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The Artist and the Assassin by Mark Frutkin  

The play of light and shadow defines Mark Frutkin’s vibrant narrative based on the life of the seventeenth-century painter known as Caravaggio, whose revolutionary use of the chiaroscuro technique fuelled his dazzling success while his demons led him down the path of exile and, ultimately, assassination.

Rome, 1600. In the shadowed cellars of Cardinal Del Monte’s palazzo, a shaft of light illuminates the face of Luca Passarelli. Across the room, behind an enormous canvas, the brilliant, mercurial artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio paints with sure brushstrokes Luca’s likeness into a new masterpiece.

Caravaggio is both revered and reviled by his patrons as well as his fellow artists. His innovative paintings and his blazing temper have made him powerful friends, but also powerful enemies—enemies who are determined to quench the flame of his talent.

What Caravaggio does not know is that Luca is a professional assassin, a bitter and spiteful man who, in his dark past, has ‘breathed in death’ and has committed murder on multiple occasions. What the artist does not know is that when next they meet it will not be a canvas that brings them together, but rather revenge ... and death.


2022—Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards,


2022—City of Ottawa Book Award,

Review text

A revolutionary Italian artist living in a corrupt, brutal era is the focus of the historical novel The Artist and the Assassin.

In Mark Frutkin’s historical novel, an assassin is hired to kill a celebrated Italian Renaissance artist.

As a child, Caravaggio exhibited a brilliant eye for color and a prodigious talent for painting. Thus, his uncle sent him to apprentice with an established artist in Milan. But Caravaggio fast grew bored of painting still lifes; he felt stifled by rules around color and composition. His own style was radical, playing with light and dark to create intense, visionary images.

Though Caravaggio’s relationship with his mentor deteriorated, he gained the patronage of a wealthy cardinal in Rome, who brought Caravaggio to live in his palazzo. There, Caravaggio painted The Calling of St. Matthew—and met Luca, an indigent, impoverished assassin who became his model and muse.

He also fell in love with a prostitute.

The novel follows these developments with care, revealing Caravaggio as a man with a volatile temper who carried a rapier—foreshadowing how, in a fit of jealousy over the prostitute, he killed the son of a powerful Roman man. Though he was banished from Rome for the murder, he struggled to return to the city. Meanwhile, the father of the murdered man hired Luca to assassinate the artist, bringing Luca into Caravaggio’s life for a second time.

Alternating between its removed focus on Caravaggio and its direct narration by Luca, the novel develops the artist’s story from the time when he was eleven, through to his arrival in Rome, his various commissions, and his rise to fame. It highlights his infamy following his so-called heretical presentations of biblical stories, too.

Luca’s narration is more dramatic, detailing his involvement with the artist both in terms of his struggles as model, and as Caravaggio’s predator. Tension builds as Luca pursues Caravaggio from Rome to Naples, trading focus between palazzos and houses of prostitution, and moving from the land to the sea.

Though it is committed to historical accuracy, the prose is often poetic, resulting in a clear sense of the mindsets of the artist and his would-be assassin. And the squalor and splendor of Italy in the 1600s are juxtaposed to great effect: Caravaggio’s life is described in all its glory and tawdriness, while Luca’s is captured in terms of filth and extreme want. What emerges is an affecting portrayal of seventeenth century Italy that contrasts darkness and light in much the same way that Caravaggio’s paintings themselves did. Charming but anachronistic nineteenth century engravings appear throughout the book to complement the tale.

The Artist and the Assassin is a dramatic historical novel about the life of a troubled, groundbreaking artist.

—Randi Hacker, Foreword Reviews

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‘This is a great crime story based on in-depth research on a man and his time. Frutkin’s prose is elegant and precise. His passion for Italy and for Caravaggio’s work shines through. I am now really interested in seeing more of Caravaggio’s masterpieces. I highly recommend this book.’

—Marie-Andrée Lajoie, Vistas

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‘Like Caravaggio’s art, The Artist & the Assassin has dramatic elements as well as a high degree of realism. Frutkin paints a compelling picture of an interesting time in Italian history and has produced a historical page-turner. Of particular note is his ability to get inside the heads of the two troubled characters, one an artist and the other an assassin. A master of dialogue, Frutkin creates conversations that seem genuine and makes us want to know what happens to each of them.’

—Joyce MacPhee, Apt613

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‘Frutkin has a gift for writing about visual art, focusing on the way an artist sees the world and how that world is brought to life with pigment, brush and an inner vision.’

—John Morris, Accenti Magazine

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‘Frutkin’s descriptions of Renaissance Italy blend opulence with seediness, just like Caravaggio used light and darkness for dramatic effect. The author’s attention to historic details and insights into art make his novel not only enjoyable but instructive. This certainly incited me to pause my reading of the story to do some additional research on the Grand Master and the art milieu and society he lived in. It is Frutkin’s ability to perk the curiosity of his readers that is certainly one of his greatest strengths.’

—Ian Thomas Shaw, Ottawa Review of Books

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‘While the author’s painstaking research is evident in historical accuracy, biography, and true-to-life characters, his poetic prose and meaningful metaphors effortlessly paint a riveting portrait of Caravaggio as ’’the light that still falls on the world.’’’

