If you’re an English-speaking comics fan, the chances are, if you have heard of Milo Manara before, it’s most likely in connection with a certain Spider-woman variant cover or his work with Chris Claremont on X-Women. In Europe, however, Manara is a comics legend, mentioned in the same breath as Moebius or Jodorowsky. Caravaggio is perhaps his most personal work. Described in Dark Horse’s promotional material as a ‘love letter’ to the 17th century artist, its first volume chronicles the young artist’s arrival in Rome, his rise to prominence and his escape from the city after a swordfight ends messily. At times erudite and crammed with historical detail, at others bawdy and passionate, this opening volume is utterly engrossing and, as you might expect from an artist of Manara’s skill, at times breathtakingly beautiful.
The book opens with a young Caravaggio, having hitched a ride on the back of a farmer’s vegetable cart, approaching Rome via the Salario Bridge. We’re about to be treated to a typically Manaran moment of cheeky bawdiness, but before we get too carried away it’s worth taking in that opening panel. If, like me, you know Manara mainly through his superhero covers or his erotica, you may be excused for having exactly the same reaction I did – open-mouthed wonder. It really is an amazing piece of art in its own right. The stonework of the bridge and its low tower; the curving roadway leading up to the wooden barrier that obstructs it; the luminous ochres of the early evening sky: all are rendered in exquisite detail, as bold a statement of intent as it is possible to imagine. This tale is going to be beautiful.
What follows is an amusing introduction to the mores and manners of the time. The cart on which Caravaggio is travelling is almost overtaken by a coach and horses and both arrive at the bridge’s gate at the same time. This is bad news for the farmer, because the captain in charge of the bridge only allows one vehicle to pass each day and the farmer’s vegetables will spoil if he has to wait. An altercation between farmer and coach driver inevitably ensues with Caravaggio intervening on behalf of the farmer because, as he later says, he hates “bullies” – a characteristic which will come into play later in the volume. When the captain agrees to see the rather attractive woman from the carriage in his rooms in order to ‘inspect her papers’, things look bleak for the farmer. But Manara has a sly twist in store, as the captain, emerging from the tower wearing only his shirt, announces that it is the farmer – and not the carriage – that can go through. It would seem that the lady’s papers are so interesting the captain wants to look at them again tomorrow morning.
And so we are introduced to Manara’s version of early 17th century Rome, a world of lechery and power, albeit in this case of a relatively benign and playful nature. The artist – and the reader following his journey – will face considerably darker and more tragic moments as the story progresses.
On arriving in Rome, Caravaggio has little difficulty in finding work and space in a studio whose maestro is honest and humble enough to recognise the newcomer’s talent. In no time at all, he is working for the finest painter in Rome who, perhaps inevitably, turns out to be something of a stuck-up twit. In these early pages, Manara gives us a very engaging introduction to not only Caravaggio the artist but also Caravaggio the man; the hints from that opening sequence of pages are developed further. He is confident in his own abilities but falls short of displaying the sort of vanity that makes so many creative types profoundly unlikeable. Indeed, while he is single-minded in his pursuit of beauty (the early scene in which, incensed at having wine tipped on his head from the balcony above him, he confronts the culprit only to be captivated by the way the light highlights the curves of her bare bottom is a good example), that pursuit leads to him being contemptuous of social norms. For Caravaggio, the whore can be a madonna; it is not an either/or issue, despite what the Church might (and here does) say.
Caravaggio’s other defining characteristic is that aforementioned hatred of bullies. I wouldn’t even say that this is a desire for justice per se. It is, rather, an impulsive desire to defend people against cruelty when he sees it. This defines his rather unusual relationship with Annucia, a beautiful redheaded harlot who he first encounters on that bridge in the opening few pages and meets again in one of his not infrequent stays in prison. Initially he paints her as the madonna, an honour that matters a great deal to Anna, but her unwillingness to leave her pimp (and it is portrayed as unwillingness, despite his undeniably tyrannical attitude towards her) prevents her from doing so again, once the Cardinal who is Caravaggio’s patron finds out about her rather dubious background. Caravaggio begs her to join him, but he is unwilling to coerce her in the same way her pimp Ranuccio does.
In the end, what happens to Anna is tragic and it is a tragedy that inspires Caravaggio to produce a painting that confers to Anna in death an honour he was not able to give her in life – portraying her as Mary in his painting ‘The Death of the Virgin’, although the painting is ultimately deemed too scandalous to be displayed in Rome. The final few pages of the book see Caravaggio seek to avenge Anna’s death in a sword fight with Ranuccio that, again, highlights his sheer bloody-mindedness. Despite suffering a pretty unpleasant head wound, Caravaggio refuses to withdraw eventually killing his opponent. He then flees the city never, my history books tell me, to return again.
In Caravaggio: The Palette and the Sword, Manara has embellished and woven the details of history into a compelling narrative that illuminates the intensity, irrationality and inspirations of an exceptional artist. My one (very minor) gripe is that sometimes the historical detail overwhelms the narrative (even Manara cannot resist the occasional venture into the Renaissance equivalent of a training montage), but never for very long. Manara’s skill as an artist is unquestioned here, but his storytelling is impeccable too and there are moments of drama and revelation where this reader at least really felt as if he was being given an insight into just how differently artists see the world and a sense of how determined they are to reveal the truth about it in their art.