Caravaggio: Signed in Blood

Written by Mark David Smith
Review by Sandra Unerman

Beppo is the servant of a wine seller in early 17th-century Rome, an orphan whose home is far away. His master is murdered, and he gets mixed up in the troubles of the painter Caravaggio. The two of them go on the run from ruthless enemies. Pirates and bandits threaten them, against the backdrop of the struggles between rival powers in Italy and the Mediterranean. Beppo has to cope with Caravaggio’s moods and the whims of his patrons. Can he find a way to outwit his enemies and rescue the girl he loves?

The story is told by Beppo himself with plenty of humour and energy. It is full of details that bring the period to life, from the scraping of wine barrels to the operation of a camera obscura in Caravaggio’s studio. The relationship between Beppo and Caravaggio is a convincing one, with Caravaggio’s obstinacy and pugnacity offset by his loyalty to the boy who has helped him, and his brilliance as a painter. Beppo himself is a likeable hero and good at drawing the reader into his sensations and feelings. I was particularly struck by his sufferings when he is forced to travel inside a trunk at the back of a carriage, and his experience as Caravaggio’s model. But his later adventures became a bit too hectic for my taste. The other characters are fairly sketchy, although the hierarchical nature of society, the violence and the contrasts between rich and poor are portrayed convincingly.

The overall tone of this novel reminded me of The Three Musketeers and other Dumas adventures. Younger readers, aged 10 and above, might be more convinced than I was by the ease with which Beppo overcomes so many violent enemies.