Some call me a libertine. Others call me a genius. I make love to lads. I fuck women. I’m a New Man in the oldest of worlds. I’m primeval, homicidal to boot. I’m Michelangelo Merisi, the Lombardy hick who prefers butter, not olive oil, on his artichokes. I prefer my Christian name, but the Divine One, Michelangelo Buonarroti, has minted that denomination, so friends and enemies alike have dubbed me Caravaggio, named after the plague-ridden town of my origins. Caravaggio. Michelangelo. The two names have scored a cross within me. I’m a pleb. I’m royal. I’m a heretic and a believer. I’m at odds with myself. Michelangelo with his defiant, proletariat rage comes naturally. Being Caravaggio is arduous, the ascetic dedication and strenuous concentration. He’s always reflecting, always in his own head, especially during sex. His tireless superiority complex has made Michelangelo the lesser man, but we accept Caravaggio’s dominion. Genius must be served.
That’s where yours truly comes in. Behind every great artist is a greater psychosis. I’m the nameless, faceless beast yoked to the dueling egos of Michelangelo and Caravaggio. I’m the middle child of this inflated self. Michelangelo was born first, punchy as baby Hercules. At the age of five, his working class fists caught thunder when a plague ate the flesh of our father, grandfathers, and paternal uncles. Then I entered the world, fatherless, spawned by Michelangelo’s grieving head, nursed on our widowed mother’s shattered nerves. I was born to fear death. I was born to protect Michelangelo from himself. Don’t pick fights with older boys. Don’t throw rocks at the marquis’ guards. Don’t hunt wild boar alone. He seldom listened. It was the tallest of orders, and then, at the age of ten, we painted a still life that put the art tutor’s cornucopia to shame. Our prodigy was born. Another inner child to feed. My tall order was demoted to a fool’s errand. Protect the genius from the libertine. Keep Michelangelo from sabotaging Caravaggio. It’s been hell, refereeing Romulus and Remus, constantly prying the fingers of Cain from Abel’s throat. Fraternal battles are the bloodiest, but there’s nothing more destructive than a warring self.
So here I am attending Mass, the dull fluorescence of a cloudy Sunday morning emanating through the central dome of the church. It’s the perfect light, intensifying the darkness of my work. All eyes are on them, my two pictures hanging in the chapel left of the altar—Peter’s upside-down crucifixion and Paul’s ecstatic fall from his horse. Only three souls mind the mumbling priest, two servers kneeling on either side of him and a third kneeling wide flank. The priest bows woefully low, confessing his sins to almighty God. The servers ask God to have mercy on the priest, to grant him everlasting life. I’ve partied with the man. I know the sins he’s committed, most of them venial. His soul can be saved, unlike mine. All my sins are mortal, but I’m not here for absolution. I’m here to be witnessed, and to witness the power of my work on the wretched. I’m an idol who can recognize his dependence on fandom. Without worshippers, a god is just a baseless psycho.
I look over my shoulder to count stargazers. Thirteen. None of them wretched. Most have more money than God and dress like it—shiny satins and patterned silks tightly fitted to both sexes. Some turn a head to cough. Others itch their noses against a shoulder. Any old trick to steal a glimpse of the maniacal genius.
I feign a stiff neck and slowly twist my head, a ploy to see who’s stargazing from the other side of the nave. I count twelve. One looks like a thuggish bureaucrat, his stark black doublet, the starched point of his beard. He eyeballs me as if auditing my soul. I don’t know him, and he certainly doesn’t know me. If he did, he’d know better. I’ve bled men for exhibiting friendlier looks, but I’m currently unarmed. I never carry a sword to Mass. Don’t misjudge the piety. I’ll punch his lights out just the same once we’ve exited the church.
Here in Santa Maria del Popolo, I can only stab him a menacing glare. He averts his eyes but returns them moments later with a softer inquisition. Maybe I misjudged. Maybe he’s praying for me. Maybe he recognizes me from Sacred Love and Profane Love, a crap painting by my enemy Baglione that portrays yours truly as a cock-munching goblin with mangled fangs, gasping in humiliation as Sacred Love beats me aside with his exquisite wings, rescuing a traumatized Cupid from my lap. It was painted in response to my blockbuster Love Conquers All, a full-frontal portrait of Cupid as a ruddy, happy-go-lucky lad with bad teeth and working-class wings. My Cupid poses alone, fisting two arrows, straddling a draped stool. The lad is having a blast, and why shouldn’t he? Love is a fun business, and he calls the shots. He’s no knockout. He’s not even a god. He’s every other lad on the street, ordained by the powers vested in me, tickled by the act of having his picture painted, his darling dick dead front and center.
