Four

They stood in the Piazza del Collegio Romano, in mild winter drizzle, six police officers crowding around the small figure of Agata Graziano, who was huddled inside a raincoat Rosa Prabakaran had spirited from nowhere. The gallery was closed for the afternoon. Costa took it upon himself to phone to the Doria Pamphilj internal office, but by the time he’d finished the call the door was open and a beaming attendant was waving them in. Agata had spoken a few words into the intercom; that was all it required.

“Sister, Sister!” the middle-aged man in the antiquated uniform bleated. “Come in! Please! Out of this awful weather.” He stared at the army of police officers and Teresa Lupo stamping her big feet on the doorstep. “And your… friends too.”

“Thank you, Michele,” she answered, and stomped into the dark hallway, then marched directly up the grand flight of stairs, to the second-floor gallery.

It was hard to keep up. By the time they got to the top of the stairs, Agata had gone through the public entrance, walked quickly through the Poussin Room and the Velvet, and was passing the ballroom, seemingly picking up speed with every step. Then she almost ran through the closed bookshop and turned right, towards the series of chambers that included, in its midst, the sixteenth-century room and the two Caravaggios they had come to visit just a couple of days before.

She was standing rigid, fascinated, in front of the smaller canvas, the penitent Magdalene, when they arrived, her shoulders moving, some unexpected emotion gripping her small, taut body.

Costa felt concerned. Then he realised what was happening. She was laughing quietly, to herself, not minding what anyone thought at all.

“Agata…” he said gently.

“What?” Her sparkling eyes turned on him. Her mouth broke in a bright, white smile.

“Is everything all right?”

“Everything is wonderful. And I am an idiot. We are all idiots. Here. Take a look at this…”

She reached into the black leather satchel and took out the first object he saw her retrieve from the red box in the Vicolo del Divino Amore. Surreptitiously, she must have been working at it in the car on the way to the gallery. It was no longer a dusty, unrecognisable shape. What Agata held in her hands was a glass carafe of the kind used for water or wine, one with such gentle curves it could be only be handmade and very old.

Agata rubbed the sleeve of her raincoat hard against the edge.

“Tell me that’s not evidence,” Teresa said, alarmed.

“It’s wonderful evidence. The best I could ask for. Not for you, though. For me.”

They watched as she held the flask next to the slumbering Magdalene in the painting. An identical glass object sat close to the figure’s feet, next to some discarded jewellery, evidence of some regretted tryst or a life that was in the process of being abandoned.

“It’s the same jug,” Agata said firmly.

“It’s a jug,” Teresa pointed out.

“No. He painted from life. He had no money most of the time. Perhaps he was sentimental too. Throughout his life the same objects reappear — props and models. He used what he was familiar with. The items he loved…” She glanced at the painting with the deepest of affection. “.…he tried to keep. Caravaggio painted this work while he was in the Palazzo Madama under the patronage of Del Monte, alongside bohemians and alchemists, geniuses like Galileo, and vagabonds and quacks from the street. In the seven years between the Magdalene here and that squalid pit in the Vicolo del Divino Amore, he rose and fell, to become the most acclaimed artist in Rome and then a hunted criminal, wanted for murder.

Why? Why?”

“It’s a jug,” Teresa said again.

“A poor man growing poorer sells what’s of value to others and attempts to hold on to what is of value to himself,” she declared. “This is the flask. It was like everything else. He used it more than once. I can show you the paintings if you still doubt me. Bacchus in the Uffizi. Boy Bitten by a Lizard in London. Nothing later. Nothing after he fled Rome.” She stared at them and her eyes didn’t brook any argument. “Because he didn’t have it.”

She held up the glass for them to see. There was a distinct stain, like old blood, in the base.

“Wine, I imagine,” Agata added. “There’s another reason to keep it. He could paint it. He could drink from it too.”

She noted the scepticism in their faces.

“If Caravaggio lived in that house,” she went on, “Franco Malaspina must have known. He said it himself. It’s part of the Malaspina estate, the poorer part, in Ortaccio, but property all the same. These families keep records for everything. Most of what we know about painting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries comes from the bookkeeping of either the Church or the aristocracy.”

“Even for me,” Teresa remarked quietly, “this is stretching things.”

“Nic! Tell them what we discovered on that painting before Franco stole it from us. Tell them!”

“We saw a signature,” he said. “Caravaggio’s. It said…”

He paused. All the paintings they’d seen, all the same faces, the same objects… these were alive in his head and intermingled, one with the other.

