St John the Baptist

Giulio climbed the steps quietly, glancing behind to be sure that no-one was watching down the alley. Two men were in sight, haggling over a family of goats, but the only eyes on him were those of a donkey tied to a post in the street. He was wary of Naples, its reputation for preying on strangers and back street stabbings, and knew he would have no ally if caught in the act.

St John the Baptist - CaravaggioThe door was ajar, fortunate but no surprise given the heat. It allowed him to slip into the vestibule, pause for his eyes to adjust and listen for any voices. There were none, but to his left was another door left ajar, a faint glow from daylight, and sound of something being moved across the floor. Still no voices; the painter was likely alone. He drew the dagger from his breeches and moved slowly into the light. From the door he first saw food on a table, a loaf of bread, peaches and a large knife planted in a block of cheese. With another step he saw a row of stands for unlit candles, many more than would be found in an ordinary home, then the back of a man standing in front of a large canvass. To his right was a table with brushes, a few small bowls, a large bottle of clear liquid and two wooden boards smeared with coloured oils. The man stood still, staring at a large canvass, blocking the subject from Giulio’s view. Giulio took a couple of slow, quiet steps, then moved quickly and placed the point of his dagger between the man’s shoulders.

“Don’t look around.”

The man raised his hands.

“You are Caravaggio.”

“My name is Ottavio.”

“You are known as Caravaggio.”

“By who?”

“By the man who sent me here.”

“And what is his name?”

“You can’t guess?”

“I can think of more than one, several, who would send a man to place a dagger at my back.”

“Then think of one of your paintings.”

The painter didn’t answer. Giulio looked over his shoulder and saw the figure on the canvass, a boy seated with a spear, leaning on a red cloak, naked except for a loin cloth draped over his genitals.

“Like that one,” said Giulio.

“St John the Baptist.”

“That’s what you called the other one.”

“A popular subject. There are plenty of churches and noblemen who’ll pay for a portrait.”

Giulio was disturbed by the calm in the painter’s voice: any man in his position should be in fear.

“There were two others,” the painter said. “Let’s think. The first was a real youngster, you can see from the size of his penis in the painting. The second was fifteen or so, more muscular, sullen expression. I draped a cloak and a goatskin across his parts. They’ll both excite those who have a taste for such things.”

Giulio kept his eyes on the canvass. It was clear that the painter had taken his own pleasure in looking at the young men.

“Did you….?”

“Of course I did. Surely you don’t think that I’ll get a handsome boy naked in my room and not take advantage of the situation.”

“You don’t deny it? You’re a sodomite?”

“Before and after I painted the boys.” The painter nodded towards the canvass. “The same with this one. You should have been here yesterday; you could have watched.”

Giulio raised the dagger so the point touched the back of the painter’s neck. It provoked a slight flinch, but his voice remained steady.

“So I doubt it was the younger’s boy’s family who sent you here. He belonged to a brothel and everyone was pleased for the business; although it was a few years ago. But I remember the older boy came from a well off family. I seduced him, didn’t have to pay. Is it his father who sent you? I’m surprised. It must have been five, six years ago.

“They saw the painting three months ago.”

“That makes sense. If I remember right it was done for a private chapel in Genoa. I suppose they had some connection with the man who gave me the commission. What was his name? Ottavio Costa. Do I have that right?”

Giulio didn’t answer.

“You must know,” the painter said. “You’ve seen that earlier painting, which means that you were allowed into the private chapel, which means that you’re not just a back alley assassin sent to settle a vendetta. You must be family to the boy yourself. Your voice suggests you’re a few years older, so maybe a cousin, possibly an uncle.”

Giulio felt uneasy. He had heard stories of the painter; drinking, buggery, that he had killed at least one man in a fight, but not that he such a sharp mind. Some said he was a demon, and he had an inhuman composure with the point of a dagger at his neck.

“You’re close enough,” he said. “And you know why I’m here.”

“You intend to push that blade into my back. Or are you going to cut my throat?”

“I’m going to relish the moment.”

“Why? Do you think it will change what happened? Do you think it will change anything for the boy … although he must now be a young man.”

“He has a wife.”

The painter laughed quietly.

“It won’t make any difference. Give him half a chance and he’ll still go chasing the pleasure that we enjoyed together. He may look miserable in that picture, but he had a big smile on his face when I took him to bed; even bigger when I had finished with him.”

Guilio give him a light jab with the dagger. The painter jerked forward and raised his hands. A spot of blood appeared over his collar.

“You shouldn’t get so angry,” he said. “Your young relative was just indulging an instinct.”

“Try telling that to God. You’re bound for hell.”

“Hell!” The painter laughed again, this time louder. “You think I’ll go there for a little bout of sodomy? You’ve spent too much time listening to priests.”

“And for those paintings. It’s a corruption of the testament, a blasphemy.”

“Because I chose to portray a saint as a delicious boy? Who says that he didn’t look like that? Or do you think that the Baptist looked like you?”

