Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
Many places in the world claim to sit at some kind of crossroads. Malta, a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, surely deserves that designation more than most. Due to its proximity to major naval routes that connect three continents, and thanks to its unique culture protected by blue waters on all sides, Malta has long been a refuge for travelers, and even outlaws. Including some famous ones! Saint Paul stayed there after being shipwrecked on his way from the Levant to Italy. Lord Byron had a brief layover in Malta on his trip from England to the Levant. Another visitor arrived on the island in July 1607, to escape murder charges in Italy. He was an artist, born Michelangelo Merisi, but known as Caravaggio, after his hometown. Already famous for having almost single-handedly invented Baroque painting, the 35-year-old Caravaggio came to Malta to turn his tumultuous life into a blank canvass, onto which he could paint anew.
At that time, Malta was ruled by the Knights of the Order of St. John, a prestigious Christian and military organization that attracted young men from all over Europe to join. As Andrew Graham-Dixon explains in his book Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, the artist hoped to become a knight of the Order as well, which might have granted him a pardon in Italy for his crime of killing a man in a swordfight. He could then return—and not just as an ordinary man, but as a knight, which was a high social status that Caravaggio, coming from a middle-class family, craved.
A city of limestone, stairs, and gallarijas
On a recent hot and humid September day, I was walking down Triq Ir-Repubblika, the principal street cutting through Malta’s capital of Valletta. I was headed to see the two Caravaggio paintings on the island. The city’s car-free, cobble-stoned streets, as well as its almost exclusively honey-colored limestone buildings, took me back to the time when Caravaggio himself had wandered there. The artist, however, could not have seen the most iconic feature of the city’s current façade: the fully-covered balconies (il-gallarijas in Maltese), made of wood and painted in colors ranging from red to green. Although the gallarijas’ precise origin and function remain up for debate, they probably appeared in their current shape only after Caravaggio’s stay.
The uncertainty surrounding gallarijas’ origin serves to illustrate the most important point about Malta: while its culture has been influenced by the many powers that used to rule over the island, all of them failed to mold it in their image. Arabs, Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, and ultimately Brits–all contributed to the architecture, arts, language, and politics of Malta, inadvertently creating a blend so unique that it has given the country pride in its own distinct heritage. I could see that heritage manifest itself right there on Triq Ir-Repubblika. The street was just getting dressed in the distinctly colorful Maltese banners and flags, to be ready for a religious and cultural event that takes place frequently around the island–a village feast, dedicated to a saint. This particular feast in Valletta was going to celebrate Saint Augustine.
When Caravaggio walked in Valletta, he saw a city that was actually fairly new, founded barely forty years before. Its construction began as a response to a seminal event in Malta’s history, the siege of the island by the Ottoman Turks in 1565 (“the Great Siege”). After a series of bloody clashes, the Knights of the Order prevailed over the Turkish navy and their victory had consequences beyond just keeping Malta under their rule. The Knights effectively protected Western Europe from further Turkish expansion, which greatly increased the prestige of the Order.
To better prepare for possible future threats, the Order decided to build a new capital city on the rocky promontory on the north side of the island’s Grand Harbour. This city was eventually named after Fra Jean de La Valette, the Grand Master of the Order who led the Knights during the siege and laid the foundation stone of the city (he came from France). Today’s visitors, who are sweating on Valletta’s steep streets and seemingly unending staircases, can attest that the city is not an easy target for invasion.
In the light of a baroque masterpiece
I finally reached my destination, the baroque St. John’s Co-Cathedral, standing on the side of Triq Ir-Repubblika (the term “co-cathedral” means that it shares its cathedral status with another shrine in the archdiocese). While the decoration of the cathedral’s interior is stunning in both its richness and in its representation of the various countries, from which the Knights came, everyone’s steps inevitably lead to the line that forms at the back. Those are visitors waiting to get into the Oratory, in which only a limited number of people can be present at a given time. Fortunately, I ended up waiting just a few minutes and, when I was allowed enter, I got to finally see what I was looking for: Caravaggio’s paintings Saint Jerome Writing (1607) and Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608).
