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Interior image from the book, after engravings from Picturesque Europe published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1879.

Write On Ottawa: The Artist and the Assassin reflects the dramatic life and death of Caravaggio

By Joyce MacPhee on November 17, 2021

The book’s cover, featuring The Calling of Saint Matthew, a painting by Caravaggio (circa 1600).

Ottawa author Mark Frutkin was drawn to write about the Baroque Italian artist Caravaggio (1571-1610) because he was intrigued with the parallels between the artist’s artwork and life. “It was definitely this dark and light aspect that fascinated me,” explains Frutkin. “Caravaggio’s character was so reflected in his artwork. He was brilliant and creative. But he had a wild maniacal energy he could not control.”

The artist achieved enormous success in his lifetime and helped to inspire the Baroque period of painting, influencing artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt. However, Caravaggio had an explosive temper and often fought in the streets. Eventually, he murdered a man during an altercation and was forced to flee Rome. When he died under mysterious circumstances at 38, many believed he’d been murdered.

Interior image from the book, after engravings from Picturesque Europe published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1879.

I first heard the name Caravaggio as a young girl on a school trip to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The painting was The Fortune Teller painted in 1620 by French artist Simon Vouet, who was described as a follower of Caravaggio. On successive trips, I decided this was my favourite painting at the gallery and it still is. I loved the mysterious fortune teller and interactions portrayed between the characters in the painting, who all looked so convincingly real.

What I did not know was that this painting (of which there are two versions) was an homage to an earlier painting by Vouet’s contemporary Caravaggio called The Fortune-Teller. Curiously, there are two versions of this painting as well. I later learned how the name Caravaggio was linked to the chiaroscuro technique that uses a sharp contrast between light and dark. I liked the way the name Caravaggio rolled off the tongue and I assumed that he had been as refined as his work. The truth about Caravaggio’s life, however, was much more complicated.

Interior image from the book, after engravings from Picturesque Europe published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1879.

Frutkin’s work of historical fiction alternately depicts the life of Caravaggio from the point of view of both the artist and the assassin. Third-party narration is also an element that effectively moves the tale forward. While the story is fictional, the material is well researched. Frutkin is well versed in Italian history as well as the history of art. For example, he gleaned information about painting materials used during Caravaggio’s time by reading a book devoted to the history of pigments. “I seem to have this long connection with Italy,” he notes. “I went to my third year of university there and went back many times to research four novels.”

Frutkin also visited Italy on three research trips with the Canadian documentary photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo. The two collaborated on the 2020 book Where Angels Come to Earth: An Evocation of the Italian Piazza, which combines poetic text and photography.

Like Caravaggio’s art, The Artist & the Assassin has dramatic elements as well as a high degree of realism. Frutkin paints a compelling picture of an interesting time in Italian history and has produced a historical page-turner. Of particular note is his ability to get inside the heads of the two troubled characters, one an artist and the other an assassin. A master of dialogue, Frutkin creates conversations that seem genuine and makes us want to know what happens to each of them.

The visual elements of the book begin with the cover. It features a high-quality colour reproduction of Caravaggio’s famous painting The Calling of Saint Matthew, which was cropped to fit the cover format. It is Frutkin’s favourite work by the artist. “I just love it. I think it is a stunning painting,” he says. “There are so many I love, including his still lifes. Caravaggio was very realistic but he would not idealize objects and would show the dead leaves, the bugs in the fruit. Some people at the time did not like this but others found the realism quite striking. Rembrandt, for instance, was very influenced by him.” Several historical engravings add interest and charm throughout the rest of the book.

Frutkin is the author of four books of poetry, four non-fiction works and nine novels. His novel Fabrizio’s Return (2006) won the Trillium Award and the national Sunburst Award and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Book Prize (Canada/Caribbean). Another novel, Atmospheres Apollinaire, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in 1988, the Trillium and the Ottawa Book Award. He is currently hard at work on a novel set in China in the Tang Dynasty (600 to 900 A.D.). “I am doing my Marco Polo thing,” Frutkin jokes. “I tend to work on one book set in Italy and then another one set in China.”

The Artist & the Assassin is available at Chapters/Indigo, from Amazon Canada, through the publisher Porcupine’s Quill, or from your local bookseller.