring the sub genre of art historical fiction. While there has been quite a lot of debate on the use of fiction as a means of exploring and enriching narratives, less has been written on the use of art history as inspiration for writing, and partly, this series of blog pieces and reviews will try and explore a few ideas about the use of (art) history in fiction. In particular, my interest comes from using art as a means of adding colour to the narrative, or maybe as a device to deliver a commentary on the action, that is where images or artists become active plot devices. I want to get a sense of how this genre works, and I especially want to think a bit more about what a visual plot device can add to the verbal telling of a story.

If you are interested in some of the debates on history in fiction, there are few better places to start than with an article penned by none other than Hilary Mantel, who wrote in 2009 on ‘Dealing with historical fiction’.

The part of Mantel’s piece referred to above (The Guardian, 17 September 2009) that interests me most is when she writes that

The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it. The most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator; he brings to the enterprise the biases of his training and the vagaries of his personal temperament, and he is often obliged, in order to make his name, to murder his forefathers by coming up with a different take on events from the one that held sway when he himself learned the discipline; he must make the old new, because his department’s academic standing depends on it.

Once this is understood, the trade of the historical novelist doesn’t seem so reprehensible or dubious; the only requirement is for conjecture to be plausible and grounded in the best facts one can get.

Mantel here argues the value of informed conjecture, and speaks of the joy of making the past come to life, especially for an informed audience who is perfectly aware of the fact that there is fictional flesh being put on historical bones.

In the case of Ellis’ The Caravaggio Conspiracy, originally published in 2011 in Italian as Il Codice Caravaggio, the author chooses a title and a subject that really need little fictional sensationalism, because what is known of Caravaggio’s biography is surely quite exciting enough without needing additional embellishments! Ellis follows the now-established biography of Caravaggio meticulously, having clearly read some of the older accounts on the artist’s life (there is more than a hint of Bellori in certain passages), as well as studying the more recent monographic studies, especially Helen Langdon’s Caravaggio: A Life (originally published 1998), but also more recent material, especially Andrew Graham Dixon’s more accessible 2011 Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane which differs from Langdon in the treatment of the post-1606 and flight from Rome material, expanding on the Malta episode.

Ellis uses these sound and grounded biographies and constructs one strand of the narrative, following Caravaggio from Rome to Naples, to Malta, Sicily and finally to his death in 1610 at Porto Ercole. The artist’s story is told through key images, which Ellis uses very effectively as mood-setting devices. Where the first segments of Caravaggio’s story are told via the Louvre’s  Death of the Virginas a device to establish the artist’s catholic orthodoxy and dependence on models and observations, the story gradually narrows to become the story of one painting, The National Gallery of Dublin’s Taking of Christ . Ellis uses the painting as a symbol of betrayal, and ultimately the cause of Caravaggio’s death (portrayed here as cold-blooded murder through beheading).

The second function the painting serves is a bridge between the two strands of the narrative, because while one narrative follows Caravaggio’s life between 1606 and 1610, the second strand places the story in a 21st century Rome, at some unspecified pout after the death of Pope Benedict XVI, and on the eve of a conclave to elect Benedict’s successor. The Vatican is portrayed as a hotbed of intrigue and inter-faith conflict between Christianity and Islam, and it does not take long for the reader to draw parallels between the two story lines. Caravaggio’s post-Lepanto Counter Reformation Rome acts as a foil to the sleeker but equally troubled 21st century papacy, and it doesn’t take long to recognise parallel characters in both stories. The troubled, damaged Caravaggio finds a foil in a war veteran, Liam Dempsey, nephew of the Irish Father General of the Jesuits, but in Dempsey’s case, we have a love interest thrown in, cast as foil to Fillide Melandroni. Both stories develop in parallel, but Caravaggio’s doomed story line ends a third away from the end of the book, at which point much of the narrative tension comes from the reader trying to work out whether Dempsey’s story, too, will end in tragedy, or whether the addition of the faithful and constant female companion, by the name of Maya Studer makes the difference.

Ellis again and again uses the Taking of Christ to add structure, and provide sign posting for the story, but what he does exceptionally well is to respond to the emotional intensity of the image, telling the back story of some of the characters depicted in the image. This is very nicely done, and results in quite an elegant and clever story, that certainly uses the art well. In a way, what Ellis does, is he responds imaginatively to the non-verbal aspect of images. Ultimately, any writing about art involves an act of translation between visual signifiers and finding words to describe them. Job well done here, and arguably a case where the images become part of the cast of characters.

According to Mantel, who demands ‘for conjecture to be plausible and grounded in the best facts one can get’, Ellis’ Caravaggio Conspiracy ticks the boxes for good (art) historical fiction.

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2 thoughts on “Review of Walter Ellis, ‘The Caravaggio Conspiracy’

  1. I have just seen your review of my novel and am extremely grateful for your comments. Sadly, no British publisher was interested in picking it up and I ended up selling some 500 copies, mainly in Ireland. In Italy, however, it was briefly number one in pocket fiction. You may be interested to know that I wished to call the book The Fleeing Man, but was overruled in both Ireland and Italy.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to read the review! Glad you enjoyed it. The title drew me to it; I teach a module on Caravaggio at Nottingham and he was the starting point for my thesis.

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