Tag Archives: Malta

Valletta’s Spaces of Stone

Valletta’s architecture is unified in its building material — as is all of Malta it seems, but here it is most striking how this unifies the old and the new. Renzo Piano’s fabulous new city gate rises up as you enter, it’s massive square forms work beautifully in this space, as modern as they are. I wish I had taken more pictures.

Valleta

Just as I wish I had more pictures of the opera house beyond (the columns visible just beyond), where they chose not to rebuild the massive building left in ruins by WWII bombs, but to leave its foundations and columns to embrace an outdoor performance space, which I also quite loved. Similar pictures of the ruins were shown several time through the Cities as Community Spaces conference, a symbol of the city’s resilience.

Valletta opera-house-8-april-1942Valletta is in fact surrounded by monumental space, this stairway rises up to the left as you enter, leading to Hastings gardens along the battlements that protect the city.

Valletta

I’ll come back to those because they are fascinating, but still what most captivated me were the narrow streets in this Renaissance city, originally named the most humble city of Valletta, after the Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, who had successfully led the defense of the island against the Ottoman Turks in 1565. This city on the isthmus was to solidify defenses — and you can tell. Built in 40 years by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, student of Michelangelo, and finished by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, I am curious to explore how it connects to other city planning from this time. Their auberges — grand renaissance building with a municipal feel that housed the langues and now house museums and government offices — are familiar, the churches also:

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These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces

Valletta

But the streets laid out in a perfect (then almost revolutionary) grid with these wonderful balconies — these are like nothing I had ever seen.

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

It is a city where the whole is beautiful to look upon, but the details are as well…

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

And just look at these balconies, the individuality they bring to each building front, and the craftsmanship of them, they all seem to have their individual touches amplified by the passing of time and the histories of their owners:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Interesting, though, that so many of them are enclosed and hardly large enough to be used as extended living spaces. They seem used for laundry and plants. You could not squeeze a table and chairs outside as we saw so often in Paris, you cannot easily connect and talk to your neighbour next door or across the way, even with the windows wide open as they are above. It seems an opportunity missed, a reflection of a more enclosed society or perhaps an aspect of the city that helps create one. Nor are there stoops or enough space to extend living into the doorways and streets the way families do in say New York. Much of this seems concentrated in the squares, but still, I wonder at the impact on the everyday life and conviviality.

These streets contain atmosphere, and the surprise lost through the absence of twists and turns is found instead in the variegated building surfaces and the faded palimpsests painted onto stone, the flaking remnants of the past .

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

I don’t have a picture of the old grafittied pictures of ships that was pointed out to me by someone from Valletta as we walked back from a panel through the streets — her friend had uncovered it as he was cleaning the stone. There is no telling how old it is, a deep ochre red and it looked like pictures of the galleys so prevalent in the Mediterranean I have seen in books. She told me too the use of statues of saints at the street corners instead of street signs — St Christopher easily recognisable embodied in stone for those unable to read the letters of his name. We laughed that no longer are we literate in that way. I had a thought to catalogue them, but it fell away, saints are not my favourite things, and these are many of them grand, not the humble saints dressed in hand-sewn clothing I am more used to. But I do love shrines.

Valletta

This on the other hand…on the grand masters palace on the edge of George’s Square. Perhaps this was explained on one of the tours or if I could hit upon the right search terms, I usually love grotesques but this man in European dress riding what seems to be a naked African woman? Telling, if rather horrible.

Valletta

I only really noticed it my last day, because always your eyes are drawn to the life in the square — though early on a Sunday as I headed to the airport is was more quiet than I ever saw it:

Valletta

There are fountains here which must be wonderful in summer, it was  always full of children, including two little girls swanning through delightedly on scooters. Tourists and townfolk and migrants alike make use of the many places to sit that ring the square, as did I the night I wandered here alone. It is a lovely space, especially at night when the cafes overflow and there is lively talk and the clink of glasses and the smell of food…

Funny that it almost never smells of the sea here. Yet the sea surrounds it, on the other side of these enormous fortifications. This is looking towards Sliema:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Finding these fields tucked away made me so happy though, I can’t image football in this kind of setting! I was glad too, as many of the conference speakers mentioned the way they had played football in the streets as children — streets now very full of cars, and it’s true no children play there now.

Valletta

More views, this of Fort Manoel with the massive luxury build in Sliema behind it:

Valletta

Back over Valletta itself — in the foreground graffiti. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee, I was happy to find Mohammed Ali quoted here.