Giulio slapped a hand on the painter’s shoulder, pushed his face to an ear and moved the dagger behind the other.

“Enough! If you have a shred of remorse you should express it now.”

“So let me pray!”

It was a surprise – the defiance had hinted that he had no God – but Giulio relaxed his hold to allow him to kneel. Even if he was going to hell, he should have the last chance to acknowledge his sins. The painter dipped his head. Giulio withdrew the dagger from his neck, allowing him to bend his knees and raise his hands to his chest. He could have a few seconds; Guilio would take the moment according to whatever words he spoke. The painter whispered what sounded like a piety. Giulio held the weapon inches from his head. Then the painter spoke more clearly.

“Please Lord forgive this sinner, and show him your infinite mercy.”

No chance. Giulio drew back his elbow and lowered the dagger to pierce the heart from behind. The painter dipped his head lower and bent his back, forcing Giulio to readjust. That was enough. He placed his left hand on his victim’s shoulder, steadying the body for the thrust. The painter’s right hand shot up, grabbed his wrist, pulled hard and bit into his lower arm. Giulio screamed and fell forward, his dagger scraping the painter’s right shoulder and driving into the ground. Both the painter’s hands were now on his left arm, but then the right broke free, came up into Giulio’s face and grabbed his hair. He twisted, rolled and felt his back hit the dagger’s handle. Their bodies separated. Giulio straightened up to the sight of the ceiling, looked to his right and saw the weapon on the floor. He reached for it but the painter’s foot swung to kick it across the room. They both dived forwards, Giulio for the dagger, the painter onto his back. He got fingers to the weapon but felt a hand on his head, grabbing his hair, jerking him back, then his face smashing against the floor. Then again. Then again.

He came to with the painter kneeling over his chest, grinning with a blade in his hand. The dagger. No, it was a thicker blade, the knife that had been stuck in the cheese on the table by the door. The painter placed it onto his throat and spoke.

“You’ve just given me a very good idea.”

 

The following day three people went to Caravaggio’s studio. One was a young woman with sad eyes and brown hair tied back in a bun; the second an older woman in a white headdress; the third a man with short, dark hair, a finely trimmed beard, protruding ears and a round nose. The place was tidy and the blood had been thoroughly swept from the floor. One of the artist’s less savoury acquaintances had helped him to dispose of the biggest part of the mess. He gave his visitors a meal before they began work – bread, cured ham, and the cheese he hadn’t finished the previous day – and allowed them a cup of wine each, enough for them to be relaxed. It was the man who asked the obvious question.

“What are you doing with us?”

“A biblical scene,” said Caravaggio.

“So who am I? One of the disciples? Or a Roman?”

“Nameless, but important to the story. Your face will be remembered.”

“I hope it’s for the right reasons,” said the older woman.

“As long as I keep my clothes on,” said the younger one. “I’ve heard that some of you artists are too keen to show naked flesh.”

“Don’t worry,” said Caravaggio. “Everyone stays clothed.”

When they had finished the meal he went to one of two cloth bags that he had stored in a corner and removed a gold plate, gave it to the younger woman, then spent several minutes moving the three models into different positions. He settled on placing the young woman to the left, reckoning he would tell her to look away, the old woman behind her, peering over her shoulder. The man was placed to the right, and after some aimless staring was asked to pull his right arm out of his shirt to leave his shoulder bare. The painter looked to the window, assured himself there would be sufficient sunlight for a few hours work, then went back to the corner for the second bag.

“Now don’t be shocked,” he told his models.

He dug into the bag and pulled out Giulio’s head. They were shocked, but none screamed or threw up. He had got it right; they all came from the part of town where it wasn’t rare to see a murdered body.

“He was executed yesterday,” he said. “I have an arrangement with the warden at the prison. This is all above board, as long as I dispose of this before it putrifies.”

They would all know that it wasn’t above board, but all be glad enough for the money he was paying to stay quiet about it. He spoke to the young woman.

“Can you hold up to the plate please. Waist high.”

Then to the man.

“And do you mind taking this.”

At first the man recoiled, but after a few seconds and a reminder of how much they were being paid he took the severed head and held it at arm’s length.

“Hold it over the plate and keep looking at it. You don’t have to enjoy it, but don’t look scared. You’re meant to be an executioner.”

Then he told the young woman she could look away and the old woman that she had to keep her eyes on the head. She surprised him by getting the expression right first time; nasty, satisfied. He moved back to the point where he had placed the canvass and table with his brushes, oils and pigments, then spent minutes staring at the group, satisfying himself that the composition was correct.

“I know what this is,” said the male model. “Salome with the head of John the Baptist.”

“Exactly,” Caravaggio replied.

“I bet this bloke wasn’t so saintly.”

Caravaggio looked at the head above the plate. Eyes closed, mouth open, streaks of hair and beard congealed in dry blood. The face of the man who had come to kill him.

You disapproved of my previous visions of John the Baptist. He smiled to himself. Well maybe this would be more to your liking.

 

(They say Caravaggio got up to some really extreme stuff in his time.)

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