Mark David Smith's book Caravaggio: Signed in Blood features the fictional character of Beppo (centre) and the historical figure of Italian artist Caravaggio.

The art and the sword

Author Mark David Smith blends action and art history in a novel
for youth.

Years ago, Mark David Smith (left) came across an unfamiliar name in a 1,000-page art history book.

“Everybody knows about Michelangelo and Leonardo,” says Smith, but fewer know of Caravaggio.

The figure in the book was ripe for further research: A 16th- and 17th-century Italian painter named Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio (not to be confused with another Michelangelo), who was also a rapier-carrying street brawler sought for murder.

Fascinated by this irascible character with “religious sensitivity (in his art) that’s hard to put into words,” the Burnaby school teacher and former North Delta resident spent six years writing his first novel, which was published in November 2014.

Caravaggio: Signed in Blood is named after the Caravaggio painting called “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” which hangs in St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.

Like the painting, the historical novel has its share of blood, but at its heart, it’s a buddy adventure involving a 16-year-old boy named Beppo (entirely fictional) and Caravaggio, who’s on the run from Rome after an altercation that leaves a man dead.

The novel, says Smith, is intended for middle-grade youth, who may be more interested in sword-fighting than art or late Renaissance/early Baroque Italian history.

“My take on it is that Caravaggio was a guy really in touch with his senses. He knew how to control both his brush and his sword.”

Historically, both got him into trouble – Caravaggio used prostitutes as models for his religious paintings, annoyed Camillo Borghese (Pope Paul V) with a stern-looking portrait, and killed a pimp in a street fight.

Part of his erratic and violent nature, says Smith, might be attributed to lead poisoning, a factor in artists’ paint at the time.

Speaking of history, Smith, 43, lived in North Delta in the early 1990s when he went to study teaching at Simon Fraser University. (His parents still live in North Delta).

With his wife Mary, Smith has taught some of the poorest (Uganda) and richest (Kuwait) students in the world, and has been a high school teacher in Burnaby for the last 16 years.

He currently teaches Grades 8-12 English at Byrne Creek Secondary.

Caravaggio: Signed in Blood took shape from 2008 to 2012.

“It takes a long time to write a book when you’re teaching full time,” he notes.

Out in Canada, the UK and Australia for the past year, the book heads to the U.S. market in February.

Smith says there has been some interest in the novel from schools and libraries.

He suggests that writing and history go hand in hand, and youngsters have a better time getting to know a period if they get attached to characters in it.

“It’s not an addition, but a way in (to history). I think it’s true of all novels, not just mine.”

Tradewind Books is organizing a book signing event for Caravaggio: Signed in Blood, with author Mark David Smith, on Nov. 7 from 1-3 p.m. at Chapters Strawberry Hill, 12101 72 Ave.

To order the book, visit

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