Valletta

Valletta at night — it is magical, I confess I wrote reams, though nothing coalesced quite into a story. My thoughts circled around Caravaggio for some reason, swaggering through the streets. It struck me that sober he wanted to be like the knights who were lords of all this, and that drunk he wanted to destroy them. It is easy to imagine him wandering through streets such as these, unlike England the modern almost never intrudes to break the atmosphere. Maybe the story will come, tinged with the recent car bombings, the old man wandering down the street with a bird in a tiny cage held reverently between his hands, chirping as he went. The undercurrents you can feel here, though I am ignorant of their precise nature.

Valletta

Valleta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Looking across from the other side of Valletta, towards the Forti Sant’ Anġl

Valletta

There are spaces underneath as well — I was lucky enough to visit the air raid shelter beneath the Crypt of St Augustine where the conference dinners were hosted. The crypt itself is a beautiful vaulted space where many lived during WWII, escaping down rickety stairs at the sirens. Boards covered the puddles of water at the bottom, we half-drunkenly explored the long passages and rooms and it was wonderful.

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

I had to leave too soon. But luck brought me a window seat, and it is from the air that you can best appreciate how small Valletta is, and the position it holds within this much larger urban conglomeration. I loved the fields as well, these are small plots that can never become too mechanised or monocultured.

Valletta from the air

Valletta from the air

I think this was Gozo in fact, but you can see the stark lines of the towns and the terracing of the hillsides, even if you can’t quite see the wonderful blues of the sea itself.

Malta from the air

A wonderful place, I am so thankful for the luck and generosity of those I love that allowed me come here.

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Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, Malta’s Ancient Temples

Ħaġar Qim… there is beauty just in the letters, these unique Maltese forms that I love. The temple sits on cliffs just above the temple of Mnajdra, unique and ancient I had never heard of them until I knew I was coming to Valletta. I had never read of the civilization that existed here. 5,500 years ago. Older than Stonehenge, than the great pyramid, I read so much and yet I never stumbled across these wonders. Ħaġar Qim before the covering was built over it:

530-hagar-qim-temple-aerial-3100-bcI missed this sense of the whole and the way that it fits into the landscape, the natural light on stone, but I am glad it is being protected.  In the visitor’s centre I had my first experience of 4D, with a 3D screening and scents and watery mist being pumped into the theatre, along with lightening flashes and wind. Noisily. But I rather loved it. This is what it looks like now:

Ħaġar Qim

The carvings have been removed to be kept safe in the museum in Valletta — it occupies the old Auberge of the langue of Provence, quite beautiful in itself:

Museum of Archaeology

I had seen it the day before in the company of new friend from the conference who had written part of his thesis on this figure, found in one of the first apses of the main building — I was jealous he had come across it before:

29888b928a471511b15ffb7dee2fbeb1The back of it is so lovely. More intriguing, though, are the enormous figures also found there, which I did not take a picture of. This lapse astonishes me. This more official one is undoubtedly better however.

museoarcheologico_04_bigThese too are from the first apse, they left me without words. I could never have imagined them and I love coming across such things. They are strangely beautiful, impossible for me to understand. They are massive, an immense presence. The heads were almost certainly carved separately from the bodies, we can only guess why.

Perhaps my favourite is the ‘sleeping lady’, she was found in the Hypogeum (underground prehistoric temple carved into the stone, my god, everything I love in one place) — words cannot convey my sadness at this being closed during my visit, but it ensures my return.

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But the temples I did manage to see — this is the first apse, a strange doorway

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Replicas of some of the carvings, these pitted stones, and more curves

Ħaġar Qim

On the opposing side more stonework — everywhere on this island beautiful stonework:

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Ħaġar Qim stands highly visible and highly exposed, unlike all of the others. It has the largest piece of rock I have ever seen as part of a building, much less an ancient one like this. It has multiple entrances, an openness that is also unique, like this outside niche:

Ħaġar Qim

A carved hole in one of the apses marks the summer solstice. It was built on and added to over time, a sprawling, slightly untidy nature that you can feel walking through it, as though it were always open to possibility, even as the wind and rain were melting the limestone slowly away.

Mnajdra has a more satisfying perfection, indeed an almost perfect form. A complement to openness I think. This is the walk down to it from Ħaġar Qim alongside fields of beautiful soil.

