made some joke to his companions. They smirked and trotted past the Church of San Giacomo. Caravaggio thought that if Ranuccio had seen his dead body propped against the fountain, he would only have laughed harder.
An usher showed Caravaggio along the broad, high corridor of the Quirinale Palace towards Scipione’s chambers. The scent of damp plaster was on the air. ‘That smell . . .’ They came to an open double door. ‘Maestro Reni from Bologna has been frescoing the Chapel of the Annunciation. That’s what you can smell.’ The fresco was almost complete. A couple of fat cherubs swung a censer. The Virgin lay on her bed, pregnant. Joseph was holding off some bearded fellows at the door. Everything was done in pastel shades like a washed-out Raphael. Caravaggio grimaced. He was sure everyone would love it. The usher went to the first pew. Scipione was on his knees in prayer. He rose and came towards Caravaggio swinging his rosary. The artist bowed low. Scipione tugged his hand away almost before the kiss. His cheeks were flushed with wine. The Cardinal-Nephew led Caravaggio out of the chapel, his hand on his shoulder. It was the barest of touches and yet it seemed to reach deep beneath the skin, like an unwelcome caress. ‘Keep away from the Tomassonis, Maestro Caravaggio.’ ‘Most Reverend Lord?’ ‘They’re powerful in their part of town. That makes them very useful to me. There’s some dispute, I gather, between Signor Ranuccio Tomassoni and you.’ ‘Sire, it’s of no importance. A matter of—’ ‘Ten scudi . I know. But blood has been drawn now too – at the Piazza Navona.’ Caravaggio was about to say that it had not been him who cut Ranuccio, but he was reluctant either to make excuses or to admit that he had been present at the brawl in the piazza. ‘It seems unlikely that you and Ranuccio will conclude such a conflict with a polite apology. I wish for you to cease this dispute.’ ‘Will Ranuccio . . . ?’ ‘This shall be communicated to Signor Ranuccio too.’ Scipione crossed to the window overlooking the courtyard of the papal palace. ‘You’ll have to go into hiding. The police must make a show of arresting those involved in the fight. But only when you finish the portrait of the Holy Father. After that, I wish for some frescos in my new palace, Maestro – for the loggia outside.’ A fresco? He might as well ask me to sew him a nice scarf or give him a haircut . ‘Why don’t you ask Maestro Reni to do it?’ he said, imparting as much scorn as he might to the artist’s title. ‘I might ask him, of course. He didn’t do badly with this chapel. And I haven’t asked you to do it yet. But why not?’ ‘I work in oils.’ ‘Fresco is the greatest test of an artist’s skills. You have to complete the painting before the plaster dries on the walls. There’s no time for corrections or touch-ups. Isn’t that true?’ ‘In a fresco, one can’t control the light.’ As he talked about his work, Caravaggio’s resentment of the banal daubings in the chapel left him and he became expansive. ‘No doubt your loggia is beautiful, Your Illustriousness. The sunlight streams over it all day.’ ‘It does.’ ‘That’s why it’s so pleasurable for you to be there.’ ‘Quite so.’ ‘My paintings are made with a single source of light. To create shadows that bring out the features of my models. In so doing I illustrate their emotions.’ He held his hands in front of Scipione’s face as though they carried the beam of a lantern. The cardinal’s eyes followed his fingers. ‘If the light came from here, I would see a different Cardinal-Nephew than if I were to put the source of light down here.’ Scipione nodded, understanding. He doesn’t bother to argue that it would only be a trick of the light , Caravaggio thought . He knows that he wears many faces, and they’d all be worth a portrait. Caravaggio gestured at the sunny courtyard. ‘In the