“It said,” Agata interjected, “fra. michel l’ekstasista. Michelangelo Merisi, the Ekstasist. Franco did not pluck the name of his murderous, thuggish gang out of the ether. He picked it out from history. Or it picked him. What he and Buccafusca and Castagna and poor, stupid Nino Tomassoni did came from that act, and it destroyed them in the end. Look…”

She pointed at the beautiful slumbering woman with the tear shining on her cheek like a transparent pearl.

“We know her name. Fillide Melandroni. A prostitute, a violent one, too, a woman who had been to court for marking her rivals by slashing their faces with a knife to make them less saleable. Here she is the Magdalene. Elsewhere Judith slaying Holofernes, Catherine leaning on a wall before her martyrdom. Here!”

She indicated the adjoining painting and the figure of Mary, with the infant Jesus in her arms, on the flight to Egypt.

“A holy whore,” she said quietly. “And note the dress.” She pointed at the rich olive fleur-delis brocade of the sleeping Magdalene’s flowing halter gown. “This was the costume of a moneyed Roman prostitute, the kind of woman who slept with cardinals, then talked art and philosophy with them afterwards, before going out onto the streets of Ortaccio at night and… what? Making mayhem with Caravaggio and his friends.”

To Costa’s astonishment, Agata reached out and touched, very briefly, the soft, pale skin of the sleeping woman on the wall.

“Both good and evil, and each to excess,” she said quietly. “Nec spe, nec metu. Without hope or fear. She was surely with them. Franco Malaspina did not invent the Ekstasists. He merely revived them, brought back from the dead the ugly gang that included Caravaggio and Fillide before everything fell apart so terribly.”

Agata took her attention away from the wall. “Here is a word I thought I would never utter,” she said again. “I read what records there were of the case against Caravaggio last night. They disclosed that one possible reason for the fight was that Ranuccio Tomassoni was Fillide’s pimp. The man who sold her to others. Is that right?”

She closed her eyes for a moment. “No, no. I know it is. This is all part of your world, not mine, but yours intrudes, I can’t avoid it. Tell me also. Is it possible this was V?ronique Gillet’s relationship to Franco Malaspina too? Accomplice. Lover. Muse. Fellow criminal. Could that be true?”

Costa was lost for words. Watching Agata struggle with these ideas — ones that seemed to make so much sense to him — he could see the mix of excitement and distress they caused.

“They re-created something we still don’t understand,” Agata went on. “Something to do with that painting. With Tomassoni, perhaps, or some link with Franco’s own lineage.”

Her eyes scanned each of them. “This much I do know from what I’ve read. Ranuccio Tomassoni was the caporione of his quarter. The boss of it. The man who ran the gangs, who ruled the streets, and handed out vengeance and a kind of justice as he saw fit. Just as Franco is today. For a while Caravaggio was with him, alongside Fillide. Somehow…” She squeezed her eyes tight shut again, trying to concentrate. “Franco and Nino Tomassoni found out about this, and re-created it around that painting. Then, with V?ronique’s assistance, they made everything so much worse. How? Why? I have no idea.”

Teresa shook her head and sighed. “If this is true, it still doesn’t give us enough evidence to put Franco Malaspina in front of a magistrate. Even if we could find one who wasn’t tame. They’d look at us as if we were crazy.”

“It’s a question of time,” Costa insisted. “And work. The more we know, the closer we get to this man. Sooner or later…”

“Nic,” Teresa objected, “it’s a piece of very old glass and a lot of interesting connections that may or may not add up.”

“No, it’s not,” Agata said, and reached into her bag again.

She took out something else and rubbed it hard against her sleeve. Dust and dirt fell from it onto the Doria Pamphilj’s polished floor. Then she held the object next to the painting on the wall for all to see.

It was a fragment of fabric, a square, deliberately cut, about the size of a hand.

Agata kept it there and no one said a word.

“A memento,” she suggested, “of love at a time when Michelangelo Merisi was happy, inhabiting a world full of light. And later, an item of comfort, a reminder of that abandoned past, when he himself lived in permanent darkness and violence and blood. Look!”

It bore the same fleur-de-lis pattern as the fabric on the dress of Fillide Melandroni, sleeping as the penitent Mary Magdalene. Costa reached out and touched it with his fingers. The cloth felt thick and expensive.

If one imagined away the dust and the dirt of centuries, it would surely exhibit the same olive colour too.

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