Ħaġar Qim

The museum’s model gives a sense of its completeness:

mnajdraplanPerhaps even more beautiful stonework, these wonderful square doorways and pitted decorations:

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Everywhere these doorways. They reminded me strangely of the Chaco culture in New Mexico with its unique T-shaped doorways, it makes me think how important doorways always are as you step from one place to another, one world to another, and how much meaning lies encoded in these. They are all amazing given the levels of technology — though their tools were also beautiful, look at this two-person hammer:

Museum of Archaeology

And this people’s own architectural model

Museum of Archaeology

Their graceful carvings and decorations:

Museum of Archaeology

The museum holds great round stones as well, and one theory is that these were used to transport the great slabs of limestone.

From the trail connecting the temples you can branch off along a nature trail — I was alone while there in choosing to explore the longer one that took me uphill. Happiness, yet also a certain disappointment in people really. Because they couldn’t be bothered to see more of this place.

To be out in the countryside — joy. Nopales flourish:

Ħaġar Qim

Grapes — though these are struggling:

Ħaġar Qim

Figs, this one alongside one of the small stone huts scattering the hillside, built as hides for the trapping of birds:

Ħaġar Qim

Another of them, the most picturesque:

Ħaġar Qim

Unexpectedly here (I must have blinked at some point in the museum) I found the Misqa water tanks — carved by the temple builders into the limestone to collect fresh water, and still used to irrigate nearby fields.

Ħaġar Qim

There are curious remains carved deeply here into the rock

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

The island of Filfla in the distance — probably sacred to the temple builders, the British used it for target practice, and now it has returned to being a bird sanctuary.

They are deeper than I thought, like the one here on the left:

Ħaġar Qim

I admired so much the curves of the beautiful wall there in the background, and as I backtracked down the path a head popped up, scaring me it is true, but thus I met Tony. For many years he had lived part of the year in the Bay area and part of it there alongside the temples, growing figs, olives, and grapes. We talked about nopales, how we cook them along the border. His favourite way to eat them is to pick the young leaves (late July and August) and peel them, then put them in the fridge and eat them very cold. I might try it. We talked about Trump, of course. Trump is bad for everyone. I continue to have those conversations. I love these chance meetings, I hate that it should be shaped by such a man in any way. We ended as friends though, and I continued on my way.

The path curves down alongside an old quarry, on the other side of the road, somewhere hidden in that canyon — part of a large fault system — are the Tal-Maghlaq catacombs. I think perhaps I saw the overgrown entrances, but I am far from sure.

img_5245Walking back, the sound of the sea, and the limestone cliffs grooved from the quarrying of stone:

Blue Grotto

More views of the narrow stone-walled fields terraced across the hillsides

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

I walked a little of the way down towards the Blue Grotto but the afternoon was lengthening so headed back for the bus. My final views

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

There is a wonderful fragrance here also, more of herbs than of flowers though I could be wrong about its source.

If I were to do it again I would have more time, have started at the blue grotto and walked up, and then walked into Qrendi I think, I longed to spend a little time in these villages. They are tightly defined, ending where the fields begin. They all have large beautiful churches with a square in front, long rows of terraced houses, they are beautiful and sit well upon the land. Many have oranges and other citrus and figs growing in front of them.

To end with a mystery which I was not able to see, but which I discovered in the museum — that of Clapham Junction (! – but oh yes, this was a British colony and they named some things) and of the deep ruts in the limestone whose causes are mysterious and as yet unknown — variants of them are found all over the island…

clapham-junction-malta-guide-cart-ruts

I don’t know that I have been anywhere in a landscape that felt so ‘natural’ as it were, but also carried so deeply the craft and mark of human beings. I haven’t even gotten started on the Phoenicians, the Romans…newcomers. Though interestingly, they believe that the temple builders left and there was a period when no one lived here… Still, there is thousands of years of history scored into the limestone, the same limestone that has been built in a myriad of different configurations across five thousand years, that unifies it all in a way I haven’t seen before. England feels a crazed jumble of materials in comparison. Malta is an incredible place, and I haven’t even started on the door handles. I have shared a little about the cats, so really now to end, the great hunter of Ħaġar Qim:

Ħaġar Qim

Death in St John’s Co-Cathedral

Never have I seen so many momento mori, strange and yet not strange in this enormous almost unbelievable place.

Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-CathedralThese are knights pledged to give their lives willingly in battle — while running hospitals and protecting travellers they also pledged themselves to the fight against the Arabs, the Christian presence in the Holy Land, the stand against the Ottoman Empire. They enriched themselves through piracy against the enemy trading in the rich waters of the Mediterranean.

