PB RRP $23.95
Reviewed by Marian McGuinness
The blurb on the back cover hooked me in as soon as I read it.
Fifteen-year-old Beppo, an indentured servant in Rome, is accused of murder. The only person who can help him is one of the most celebrated artists of his day – Caravaggio.
Straight away I had the scenario for this Young Adult novel in my mind: two protagonists - a teenager on the run and a Renaissance artist. I was quickly swept into the intrigue of medieval Italy.
Beppo’s mother has died and he is indentured to a man with ‘the rough chiselled face of an unfinished statue … a bloated pig of a master,’ who is in the wine trade - a cover for the darker and illegal book trade.
When Beppo’s master is murdered, Beppo is accused. He escapes the ‘polizia’ with the help of an acrobatic dwarf.
While on the run through the backstreets of Rome, where children gamble and play archaic games of tennis, Beppo stumbles into a street brawl. Caravaggio is defending himself with a sword and mortally wounds his opponent.
Now two are on the run. With the help of Caravaggio’s patron, the Cardinal, they escape to Naples. Pursued by bounty hunters, Beppo is exiled from Rome and Caravaggio is given the death penalty.
While this is a fast-paced story of bandits, crossbows, swords, pirates and prison breaks, it is also the story of how the great artists of the Renaissance worked. Beppo becomes Caravaggio’s servant and learns of his craft as he purchases supplies of ‘linen canvas and wood slats from the shipyard; chalk and walnut oil from the apothecary; lead white from the smith; pigments from the dyer; and an assortment of mirrors …’ Such detail adds layers of richness to the bones of the narrative where, for the painting of a Lazarus scene, a dead body is delivered – ‘A loosely wrapped corpse lay within. The linen shroud afforded a glimpse of papery, grey skin.’
Caravaggio also teaches Beppo about the finer arts of swordplay ‘thumb down, in, up, out’, which stands him in good stead as he learns the skills needed to become a squire and later, perhaps, a knight.
Just like Shakespeare’s Renaissance play, Romeo and Juliet, with its swordplay and feisty youth, Beppo falls in love with Dolcetta, the daughter of a courtesan. There’s even a balcony-climbing scene where the forbidden romance culminates in Beppo ‘kissing her on the lips.’
With its twenty short chapters, first person point of view and smattering of Italian words, teenage readers will feel at one with the character of Beppo. A bit like asides in a play, Beppo’s innermost thoughts are written in italics. This also keeps the reader in the moment and within the action.
Author, Mark David Smith, has written a swashbuckling novel that is sure to win the imaginations of teen readers. As a form of epilogue, Smith provides historical notes about Caravaggio. What a wonderful foray into life in medieval Italy. Indeed, I would like to see this Italy that Smith has painted with such vivid imagery.