Saint Jerome Writing was one of the first pieces Caravaggio painted after his arrival to Malta and it originally hung in the house of the prior of the Order. Alexander Graham-Dixon suggests that the prior’s prominence in the Order meant that the painting “…would have been seen by all the right people…,” which would have then led to more commissions for the artist. Sure enough, Caravaggio’s star rose quickly among the Order’s high-ranking officials–so much so that his artistic contributions earned him a promise of the longed-for knighthood. That the Order jumped through numerous legal hoops to award a knighthood to a non-noble–with an arrest warrant!– shows just how much Caravaggio was appreciated on the small island eager to fill its new capital city with world-class art.
As the final step to knighthood, Caravaggio was asked to paint the work Beheading of Saint John the Baptist for the altar of the newly built Oratory. For the Knights, the Oratory represented not only a venue for various ceremonies, but also the most sacred place, with its floor made of the tombstones of the heroes who perished during the Great Siege. Caravaggio responded to this honor by painting a baroque masterpiece, which also happens to be his largest piece ever. Little did he know, however, that this very moment of triumph was his peak, soon to be followed by a very steep fall.
In both paintings in the Oratory, we see the work of a mature, self-confident artist, who had mastered realism like no one before him (in fact, he often used “people from the street” as his models). In some sense, his brutally faithful depictions of pain, wrinkled faces, and garment creases closed the centuries-old chapter in art history, during which artists strived to depict a scene as realistically as possible. Caravaggio achieved it. His signature chiaroscuro technique, which illuminated the core of the scene with strong light, while leaving the background in darkness, also created the dramatic effect that we associate with baroque painting today.
The drama is especially pronounced in Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, where we bear witness to the frightful moment when blood starts to pour from the saint’s neck. Though visitors are not able to get too close to the painting because of the protective railing, they can still see the artist’s signature—written in the saint’s blood. It reads “f. MichelAn”, with the “f.” standing for “fra”–the title given to a knight of the Order. In all of his oeuvre, this is the only painting that Caravaggio signed. While the manner in which he did so can be interpreted in various ways, he clearly saw the piece, and his subsequent admission to the Order, as the redemption he had come to Malta to seek.
Across the harbor
Some great artists lead orderly, long lives while others seem unable to control their passions ever. As Caravaggio’s troubles in Italy suggest, he belonged to the latter group, and the Order was about to find out first-hand too—because not even the Knights could have tamed this volatile soul.
Just a few days before the official unveiling of Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in the Oratory, the artist paid a visit to the house of the Order’s organist, where he got involved in a brawl. As with other violent episodes of his life, we do not have the full account of what exactly happened or how much Caravaggio’s hot temper played a role. But we do know that he ended up seriously wounding a man. And not an ordinary man–a knight of a more senior rank. According to the rules of the Order, this act warranted severe punishment. Caravaggio was thus imprisoned in the Fort of St. Angelo, in the city of Birgu on the south side of Malta’s Grand Harbour.
To follow Caravaggio’s path to the fort, I first walked to the Barrakka Lift in Valletta, which transported me 190 feet (58 meters) down from the elevated level of the city’s center to the port (this new lift opened in 2012, after a few decades of people having to hike between the two places). I then boarded a ferry, to get to the “Three Cities,” one of which is Birgu.
Once on the ferry, I experienced the traveler’s moment of unexpected awe: the harbor suddenly stunned me, with its dark blue waters, surrounded by high limestone city walls, fortresses on the hills, palaces, church domes, former barracks of British soldiers (converted to social housing), former shipyards, and the sea of masts created by the boats in the marina. No visit to Malta can be called complete without absorbing this grandest of Maltese views. In fact, Grand Harbour’s uniqueness is so protected–a Maltese friend told me on the ferry–that all large ships entering must surrender control to locally trained captains (“Harbour pilots”), whose expertise prevents chaos on the water. Before reaching the Three Cities, the ferry also passed Fort St. Angelo itself, whose threatening massiveness removes any doubts that it could have served as an inescapable prison.