My picture and Baglione’s painting both hang in the gallery of the Giustiniani brothers, Vincent and Cardinal Benedetto. If the bureaucrat has visited their palace, he’s surely heard my name not only mentioned, but revered. He would have also seen my apprentice Cecco on their walls. Cecco is my Cupid. He’s also my full-frontal John the Baptist, the most copied picture in Rome. Friends and enemies alike have dubbed him Cecco del Caravaggio, his name married to mine. We’re going on four years. He calls me master, but only in the company of others. He’s hardly my servant, and much more than an apprentice. He’s my heart. He’s a sensation. He’s a budding star. Cecco del Caravaggio is the next best thing after me.
Cecco is my young lover. He stands beside me, our kneecaps smooching behind the pew. Footsies at Mass—we play this game every Sunday, but today I’m not in the mood. I have a headache. I’m exhausted and remarkably sad. Caravaggio is no longer interested in painting Cecco. He has Virgin commissions and a final John the Baptist to paint. Cecco isn’t manly enough for his new vision of John. If not painting Cecco, God will finally take exception to my loving him. That’s how He works, like any self-seeking king or pontiff.
I turn to Cecco. He flashes me that crooked smile I’ve made famous, but more than fame, my Cecco deserves love. I can’t give him that. God forbids it, yet He made me this way. Why punish the lad for succumbing to my superpowers? I resent God’s duplicity. He’s a user. He hates Michelangelo, and barely acknowledges my existence, but Caravaggio is His pride and joy. Like the cardinals and aristocrats who pull strings to pardon my crimes, God keeps me around for my pictures. Without them, Christians would have limited perceptions of His greatness. I have a good mind to destroy myself, let Michelangelo’s proletariat ire burn our genius to the ground. That would show Him. Without the likes of me, He’d be just another idol with a bloated sense of self. By cutting Cecco loose, I’m free to fail at my job. I could walk away from Michelangelo and Caravaggio, letting all hell break loose. I’m in no hurry for that, but I’m preparing it as a last defense against Rome’s army of horseshit Holy Rollers and two-faced users.
We sit. We sign the cross. We stand. Cecco sensually probes my ribs with his elbow. I pretend not to feel it. I fake focus on the priest. He ascends the altar and places his pinkies upon it, praying over the relics of an anonymous martyr. This is the part of Mass where God forgives the priest’s sins, the ones I’ve seen him commit at Madama Palace. I look for an outward sign of his absolution. No halo. No aura. No ecstatic shivers. Cecco grazes a knuckle against my thigh. I shiver. It’s not ecstasy. More of a frigid ambivalence. When the goose bumps subside, I glance over my shoulder. The thuggish bureaucrat appears to be making a mental note. He’s onto me. No matter. He can’t report what Papa Clement already knows. What Baglione painted. What I’ve confessed in my own pictures. The shameless joy of Love Conquers All. The dewy sensuality of Lute Player. The brutal passion of Isaac & Abraham II. Noblemen and cardinals buy up my man-love pictures. They order copies. They want my pictures more than they want my head.
Patronizing yours truly buys them immortality. I’m the only one selfless enough to persecute Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It’ll kill me, but it’s time to squash my indomitable love for Cecco. Save the lad’s soul. A new tall order to complicate my fool’s errand.
The priest makes wine. He signs the cross. My goose bumps return. He washes his hands. The servers kiss them. Cecco blows in my ear. My remarkable sadness sinks to a new nadir. Sacrificing my love for this lad. The throb of my headache quickens. I clench my sphincter to relieve the pain. The priest transforms bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s a minor miracle, but boring nonetheless. The sanctus bells are struck. My stomach growls for donuts. The priest and servers exit the nave. The congregation flocks to my pictures. I listen to them wow out, low moans and loud whispers from groupies, fanboys, and collectors. Cecco steps from the pew into the aisle and tempts me with his mischievous John in the Wild III grin.
