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Murder, Masterpieces and Mystery: Caravaggio in Malta

beyond the masterpieces   |   June 2017

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The sordid story of Caravaggio in Malta – murder and masterpieces included

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Beheading © viewingmalta.com

To say that Caravaggio was a troublemaker would be like saying The Beatles were a bit famous. The Milan-born artist, who was active at the turn of the 17th century and is today remembered as one of the key painters in the Baroque tradition, led an unholy hurricane of a life. Discord and violence were constant companions, which manifested in street brawls, murder, threats of imprisonment, multiple exiles, disfiguring injuries and, ultimately, his death at the age of 38, which still remains shrouded in mystery. So, Caravaggio in Malta? Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.

It’s remarkable, then, that he somehow found the time and energy to create so many masterpieces during his short life (when he wasn’t taking a knife to his canvases out of frustration, that is). The peripatetic artist was famous in his own lifetime, earning the favour of wealthy patrons and leaving a trail of works from Rome to Naples to Sicily and beyond.

And, then, of course, there’s Caravaggio in Malta. Although he spent less than two years in the country, his, shall we say, off-colour behaviour has ensured that the period remains a memorable moment in his career.

After the incorrigible Caravaggio killed a man in a Roman street brawl, he had no choice but to hit the road. A brief stint in Naples was followed by a period of self-imposed exile in Malta, with a bounty on his head and plans to win approval with the powerful Knights of St John, who ruled the country at that time. He quickly curried favour with their ranks by painting a series of portraits, including a triumphal depiction of leader Alof de Wignacourt. Not a bad strategy, it turns out: Caravaggio wasn’t just protected, but was made a knight himself (in retrospect, giving him a sword was probably not the best idea).

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Cathedral 5 © viewingmalta.com
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Cathedral 1 © viewingmalta.com

The artist created just a handful of paintings during his time in the country, and two of them can be visited in Malta today. Housed within the gilded, striking interior of the St John’s Co-Cathedral, the two paintings – the moody Saint Jerome Writing, as well as arguable his most famous work, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist – are both displayed in the cathedral’s oratory.

The latter work is especially well known. The altarpiece was commissioned by the Knights and is a sprawling, life-sized work: painted with the artist’s trademark, high-contrast chiaroscuro and provocative realism, it captures Saint John sprawled on the ground of a darkened alley, in the middle of his gruesome execution. The striking, cinematic work is also the only painting the artist ever signed – his name is written in the saint’s spilled blood.

The two paintings are unmissable for travellers looking to uncover Caravaggio in Malta. After taking in the artworks, though, visitors should make their way next to the Fort St Angelo – for it was here that Caravaggio spent the latter part of his time in the country.

Given his anger management problems, it’s no surprise that Caravaggio was soon in trouble again – this time, for cleverly brawling with a few fellow Knights. The sorry artist was hauled off to the mighty fortifications of the harbourside Fort St Angelo, where he was deprived of any artistic materials. Today, his subterranean cell – dripping and dark, and full of scuttling cockroaches – is still visible, though we wouldn’t recommend investigating too closely. What followed was a daring escape (he was the first prisoner to ever break out of the Fort) and a moonlit voyage to Sicily. Needless to say he was quickly relieved of his knighthood.

So while the story of Caravaggio in Malta is a brief one indeed (and while he only lived for two more years after fleeing the country), it’s full of picaresque twists and turns – and left an indelible impact on the country’s artistic heritage. Shame about all the fisticuffs.

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