After disembarking, I walked into Birgu, which used to be the capital of Malta prior to the founding of Valletta (Birgu’s second name, Vittoriosa, came later, as a reference to the Knight’s victory during the Great Siege). The tangled web of narrow streets of Birgu contrasted sharply with the perfect grid plan of the newer Valletta.
As I made my way to the fort, I visited another place that helps us reconstruct Caravaggio’s life in Malta: the Inquisitor’s Palace. As the name suggests, this was not a happy place–after stately halls, the walk through the palace leads by interrogation rooms and repulsively tiny prison cells. Helen Langdon writes in her book Caravaggio: A Life that shortly after his arrival to the island, the artist was summoned to a trial there–this time as a witness. He had apparently participated in a conversation, during which someone had asserted that a Greek painter, also on the island, had two wives. This conversation was overheard, reported to the inquisitor, and investigated. Ultimately, the case was dismissed after the participants claimed they were merely joking about the fellow’s bigamy, but the story demonstrates just how easy it was to get into trouble in Malta. Today, the exhibit in the palace proudly recalls Caravaggio’s role in the trial, calling him “a celebrity witness.”
At the front desk of Fort St. Angelo, I asked the gentleman selling tickets about the artist. He told me that while Caravaggio’s cell was not a part of the tour, they had an exhibit dedicated to the fort as a prison. The exhibit was interesting enough, and one of its panels said that the artist-turned-knight was actually not thrown into an ordinary cell, but into the guva—an especially harsh underground cell carved out of rock, reserved for unruly members of the Order.
Caravaggio never accepted fate–he always changed it, whether in his painting style or with his escape from an inescapable prison. However unbelievable it may sound, he managed–with the help of others, of course–to get out of the guva after a month, climb the Fort’s ramparts, and scale down the exterior wall of the fort (200 feet or 61 meters!), possibly with a rope or a rope ladder. He then probably got into a boat waiting for him in the harbor and left the island that was guarded by the most skilled warriors of Europe. All of the artist’s biographers acknowledge that we have no idea how he planned and executed this endeavor, or with whose support. When I looked from the fort’s rampart far down to the harbor, I could only add my disbelief. The one documented fact is that, somehow, in October 1608, he reemerged in Sicily, unscathed.
For the Knights of the Order, Caravaggio’s escape was the last straw. Their council gathered in the Oratory of the cathedral–yes, right in front of Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, which had been just recently unveiled–and “expelled and thrust [Caravaggio] forth like a rotten and diseased limb from our Order and Society.” The perennial sinner was beyond redemption. Back in Italy, Caravaggio traveled from place to place, hoping for a pardon for his earlier crime. At one point, he was attacked and wounded in Naples, probably as revenge for his Maltese misdemeanor–he might have escaped Malta, but the Knights made sure that Malta did not escape him. Before he could sort out his life, he passed away from a fever, on the road, in 1610.
Walking back from the fort, I looked again at Grand Harbour, which may very well have been the last view of Malta that Caravaggio saw. The genius outlaw spent just over a year on the island, yet he left such an imprint there that today’s visitors feel compelled to take a break from the blue water beaches and go see the finest baroque art, which he had created. Did he redeem himself after all?
IF YOU GO:
- While I visited Malta in September, the island receives tourists all year around. Summers are usually hot and humid. Even though winters get rainy, the temperatures remain mild.
- You can find information about St. John’s Co-Cathedral and its opening times at https://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/
- For schedules of Valletta’s ferry services, see http://www.vallettaferryservices.com/index.html
- The website of Heritage Malta, http://heritagemalta.org/, provides helpful information about museums, tickets, and opening times, including those of Fort St. Angelo and the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu.
- The website https://www.visitmalta.com/en/home is a good resource to learn about the culture of Malta and events taking place on the island.
- Graham-Dixon explains in his book Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, the artist hoped to become a knight of the Order as well, which might have granted him a pardon in Italy for his crime of killing a man in a sword fight.