This is what Christianity — turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as yourself — this is what it really meant to them. It took me a while to find the enemies that they trampled underfoot, but they are hardly forgotten:

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The slaves upon which much of their wealth was built — and who built this city — are here as well:

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The wealth is staggering. Still, so many ruthless and wealthy men meditating on their own deaths — I suppose it’s not all bad. I confess it gives a sense of awe.

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The highlights were Caravaggio, of course. A massive painting, the Beheading of John the Baptist, simple, the great dark spaces of dingy and shadowy wall are even more immense staring at it from afar, framed by gold leaf and pomp. It fits, somehow, while also overshadowing its surroundings. These details of architecture and frame are hardly visible as you look at it, they fade into the background and the skin, the sorrow, stand out above all.

beheading-of-saint-john-the-baptist- Caravaggio

Opposite is St Jerome, elderly, simple. A skull, to match the hundreds of skulls in this place, but an honesty and decay that sits oddly here.

st-jerome

The other wonder that I never knew was here are the choral books, especially those of Grand Master L’Isle Adam. They are wondrous indeed, with miniatures of surpassing beauty (and I promise I am not using that word lightly despite my many enthusiasms), and along the margins the most wonderful grostesques, creatures of bark, creatures with horns and eyes in their stomachs — and there is nothing written of them in the cathedral or postcards for sale. I shall have to hunt for them further. Later. Now, more wandering through the evening and some wine. What I did find, to end:

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Arriving in Malta

I landed in Malta today, Malta! I jumped on the bus from the airport to Valletta — public transport defines all nations, doesn’t it? And you learn so much. The bus was full as it wound through the dusty spaces between the airport and Valletta, it seemed to me to be one third privileged (but not so privileged as to be in a taxi) tourists like me, one third migrants — a few Bangladeshi (?) and more African speaking in languages I had never heard, and one third (perhaps less of these) Maltese who almost all alighted at the park and ride. A strange English and very modern title for a stop amidst the Maltese names of places.

Ruins everywhere. Every. Where. Honey coloured, cream coloured stone, piles of rubble and a feeling of dust, of crumbling, of life now gone. A feeling of ages, of history — beautiful walls of stone blocks, cut beautifully, fit beautifully in dry construction, and that wonderful feeling of time passing in that there is a sense in driving along the road of the same blocks being used in different ways across the centuries. Miles of them, from farm buildings and walls to medieval and defensive-feeling buildings to more recent but still old buildings…I cannot explain how strange that feels to me. At the same time new buildings going up here and there, concrete frames, empty and often feeling as though they had been put on pause. This construction I remember from Greece, but that also reminds me of Rio’s favelas, concrete frames and apartments built to fit them in many different ways, often floor by floor differences that I love so much. So many old rows of houses with beautiful cut out and enclosed balconies, so many spaces empty and boarded up. The same colour of dark green against the light stone over and over again.

I have never seen so many ruins, so much history piled carelessly as though by a child alongside the road, waiting to be put away.

Nopales grew everywhere too, prickly pears.  I wondered when they arrived here from America.

The bus was full of languages, but the languages of everyone but tourists had disappeared by the time we  finally arrived at the final station outside the walled city of Valletta, a chaotic wheel of green and white buses. The triton in the middle, a great fountain, young men hovering around it the way day laborers might hover around an L.A. corner and I wondered how work and migration are managed here. Wondered if things are similar, or if it is just the limitations of my sight.

I walked through the entrance of this walled Renaissance city, over a walkway with a startling drop to either side that I did not expect and that construction fencing masked and no one wondered at. A gate that must once have been immense and impressive. I remembered this was once a closed place, inaccessible to those without permission.

Then the dread of a conference where I don’t know anyone, a couple of good keynotes and some words about justice and equality but not enough for the mood I am in. A reception and new friends and suddenly tomorrow is much more something to look forward to.

A wander back to my apartment through the night. I can only think of Caravaggio for some reason, wandering these streets full of swagger and insecurity, but my mind is also full of Abulafia’s history of the Mediterranean which has transformed how I think about things really and I am still processing, particularly the rise and fall of ages and their rules and understandings and how now I think we are in the middle of a great change…all of it wrapped up together and perfumed by wine in this warm beautiful night. I think about my luck, and how happy I am to be here.