“Donuts?” I ask.
“Mass and donuts, Master. Our Sunday ritual.”
He makes a perfect circle with his mouth. Its circumference perfectly matches my girth.
“One small happy family,” I say.
I distance myself from Cecco as we exit. I don’t get far. I’m slowed to a straggle by a procession of lollygaggers staring up at the stucco saints standing on the cornices of the arcade. I turn to evaluate the breadth of my separation from Cecco, but he’s right there, happy-go-lucky as ever, oblivious to the motive of my queer pacing.
“Don’t worry, Master. The donuts aren’t going anywhere.”
I want to compensate my ex with a consolatory smile, but the bureaucrat is a few faces behind him. I’ve seen his acquisitiveness in the eyes of thousands. He wants blood or paint from me. Deciphering which requires superhuman paranoia, but the headache and remarkable sadness have disarmed me. I’m in no condition to fight or haggle, so I flip him the bird and push past the lollygaggers towards the exit. I don’t look back until reaching our favorite donut cart halfway across the square. Of course, Cecco is there behind me, standing so impossibly close that our souls become superimposed. Severing our bond will be the hardest thing ever.
The entire square stargazes as we stand in line. Caravaggio and Isaac. Caravaggio and his Cecco. Sick Bacchus and Cupid. The sun has triumphed over the clouds. The morning’s glumness has brightened into a perfect Sunday. We have all the light in the world. Sacred and Profane love, not a shadow at our feet. I raise the hood of my cloak to hide from it, a wounded animal backed into its cave, glaring out at the world.
We order donuts and take them to the fountain. I devour mine as if the dough was kneaded from Christ’s flesh.
“Have you eaten since last Sunday’s donuts?” Cecco asks.
“A few heads of chicory.”
“You curse your days of apprenticing for that tyrant who fed you only greens. Now you’re a superstar and feed yourself the same diet?”
“What doesn’t kill me,” I say.
“You barely sleep or eat. You consume nothing but claret and poppy seeds.”
“This superstar is superhuman.”
“Superhuman on the inside.” Cecco jams a thumb into my fat oblique.
“Minus the love handles, my body is looking swole. I’m going to paint a nude selfie. Haven’t done one since Matthew Killed.”
“Selfies are dead. You killed them a decade ago with Sick Bacchus, the god of intercourse and wine yellowed with jaundice.”
“I had malaria. Thought I was dying before my time. The deathbed selfie was a parting shot at God.”
“A selfie to end all selfies, denouncing all forms of worship. Brilliant, but why the sudden need to resurrect them?”
“Documentation. I’m dying of something. I don’t know what. My insides feel toxic. I don’t think I’m long for this world.”
“It’s the poppy seeds and claret,” he says.
“Probably, but either way I’m toast. Powerful men want me dead.”
“The usual suspects. Captains. Cardinals. Maybe Papa Clement. Definitely God.”
“You’re too valuable. They need your pictures.”
“Why do you think I’ve been dragging ass on the Virgin commissions?”
“Caravaggio, you’re depressed.”
“Master Caravaggio. Someone might hear.”
“Over the spewing fountain?” There’s a fair amount of conjecture in his voice.
I shrug, nod, and shake my head.
“I can’t get used to calling you Caravaggio. You were Master Merisi my first year of apprenticing. Michelangelo for two years, and now Caravaggio. What’ll it be in 1605?”
I can’t answer, not here in front of everyone. His heart deserves privacy while breaking it. I’m his master, which means I can walk away from the question without him reading into it. I swallow the last of my donut and push through the crowd, traffic slowing to a shuffle as we near Via del Corso where two coaches are causing a major backup. One of the coaches is the slickest in Rome. It belongs to Costanza Colonna, the woman I call Mamma. She was wife to the late Francesco Sforza, the Marquis of Caravaggio. An architect by trade, my father was steward of his estate. Holding my father in high regard, he and the marchioness stood witness at my parents’ wedding. I was born nine months later, on the feast day of the archangel Saint Michael, but more importantly, a week after Catholic superhero Marcantonio Colonna blew the Turkish Empire out of the water at Lepanto, the greatest Christian victory since David plunked Goliath between the eyes. Marcantonio was Costanza’s father. The marchioness deemed my birth a Colonna family blessing. When the plague wiped out every adult Merisi male known to God, she helped the steward’s widow by appointing herself a parental role in raising the punchy Merisi child. My mother didn’t refuse given her meager resources and fretfulness. She had two younger mouths to feed. I practically grew up on the Sforza estate. The marchioness paid for Michelangelo’s sword training. When our inner genius revealed itself, she paid for Caravaggio’s training and arranged his art apprenticeships. I had lost a father, but gained a second mother, every poor Italian boy’s wildest oedipal dream, especially when she’s the daughter of Italy’s most glorified patriarch. Costanza Colonna has been wiping my messes since. I only wish I could call her Mamma to her face.