—Giovanna Riccio, The Nashwaak Review

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Mark Frutkin’s The Artist and the Assassin immerses the reader in Caravaggio’s Rome. Thoroughly researched, well plotted, and beautifully written, this historical novel is a poetic page-turner. Its familiar and strange world is fully realized in lush detail—we walk the streets, mix the paints, and follow the light and darkness of its volatile main characters.

—Jury Statement, Ottawa Book Awards

Excerpt from book


I am the cloud in the sky and you, artist, the cloud’s shadow scurrying over the earth. I am the cloud over your shoulder, sailing through the heavens, encountering no resistance. I carry lightly the thoughts, the belief, of a man who has never known doubt, while you, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, are the shadow of the cloud on the earth, rolling up and down hills as you try to escape. Where cloud and cloud’s shadow meet will be your end.

Rome 1600

He has me posing as a saint, me, Luca Passarelli, with a thief for a father and my mother a wet-nurse. To be precise, he wants me playing Saint Matthew. Matthew, the one called by Christ from the streets to his spiritual life as an apostle. I sit at a table in the vaulted cellar of a palazzo belonging to one Cardinal Del Monte. I’m waiting with the artist’s other models, several older louts and two young men, boys really, snappily dressed in silks, wealthy punks out slumming with the likes of us. The artist chooses to pose me as the apostle and saint. If you can imagine that. Me a saint. I would qualify for a saint’s vow of poverty, certainly, but not by choice. Me with my one set of worn, flea-ridden clothing, a shirt, a tunic, and a pair of hose with holes in the knees. I cannot afford anything else. He has made me up to look older than I am. And I am no Jew, though Matthew was.

Altogether, seven of us pose in this cellar. Two of the models stand across the room, representing Jesus and Peter. Christ himself is pointing at me. The rest of us sit around the table counting the coins I gathered as if we are preparing for a night of gambling. I am the focus. Me, Matthew, known as Levi the Tax Collector in the ancient stories. The light shines on me, and on the young scamp to my left, one of the artist’s favourites, I hear. I wonder if he is bedding the boy? Could be, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I can’t say for sure.

Michelangelo Merisi, this artist from a little village called Caravaggio, stands across the room, gazing into his enormous canvas and working it, licking his brush before stabbing it again into his palette, and occasionally glancing out at us models posed around the table. His eyes are sharp, he bites his lip, he wears his thick, black hair longish in the front. Youthful style. A small window of this cellar is covered by a sheet of paper soaked in olive oil. I watched him early the first morning pour the oil over the sheet in a large pan. I could smell it. Expensive stuff. Enough oil for a family of six for a month.

The old guy sitting to my right complained on the second afternoon: ‘Why not make a quick drawing and let us out of here, finish the painting in your studio?’

Merisi didn’t even look up from his palette when he replied in a flat voice, ‘I don’t draw.’

He offered no more than that. Not, I cannot draw, but I don’t draw. No explanation. No apology. Nothing. As if we were invisible. As if we were made of clay and he the Creator. What kind of artist is he then? I’m no expert but it seems to me an artist should at least have the skill to draw.

We sit here day after day as he vanishes into that other room in his huge canvas--it must be more than ten feet across--coming out once in a while to look at us as if ... as if we are statues. Models. Actors. Our lives disappearing, dissolving into thin air, vanishing into his great work. We are worth less than drying pigment.

‘Stop moving,’ he warns, when one of the boys adjusts his seat.

As long as he keeps paying me, I will sit here, but I don’t have to like it.

[Continued in The Artist and the Assassin...]

Unpublished endorsement

The Artist and the Assassin takes us on a frenetic journey into the turmoil and glory of late Renaissance Italy and an imagined life of Michelangelo Caravaggio. In this, his tenth novel, Mark Frutkin creates a man as troubling as he was troubled: scoundrel, murderer, man of overreaching genius and unbridled ambition, but also a fragile lover tormented by his ambiguous sexuality in a world both libertine and unforgiving of his passions. With The Artist and the Assassin Frutkin manages the neat trick of creating a novel that both blazes along like a swashbuckler adventure and paints an intimate--even meditative--portrait of genius.’

—Nicola Vulpe, author of Through the Waspmouth and The Extraordinary Event of Pia H.

Unpublished endorsement

The Artist and the Assassin reads like a thriller, one that thrills as much through its insights on Caravaggio’s painting as through the drama of his life. Mark Frutkin has given us a compelling portrait of Caravaggio and his world, one that beautifully captures the mix of darkness and light that so defined both his life and his work. ’

—Nino Ricci, author of Lives of the Saints, The Origin of Species and Sleep


Credit: Vincenzo Pietropaolo

Mark Frutkin is the author of over a dozen books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. His works include the Trillium Book Award–winning Fabrizio’s Return (Vintage, 2006), which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, and Atmospheres Apollinaire (The Porcupine’s Quill, 1988), which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium and the Ottawa Book Award. His latest book, Where Angels Come to Earth (Longbridge Books, 2020), presents a visual and poetic appreciation of Italian culture. He lives in Ottawa.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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FICTION / Literary

FICTION / Historical

ISBN-13: 9780889848801

Publication Date: 2021-08-13

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 216

Price: $19.95