Valleta

Where I am staying:

Valleta

Caravaggio in Malta and Sicily

caravaggio-life-sacred-and-profaneCaravaggio had, at Graham-Dixon’s guess, set his eyes on rehabilitation and a return to Rome in triumph through a rather curious route — becoming a Knight (read part one of this post on Caravaggio here). Whether this was his goal at the start or not, he was soon on his way after his exile and time in Naples, and through the help of his oldest patron, Costanza Colonna. The process for getting to Malta has changed just a bit since his day:

Malta was not, however, a place where someone could simply turn up unannounced. The whole island was a fortress, and security was tight. No one was allowed in from the mainland without a passport and papers prepared by the order’s network of receivers.

Permission was granted only by the approval of the Grand Master of the Hospitallers himself. The Colonna’ had to have brokered this for Caravaggio, fleeing justice as he was.

A description of the Valleta that Caravaggio approached:

An entirely new city, built of honey-coloured limestone that glowed pink in the sun. Valletta had been constructed at breakneck speed in just forty years. After the turmoil of the Great Siege [by the Turks], the knights realized that they had to fortify the narrow headland known as the Xiberras Promontory, which connected the island’s two principal harbours. The construction of the new capital by an army of slaves, on the steepest incline of the headland had been an immense undertaking… It was named in honour of Jean de la Valette, Grand Master during the siege. The pope’s best military engineer, Francesco Laparelli, was responsible for the plan. The sheer stone fortifications of the citadel rose directly from the craggy outcrop of the island itself…

An army of slaves. They remain otherwise invisible to us, but I had no idea Valletta was built in only forty years, a planned city.

Within its walls, Valletta was laid out on the Renaissance model of the ideal city. The principal architect responsible for the buildings was Girolamo Cassar, who was from Malta but had studied in Rome. His palaces and churches were designed to reflect the knights’ ideals of Christian sobriety and military discipline, with long, sever facades of rusticated stone. The streets were laid out in a grid, with nine thoroughfares running across the peninsula and twelve running from top to bottom. Their strict geometry was softened by gardens and fountains.

It was a steep slog from the harbour to the centre — and everywhere in between. Graham-Dixon notes Byron’s farewell to Malta:

adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs.

I am quoting prolific about the city, but I find this heady stuff…

Approaching Malta for the first time, Caravaggio was surrounded by symbols of the island’s fierce rule of law. On the first promontory on the left of the harbour was the forbidding spectacle of a gallows. Within the harbour itself, prominent on the left-hand side, was the Castel Sant’Angelo, where many of the most famous events of the siege had taken place… it had become a prison for disorderly knights.

At the end of the the sixteenth century, a visitor, Hieronymus Megiser, noted gore still visible on some of the rocks and pointed out by his guides.

A ‘remote and harsh place, rocky and sun-parched’, yet famed for the sweetness of its honey, quantity of almonds, olives, figs, dates, the quality of its cotton. Cicero had his clothes made there.

I have failed to find English translations of Hieronymus Megiser’s descriptions of Malta, so shall quote what Graham-Dixon has gleaned from them.

As Megiser notes, the island encompassed two utterly distinct societies. ‘Malta Africana’ and ‘Malta Europeana’. The world of the indigenous islanders had remained unchanged for centuries. Its people were dark-skinned, spoke a language incomprehensible to Europeans and lived in humble settlements much like the tribal villages of nearby coastal Africa. Cosmopolitan Valletta was utterly different, a flammable blend of extreme Christian piety, simmering military aggression and barely contained sexual dissipation.

I am fascinated by this duality, but there is no more to be found here about it. George Sandys was an English traveler — quoted liberally throughout the volume, and his descriptions of Malta are fascinating. But I have found those, and will read them as they look amazing.

Graham-Dixon continues

It is not known where Caravaggio lived during his time on the island. Prospective knights on their first tours of duty were given accommodation in the auberge belonging to their particular Langue, or country. Altogether there were eight Langues, of Italy, Provence, Auvergne, England, France, Aragon, Castille and Germany.

Langue meaning language more like? Because Italy was not yet a country, nor was France or Germany in the shape we know them.But Caravaggio probably lodged with the Colonnas anyway, they were the only one’s who knew he was there and of his plans to become a knight — this was not brokered until the winter of 1607.

To become a knight he painted… there is the incredible Beheading of St John

beheading-of-saint-john-the-baptist- CaravaggioI get to see this. So exciting, Caravaggio’s largest altar-piece still sitting in the place for which it was painted.