Assuming there’s been an accident or altercation, I shuck my hood and rush to Mamma’s rescue, shoving aside anyone with a penis. Cecco slipstreams in my ego. Some jackass femme-fop in a curly wig tries standing his ground. They’re all over Rome these days, puffed-up nouveau riche pilgrims dressed like the second coming of Duke Dildo. His cosplay doesn’t fool me. He hasn’t a drop of noble blood in his veins. Michelangelo enjoys hunting these wannabes for sport. I sturdy my core and run an elbow into his solar plexus. He crumples. Cecco giggles through his nose. That laugh once made me rock-hard. Now? Little more than a chubby.
As I near Mamma, it becomes distressingly clear that she doesn’t need saving. Zero drama surrounds the traffic jam caused by her conversing with Lady Mattei from their respective windows, coaches headed in opposite directions. The stalled drivers behind them wait patiently. Bottlenecked pedestrians keep any grievances to themselves. A few pursed lips at most. The coats of arms dangling from each coach do not need fortification from the likes of yours truly.
“Speak of the devil,” Lady Mattei says with an agnostic smile.
The marchioness looks me up with disappointment and down with concern. She has always seen through the vigor of Michelangelo and Caravaggio, preferring to view the torment of yours truly. An emotionally even me makes her job of mothering the maniacal genius easier.
“My Michele looks paler than Mantegna’s Christ cadaver,” she says.
“I’m picturing Dante’s Fifth Circle and the choked rage of those fetid hotheads mauling each other amongst the scummy surface of the Styx,” says Lady Mattei.
She thinks she’s entitled. She somewhat is. Lady Mattei is also a mother of mine. I lived at Mattei Palace for three years. Lord Mattei commissioned Cecco’s full-frontal John in the Wild III, the namesake of their eldest son. The other two Mattei brothers, the marquis and cardinal, also lived at the compound. It was one hugely rich happy family. Nevertheless, they were cheap fucks, paying squat for my pictures. The living, however, was superb, my most lawful, peaceful, and maternal years to date. Mamma visited almost daily. She and Lady Mattei spoiled me with donuts, praise, and claret. A psycho genius can never have too many mothers. My biological mother, let’s just call her Lucia, forfeited a superstar to better care for my unexceptional siblings. It was a prudent choice. I’ll never respect her for it. Given the chance, Lady Mattei would steal me from Mamma and lock me in her girdle purse. She furnished all my needs at Mattei Palace. It’s where Cecco first came to live with me, where I painted him as Cupid, John the Baptist, and ravaged Isaac.
I turn to Mamma’s carriage and take a low and woeful bow. She hangs her hand from the window. I kiss it with the diehard slobbering of a naughty son. I turn to Lady Mattei and bow, not much woe.
“I pray that you’ve been a good boy,” says Mamma.
I turn to Cecco and encourage him to answer for me.
“Mezza mezza, my lady,” he replies, bowing deep.
“I haven’t bludgeoned anyone since that waiter rubbed my nose in buttered artichokes.”
“Haven’t bludgeoned anyone but yourself,” says Mamma. “Your face is stewing with self-defeat. Don’t do this to me. I already suffer the disappointment of one son, locked behind bars, his ancestry squandered on barroom duels. Don’t you dare squander God’s grace. Don’t you dare squander my investment and love.”
Whenever Mamma guilts me like that, I double down on the woe.
“I’m dying from something. Headaches. Exhaustion. Bouts of remarkable sadness. Powerful forces want me dead. Claret remedies the aches and depression.”
“Sadness? I’ll give you sadness. My father forced me into marriage at twelve. You romp around Rome with whomever pleases you.”
