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Authors: Walter Ellis

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The Caravaggio Conspiracy

BOOK: The Caravaggio Conspiracy
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the
Caravaggio Conspiracy

WALTER ELLIS

 
 
The Lilliput Press * Dublin
Table of Contents
 

Title Page
1*: The future: Rome
2*: April 1602: Rome
3*: The future: conclave minus 18
4*: July 1603
5*: The future: conclave minus 17
6*: Conclave minus 16
7*: August 1603
8*: Conclave minus 15
9*: Conclave minus 14
10*: 4 October 1603
11*: Conclave minus 13
12*: 28 September 1978
13*: 1605
14*: Conclave minus 12
15*: 26 May 1606
16*: Conclave minus 11
17*: 28 May 1606
18*: Conclave minus 10
19*: Conclave minus 9
20*: July 1606
21*: Conclave minus 8
22*: September 1606–July 1607
23*: Conclave minus 7
24*: Conclave minus 6
25*: July 1607: Malta
26*: Conclave minus 5
27*: 1608: Malta
28*: Conclave minus 4
29*: 25 September 1978
30*: Conclave minus 3
31*: 1609: Sicily
32*: Conclave minus 2: morning
33*: 1610: Naples 
34*: Conclave minus 2: afternoon
35*: Conclave minus 2: evening
36*: Conclave minus 1: morning
37*: Conclave minus 1: afternoon
38*: Conclave minus 1: evening
39*: Conclave
Epilogue*: Habemus Papam – We Have a Pope
Copyright

1
*

The future: Rome
 

The Prophet – peace and blessings be upon Him – was asked, which would fall first, Constantinople or Rome? He replied: ‘The city of Heracles [Constantinople] will be conquered first; then Rome’ … The conquest of Rome means that Islam will return to Europe and, insh’Allah, Europeans will convert to the true faith and proclaim Islam in the world.

—Sheikh Yousuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood

 

The death was expected but the world still wept. The 266th occupant of the Throne of Peter died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of a Monday morning in June. In his last days, propped up by pillows, unable to greet the crowds from his balcony, he lamented the fact that he had left so much undone. But as his
obituaries
pointed out, in advance of the Second Coming and the Judgment, no pope’s work was ever finished.

The state funeral, conducted in sweltering heat, was a global media event as well as a sacred ritual. The presidents of the United States, Russia and the European Union travelled to Rome to pay their respects and consult on the Islamist violence now sweeping the world. Leaders from Latin America, Africa, the Philippines, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were there, as well as the Secretary General of the United Nations and several reigning monarchs, including those of the United Kingdom and Spain.

Throughout the rites, while police and security cameras scanned the
congregation
, the officers and men of the Swiss Guard, under the command of Colonel Otto Studer, stood watch. Alarmists had warned of an Islamist protest of some kind – perhaps even an act of terrorism directed against the Church or visiting world leaders. In fact, the only episode recorded during the mourning period was a small explosion in the thirteenth-century cloisters of San Giovanni in Laterano, the Pope’s own cathedral, which injured a gardener and damaged two of the famous twisted columns. The bomb, a makeshift device that had apparently been thrown over the cloister wall, was soon forgotten. Instead, what journalists and visitors commented on was the extent and efficiency of the Vatican machine.

The interment that followed the three-hour-long Requiem Mass was a private ceremony, attended only by close family members and senior Church dignitaries, headed by Bosani. The body was taken from the basilica, via the Door of Death, to the grottoes beneath, where it was transferred to a coffin of cypress wood containing several gold, silver and copper coins equivalent to the years of his reign. The
Rogito
, an official eulogy, signed by leading members of the Curia, was also enclosed. The cypress coffin was set into a second casket, made of zinc. Finally, the two coffins together were placed inside a third, fashioned from elm, which was hammered shut with nails of pure gold. As prayers were said and a single bell tolled, the resulting container, weighing close to half a tonne, was slowly eased into its waiting sarcophagus.

The regret felt at the Pope’s passing was compounded for the faithful by the insignificance of his pontificate. It had been hoped that the Holy Father, chosen in succession to Benedict XVI, would inaugurate a period of positive change in the Church, starting with an
ex-cathedra
denunciation of paedophile priests and a review of the rules on clerical celibacy. Instead, he had left it in confusion and disarray. The one undoubted bright spot, observed more keenly than many cared to admit, even within the Curia, was that he had proved not to be the Antichrist, Peter the Roman, as set out in the disputed prophecies of the twelfth-century Irish mystic, St Malachy.

For that, if nothing else, the Church was profoundly grateful.

