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The Caravaggio Affair

  • By Álvaro Enrigue
  • Issue 14
  • FableFebruary

What made me fall for him were the fingernails. There was something raw and harsh about them. The fact that they were so shamelessly dirty and broken was proof of a rare transparency in a world in which everybody was perfect and beautiful and clean.

The nails occupy a liminal space. They are the end of the body and the beginning of the corpse. They belong to flesh and dirt at the same time. They die in our hands. Manuel Antonio Carreño, the nineteenth-century Venezuelan pedagogue and musician who modeled the intimate behaviors of all Latin Americans with his Manual of Urbanity and Good Manners, reproduced millions of times across the region, made a list of body parts that should never be mentioned in social settings. Nails are conspicuous among the prohibitions. The book represents a constitution for the way we govern and conduct our private lives because it is deeply rooted in the soil of our core beliefs. We speak Spanish, we are Catholic and civilized: We hide nails.

And this man was all nails. They were defiant, dirty, uneven, intensely sexual. The mucky toenails of a poor boy. They were way more prominent, for me, than that joyfully naked body whose member and balls rested with animal grace—but maybe that was only because of my point of view. In a typically Latin American way—so tight and tidy—I fell for the Lombard; atypically, it was not because of his archaic flair, but because of the brutality of his appeal.

It took me a few hours to establish the relationship between the Caravaggio painting of Saint John the Baptist at which I stared for so long at the Musei Capitolini and an article I had read some time before in The New York Review of Books. The article commented on a couple of recent biographies of Michelangelo Merisi. One of them claimed that the man who became an art celebrity as Caravaggio in the early seventeenth century was far more insolent, explosive, and dangerous than previously thought. He was openly bisexual in a town full of priests. He was a drunk, a brawler, and an assassin. Being who I was, a young novelist with the most conventional of middle-class lives, I fell in love completely with the reckless maestro whose sword was engraved with the words nec spe on one side and nec metuon the other: “Without hope, without fear.”

I spent more than a decade reading about Caravaggio and visiting every museum within my reach that had a painting of his. I went back again and again to Italy just to see pieces that I had missed mainly because of the idiosyncratic visiting hours of the churches and galleries that hold them. It became a habit. I lost interest in the great museums of great cities like London and Chicago—they didn’t have Caravaggios—and instead drove miles and miles out of my way to places like Fort Worth, Texas, because there was one there. I learned to read the seventeenth-century Roman dialect—I can’t speak a word of modern Italian—to parse the details of some un-translated primary sources. I even collected, with equal parts shame and discipline, memorabilia: posters, T-shirts, an ashtray in which one stubs out a cigarette on his revolutionary round Medusa. I was slavishly faithful: I broke my back transporting catalogues and books to the nine houses, three cities, and two countries I lived in during those years. I loved him across two different centuries, and our affair survived my divorce and persisted when I married my current wife—a Lombard, by the way.

During those years I was, of course, thinking about writing a novel about him. One day I discovered that, as a rising artist, he used to supplement his modest earnings by playing tennis professionally. An image of him standing under the brutal Roman sun in the perfect solitude of his side of the court finally opened in my mind that mysterious mechanism with which we tell stories. I had to show him not as a master artist or a criminal but as the struggling young man who painted by night and played tennis by day for the gamblers’ pleasure. That would let me represent him as the super-sad beautiful monster I think he was.

In April 2010 I wrote the first line of his novel in a Japanese notebook, still unsure. I didn’t make much progress until September 2011, when I began a fellowship that allowed me to spend a full year vehemently writing notes and researching during ten- and twelve-hour shifts, hidden from the world in the New York Public Library. I spent a year at Princeton University, producing a manuscript in my Japanese notebooks by day, and by night having dinner with the family, putting the children to bed, and recomposing the handwritten pages on the computer. Those were one hundred and four weeks in which I didn’t do anything except think about him, try to be him—working hours to no end in the darkness of my studio, drinking much more wine than one should—try to stand in his boots while he chased balls, boys, whores, enemies, and fame in the ultracompetitive and gloriously decadent Rome of the Baroque period.

By the end my skin was as green as his and my beard and hair as messy as those he shows in his self-portraits. My eyes had the red rings that circle his in the only external effigy we have, drawn by one of his contemporaries. I had become irritable, un-communicative, and untrustworthy. My mouth tasted like iron and blood all the time. I finished the manuscript, took a few days off, then asked for refuge in a remote castle at the top of a mountain in Liguria. I revised. Then my wife and I traveled together briefly through Italy, visiting only places he had never been. We returned to New York and spent the rest of the summer with our kids: long bicycle rides, short trips to the woods, swimming in our neighborhood public pool. I put aside the wine, almost became a vegetarian. I was done with Caravaggio.

Amid that release I knew, of course, I would still have to go through editing in the fall, a promotional tour in winter. I took those concessions as a good sport takes a divorce. You still have to see your ex, but always in the company of a lawyer, a clerk, the children you had together. You know that by braving the discomfort, both halves of the couple will be free, and set for a better life.

I cried, of course, the almost successive nights before the book launched in Barcelona and in Mexico City. And I hated the Lombard every time I had to speak about him with a journalist or read passages from our life together in public. When we won awards, we picked them up together, putting on a show of how much we still cared for each other. We still posed as a couple even as I was immersing myself in a new affair, scribbling furtively in a new set of notebooks.

Translations into other languages continue, and with these come the interviews, the readings and signings, the festivals. They steal the precious time I need to be serious about my new relationship. As you read this, Caravaggio and I are touring simultaneously in the United States and France. We are always sick with jet lag, we smile to the audience pretending all is fine, we spend solitary madrugadas in hotel rooms. Sometimes I dream excitingly about forbidden body parts. They are never fingernails. Neither of us is taking the separation well.