Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Big Schiamazzo, or the best Hard Case Crime cover of the 17th century

Did I mention that I'd been to NoirCon in Philadelphia? You should have been there, too. You'll know from my previous posts about the quality of the presentations and the company. All that good stuff sparked some unexpected connections, including this:

Charles Ardai, founder of Hard Case Crime, said during a panel on publishing and editing that a proposed cover for one of the imprint's books ran into opposition from a major department-store chain. Ardai was told, he said, that "We don't like dirty feet or butt cleavage."

Now, painters in the Italian Renaissance and Baroque were not fazed by butt cleavage. In fact, they often showed the entire butt. But dirty feet could and did cause an uproar, and Ardai's comment made me think immediately of Caravaggio's moving painting of The Madonna di Loreto (above, in a too-dark reproduction) from the Church of San Agostino in Rome.

The woman is not disrobed here; she is the Virgin Mary, after all. But look at the rest of the picture: The ramshackle setting. The harsh contrast of dark and light. The stucco chipped from the wall to reveal the bricks beneath. Looks like a noirsh back alley to me.

Mary's elongated neck and legs would not be out of place on a Hard Case cover (of which you can see a complete collection on the Hard Case site, to which I link above). Notice, too, the dirty feet (here belonging to the kneeling pilgrim), which caused a big schiamazzo in Rome in 1604 just as it offended chain-store buyers in our own day.

Then there is the artist himself, whose life contains tantalizing bits and pieces from which to build a splendid noir story. A murder charge was probably the most famous event of this celebrated scapegrace's life, and a quick Web search for "Caravaggio" turns up some suggestive sentences:

"Even in his own lifetime Caravaggio was considered enigmatic, fascinating, rebellious and dangerous."

His female models include Fillide Melandroni, Anna Bianchini, and Maddalena Antognetti ...
all well-known prostitutes, who appear as female religious figures including the Virgin and various saints."
and, best of all, this:

"His rage finally led him to commit murder, forcing him to flee Rome a hunted man."
Sterling Hayden, anyone?

So, here is my proposal: The book's title is The Big Schiamazzo, the cover is based on The Madonna di Loreto without the clothes and the baby, and the author is me. What about it, Ardai?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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