Not looking at Cecco takes all my strength. Keeping quiet about the ass-fucking I received at twelve requires little strength and mostly love. Mamma arranged the apprenticeship for her prodigious foster son. She didn’t know that my master was a chicken-plucker, or maybe she did. She too subscribes to the cliché of serving genius. Lady Mattei changes the subject. She has always had the wettest of soft spots for Cecco.
“Everyone’s dying to see your Virgins. What’s taking?” she asks.
“I hear you’re also late on a John in the Wild commission,” Mamma says.
No one, not even the patron’s wife, knew of the commission, a surprise anniversary gift. Her omniscience is up there with God’s.
“You always know my business,” I say in wonder.
“I’m a mother. Knowing is my business.”
It’s true. She knows everything. Mamma, Cecco, and God are the only ones who know that I exist. Everyone else thinks it’s just Michelangelo and Caravaggio in here. I wonder if Mamma can see me scoring this emergency escape tunnel in the shadowy corner of my skull. I wonder if she’d abet my getaway. I’d like to think that she would.
“I’ll paint the Virgins if you help me find one. I don’t want any old model. I want to employ some wretched soul. Save her from the streets. Launch her into stardom.”
“Ginger or brunette?” Lady Mattei asks.
Again, I encourage Cecco to answer for me.
“It was acceptable for Magdalene to be a ginger, but the Virgin should be a downright brunette,” he says.
“Tar black or burnished wood?” Mamma grins as if sitting for da Vinci. If twenty years younger or at all immaculate, I might cast her as my Virgin.
“I trust our marchioness to recognize a worthy tint of Virgin,” Cecco says.
Both ladies blush. He’s the Machiavelli of salty humor. His lowly status be damned, Cecco once made the Marquis di Giove glow. He gets away with murder. It’s the soft lips and cherub jawline. I’m already jealous of his next lover.
“Hurry. Find a Virgin. I’m tired of lesser artists stealing your thunder. Stay clear of the taverns. Lock yourself in the studio. You’re your best self when painting, peaceable and astute. Besides, you’re my favorite. Act like it,” Mamma says.
Favorite what? Artist? Son? I don’t have the balls to ask but let the record show that she has never bought a Caravaggio. Regarding my best self, she’s referring to yours truly, the one who keeps Michelangelo and Caravaggio from canceling each other. She witnessed my neurotic birth, Michelangelo hatching me from fatherless heartache. Like God, I’m reluctant to show myself. There are people out there who would kill for the opportunity of being Caravaggio’s inner voice. As self-preservation, I keep a low profile, but without Mamma there’d only be Michelangelo. She fostered all three of us. She deserves a rare glimpse of me. I doff my cloak and unlace my doublet, baring my physique to the Marchioness of Caravaggio.
“I’ll repay your investment and love with immortality, but I must self-destruct as my creative process dictates. The younger I die, the rarer and dearer my pictures become. Therefore, I’ll enkindle my violent ways and flame out pronto. Tell friends! Tell family! Buy me up quick! I’m getting dangerous, physically and artistically. I’ll paint Virgins, but first I’ll paint a swan song series of naked gory selfies. Ponderous decapitations and epiphanic screams. Get them while my blood is still hot! Get them while my abs are popping like Christ’s on the cross!”
I bow and flog my back with an imaginary lash. Mamma finally smiles. I inherited my morbid sense of humor from her.
“You’re a piece of work,” says Lady Mattei. “Come to the palace for dinner. I mean it.”
She doesn’t mean it but loves me just the same. Like me, Lady Mattei is a state-of-the-art Roman. She was not born a lady. She was born a disgrace, her mother one of Pope Alexander’s many bastards. Like me, she was raised on the fringe of nobility, willing herself to power with that terrific bod. Anyone can make it in Rome. All it takes is some combination of beauty, brilliance, strength, charm, moxie, luck, nepotism, back-stabbing, cut-throating, and/or patricide. If only Lucia had a single one of those talents. Her superstar son wouldn’t be ghosting her ghost.
Mamma and Lady Mattei blow farewell kisses before riding off in opposite directions. Neither offer a lift, but the traffic is finally purged. I turn to Cecco. The poor lad stands there, carrying all my shit, the city gushing around us.