Sunday 15 July 2018

The Backstreets of Purgatory and Caravaggio

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One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about The Backstreets of Purgatory is how I came up with the idea for the novel. Caravaggio showing up in Glasgow? What’s all that about?

To answer I need to go back in time. Not all the way back to Caravaggio’s time but to about ten years ago when I first encountered his work on a trip to Italy. I’m no art buff but his paintings jumped out at me from among the hundreds of others in the art galleries and museums that we toured. Dark, complex, beautiful paintings that spoke to me in a way that most of the others didn’t (even if I didn’t always understand their meaning). When I discovered more about the artist’s life story, the unsettling undercurrent in the paintings seemed to make sense.

Rome in the late 16th and early 17th century was a dangerous, unstable city. Violence was normal and Caravaggio wasn’t exempt. When he wasn’t painting, he was hell-raising - arrested multiple times and a frequent jailbird. His bad behaviour culminated in the murder of his enemy and rival Ranuccio Tomassoni. It was after I read Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane that the idea for The Backstreets of Purgatory came to me. All the best characters are tortured by conflict and full of contradictions and, in this respect, Caravaggio was perfect.

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Caravaggio might have been a troubled man but he was also extremely ambitious and extraordinarily talented. For most of his life he was too poor to pay for models for his work, so he used his impoverished neighbours and local prostitutes instead, but his astonishing paintings, the realism, the exceptional use of dark and light meant that gradually he made a name for himself among wealthy patrons and influential clergy. But his character seems to have been a terrible mix of artistic zeal, arrogance, and contempt for his fellow men, coupled with an unwillingness to compromise and a pervading persecution complex.

Perhaps it was the rejection of one of his most exquisite paintings, The Death of the Virgin, that proved to be the catalyst, or maybe it was lead poisoning from the paints he used that made him so temperamental, or maybe it was an argument over a woman, but whatever the reason something prompted him to fight the duel with Tomassoni that ended in disaster and marked the beginning of the end of Caravaggio’s reputation and life.

It seems pretty clear that despite his petulance and hissy fits, Caravaggio regarded himself as a hard man. Glasgow prides itself on its tough reputation and its inhabitants are not ones for tolerating nonsense, and I imagined him down the pub in Partick trying to impress the locals with his tough guy routine and wondered what sort of trouble he would bring upon himself. I reckoned it wouldn’t be long before he wound someone up so much they belted him. Either that or he’d be mercilessly mocked for his pretensions. The Caravaggio in The Backstreets of Purgatory might not be exactly like the one from the history books but what I hoped to do in the novel was echo the duality of his character and work.

Helen Taylor is a writer living in France. The Backstreets of Purgatory is her first book and is available to buy now.

Will you be picking up a copy of the book? Let me know in the comments below!