The funeral bell had ceased to toll. Since prising the Fisherman’s Ring from the late Pope’s dead finger, Cardinal Lamberto Bosani, Camerlengo, or High Chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church, was
primus inter pares
within the Sacred College, charged with administering Church business and organizing the papal election. For several minutes, as the Pope’s grieving family returned to the basilica, Bosani remained behind, observing with quiet satisfaction as a team of Vatican workmen levered the heavy marble tombstone into place. Then he left quickly. There was work to be done and no time to waste.

2
*

April 1602: Rome
 

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio after his home town east of Milan, looked up from his most recent commission,
Death of the Virgin
, intended for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere. His model, 23-year-old Anna Bianchini, a striking red-haired courtesan often used by the city’s artists, was lying full-length on a kitchen table, with one hand resting on her stomach, the other stretched out on a cushion.

She looked ravishing, but Caravaggio’s mind was elsewhere. Earlier in the day he had been insulted by one of the most influential men in Rome. Father Claudio Acquaviva, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, had turned up a little after midday at the home of the banker Ciriaco Mattei and demanded to view his
Supper at Emmaus
, newly completed and still awaiting its final coat of varnish.

The moment when the resurrected Christ revealed himself to two of his
disciples
in Emmaus was a familiar theme. Of the two versions seen by Mattei, one, by Titian, had struck him as bloodless and stylized, while the other, a Veronese, was almost comically overcrowded, with Christ barely visible among a host of the patron’s family seeking his blessing.

But the Caravaggio was breathtaking – worth every baioccho of the 150 scudi Mattei had paid for it. It was, he told its creator, as inspired and brilliant in its execution as anything produced in the last hundred years.

Acquaviva didn’t share the banker’s judgment. Instead of admiring the canvas, set on an easel next to a window, the black-clad divine had recoiled, claiming it was ‘sinful and quite possibly heretical’. The fact that Christ, just prior to his Ascension, had been portrayed without a beard caused him literally to splutter with indignation.

Caravaggio’s nature had once been judged by a Jewish apothecary – a man whose skill extended beyond leeches and potions to the science of the four humours – to be a dangerous mix of choleric and melancholic. On this occasion, as he recalled Acquaviva’s splenetic response to his art, the dominant emotion was rage.

‘Bloody Jesuits!’ he began, causing Anna to roll her eyes. ‘I said to him, after he was resurrected, not as a man but as the Saviour of the world, Jesus probably wouldn’t have a beard. When you think about it, it was probably the fact he was clean-shaven that made it so difficult for the disciples to recognize him. They’d spent most of the previous three years in his company, yet it was only halfway through the meal that it hit them who he
was
. But Mattei stopped me. Said I’d only make matters worse.’

‘Wise man,’ said Anna.

‘Scared of getting on the wrong side of the Jesuits more like. Do you know what Rubens said about my
Emmaus
? He said it was a work of genius. It humbled him, he said. Not Acquaviva. Christ, no! Treated me like a serving boy. He’s supposed to be a humble man – a learned friar, simple in his tastes. Yet the moment I opened my mouth, it was obvious he thought I was lucky to be in the same room as him, breathing the same air. My clothes were a disgrace, he said. My hair was a mess. Who does he think he is? Fucking bigot.’

Anna’s eyes widened. ‘You want to watch what you say, Michelangelo. The Church runs Rome. For God’s sake, it is Rome. You’ll get yourself into trouble if you go on saying stuff like that about them.’

‘Are you saying I’m wrong?’

‘I’m not saying nothing. I’m just pointing out that if the
sbirri
come calling, it’s no good you telling them the Jesuits are a load of hypocrites.’

The
sbirri
, Rome’s corrupt, ineffectual police force, were no friends of the city’s artists. Unable, or unwilling, to do much about real crime – murder, burglary, footpads, the ill-treatment of the poor by the Church and nobility – they preferred to concentrate on the crimes that they
could
solve, mainly prostitution, sodomy and drunkenness. Just a week before, the artist had spent a night in the cells of the Tor di Nona, a notorious interrogation centre, after getting into a fight in the Turk’s Head tavern. If it hadn’t been for the intervention of Cardinal Del Monte, his erstwhile patron, who had known him for years, he could have gone to jail for three months, or even been sent to the galleys.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said.

Anna brightened. ‘Course I am. And, by the way, Acquaviva wasn’t wrong about the way you dress. You’re making good money these days, you’re one of the most famous painters in Rome. And you’re really quite good looking, with those thick lips and ebony eyes. So why not smarten yourself up and buy some decent clothes?’ She raised her hand to scratch her nose, causing Caravaggio to look sternly at her.

‘Stay still,’ he said.

‘What? You mean if I don’t put my hand back in exactly the same position, you’d paint two of them?’


Anna
!’

‘Anyway, it’s funny what you were saying. ’Cos there was this Dominican, from Venice, came to see me the other day – in town to discuss legal business. He says Rome’s an abomination, full of whores and thieves and the worst kinds of priests.’

‘Keep still. And he told you this while he was fucking you, did he?’

‘Afterwards, matter of fact, while he was picking at some olives and enjoying a glass of wine.’

‘Typical. What was his name?’

‘I can’t tell you that.’

‘Why not?’

Anna looked at him with an expression of perfect mock seriousness. ‘Priests aren’t the only ones with secrets, you know.’

‘Oh … right. I forgot about the Knocking Shop Code of Conduct. So what did he say about the clergy?’

‘He said there wasn’t a sin in Christendom that the priests and bishops of Rome don’t commit on a daily basis. Cardinals too. Said it wouldn’t surprise him if some of them didn’t even believe in Our Lord.’

‘That’s going a bit far, don’t you think?’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘And how did he reply?’

‘He stuck his hand between my legs.’

‘I’ll bet he did.’

‘What?’

‘Never mind. Stop fidgeting. Remember, you’re not only a virgin, you’re the Mother of God. You’re not supposed to look as if you were born in a bawdy house.’

‘You didn’t mind last time.’

‘When was that?’


The Flight into Egypt
. One of my best, if you ask me.’

‘Very true,’ said Caravaggio. ‘But you were younger then.’

Anna glared at him. ‘You saying I’m past it?’

A tricky one. After all, she was past twenty now. He remembered how she looked when she posed for the Egyptian painting, holding the baby Jesus to her breast. She had just learned she was pregnant – not by him, as it happened – and the news had filled her with a kind of … holiness. But then she’d had a
miscarriage
, all too common in her line of work, which, as it happened, made her perfect for his next commission, the
Penitent Magdalene
. The composition, though more narrowly focused, was practically the same: crouched over, shoulders bent, hands clasped on her lap, her long red hair streaming down her right shoulder. The difference this time was that she was consumed with grief. There was a hole in her life – an emptiness at the heart of her. The awareness she had shown of her loss was not only genuine, it had moved him to tears.

‘Well?’ she said, holding her pose with obvious difficulty. ‘I’m waiting.’

Caravaggio rubbed his nose violently with the knuckles of his left hand. ‘Don’t be daft, Anna,’ he said. ‘If anything, you’re more beautiful now than you were then. It’s just that, these days you … you know more – and it shows.’

‘I should bloody well hope so. In this town, you need a good head on your shoulders, and a long memory, just to survive. Why do you suppose I keep a list of my clients hidden away, along with all their hidden bits – identity marks, if you know what I mean? It’s because I don’t want no one doing me harm and thinking they can get away with it. The way things are, if you’ve not got the pox, you’ve got the plague, and even if you haven’t, the
sbirri
want to cut your nose off, or your ears, just ’cos you try to earn a decent living with the gifts God gave you. That’s Christian charity for you.’

This made Caravaggio smile. He had always liked Anna. She stood up for herself – didn’t let men walk all over her. ‘So what about your Dominican?’ he asked her. ‘The one from Venice. He mention anything about the Turks? Longhi thinks they’re getting ready for war.’

Onorio Longhi, from Lombardy, was an architect and a loudmouth and one of Caravaggio’s close circle of drinking companions. War and fighting were in his blood.

Anna’s eyes widened at the mention of Longhi’s name. ‘No surprise there,’ she said. ‘You know what they say about Onorio … if he’s not wearing a sword, it’s because he’s got a dagger down his tights.’

Caravaggio grinned at the aptness of the observation. ‘That’s as maybe,’ he said. ‘But what did the Good Father have to say about it?’

‘He said the Turks were building up their navy and he wouldn’t be surprised if they sailed on Crete. In that case, he said, it would be up to the Venetians to save the day – as usual. The Pope would just celebrate High Mass and call on divine aid.’

‘Sounds about right.’ He mixed a little more red for the Virgin’s dress. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Anna, that we’re only Christians for as long as we keep the Ottomans at bay?’

‘Speak for yourself. I was born a Catholic and I’ll die a Catholic.’

Caravaggio winked at her. ‘Hopefully in your bed,’ he said.

She sniffed loudly. ‘Can I have a glass of wine?’

‘I told you – keep still!’

But she was tired of suffering for his art. She rolled her eyes and let out a sigh. Surreptitiously, while Caravaggio concentrated on his canvas, she moved her right arm away from her abdomen, unlaced her bodice and placed her hand on her newly exposed left breast so that her nipple stood up between her fingers. The painter looked round, exasperated. Then he threw down his brush and leapt on her. She laughed and reminded him that this would cost him extra.

BOOK: The Caravaggio Conspiracy
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