The novices of the Order of St John [of whom Caravaggio was one] listened to sermons and received instruction in the oratory for which Caravaggio’s painting was destined. The place was both a school for the martyrs of the future and a burial ground for the martyrs of the past — the bones of the knights who had died at the Great Siege were interred beneath its stone-flagged floor. … Caravaggio’s altarpiece was designed to make sure that they [the novices] could be under no illusions about what that might mean.

Not that I am at all keen on martyrs, particularly not crusaders. But nor, I think, was Caravaggio. He did, however, paint a wonderful portrait of Alof da Wignacourt (c1607-1608), the Master of the Knights. Caravaggio was pretty determined to get a knighthood, and this was a man of fairly absolute power.

michelangelo_merisi_da_caravaggio_-_portrait_of_alof_de_wignacourt_-_wga04184And yet Caravaggio still ensures that his page rather steals the show. He still rebels I think.

While there he became friends (if that is possible to guess at) with WIgnacourt’s secretary Francesco Dell’Antella. Graham-Dixon notes he was a gifted draughtsman and produced a detailed drawing of Valletta — which I have found. This is the ‘Map of the medieval town of Valletta, with Senglea and Vitoriosa at the Great Port. Map of Malta and Gozo’ from [BOISSAT, Pierre de / BOSIO, Giacomo]. Histoire des Chevaliers de l’Orde de S. Jean de Hierusalem, contenant leur admirable Institution & Police…, Paris, Jacques d’Allin, MDCLIX [=1659].

Valletta --

VallettaSo wonderful.

To return to Caravaggio. Alof de Wignacourt loved his paintings to such a degree he gave him (and this is Graham-Dixon quoting Bellori)

as a reward, besides the honour of the Cross, the Grand Master put a gold chain around Caravaggio’s neck and made him a gift of two slaves…

‘Finally,’ Graham-Dixon writes, ‘Caravaggio had got his own gold chain.’ I forgot to mention the animosity raised in Rome when a rival received such a chain — the one about whom the scurrilous verses had been written.

There is no context given for the slaves. Slavery remains only part of the background throughout, which kills me.

Still, Caravaggio got his Knighthood, with approval of the Pope. He was thus above the law for the murder he had committed, could return to Rome with new rank. Graham-Dixon notes that in this whole scheme to elevate himself, perhaps Caravaggio had not realised that as a knight, he had to have Wignacourt’s permission to leave Malta. A permission unlikely to be granted for some time, if ever — in Wignacourt’s petition to the Pope to be allowed to confer the knighthood, he noted the purpose of it was ‘to keep’ Caravaggio. Ominous.

Graham-Dixon argues the dawning realisation that he was trapped, as much as his unruly habits, explains the end of Caravaggio’s time on Malta.

The ceremony on the ‘feast of the Decollato’ where the unveiling of The Beheading of St John was to take place was a complete disaster — Caravaggio was not present. He was in prison for kicking down the door of the church’s organist, Fra Prospero Coppini, with several others, leaving the organist severely wounded. On top of that

The musicians were unhappy about their pay and most of them went on strike, so that on the feast day itself neither Vespers nor the solemn Mass was sung in the oratory before Caravaggio’s picture.

I confess, of everything that went wrong, only the strike was unexpected to me. I confess I find the existence of musicians willing to strike in Valletta absolutely extraordinary — and a happy fact. The rest though…

Carvaggio escaped from prison. Fled Malta. Was stripped of his knighthood in December of 1608. Graham-Dixon gives an illustration from Wolfgang Kilian of the mid-seventeenth century as an example of what this ceremony might have looked like in the very same oratory of St John where his painting sat (look, you can see it there in the background!):

Wolfgang Kilian - Knight of Malta Defrocked

This happened in Caravaggio’s absence of course.

He, in the meanwhile, had fled to Sicily, meeting up with an old friend and painter Mario Minnitti (also the model for Boy Bitten by a Lizard and others) and traveling through Southern Italy. Caravaggio believed he was being followed, and that his life was in danger. His routes were most circuitous.

In 1608 he painted the Burial of St Lucy in Syracuse

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And the Raising of St Lazarus in Messina. Graham-Dixon notes that the Lazzari family had originally wanted a picture whose proposed title would have been ‘The Madonna, St John the Baptist and Other Saintsbut Caravaggio negotiated with them to paint this instead.

In Rome at the height of the Renaissance it had not been unknown for a famous artist to alter the terms of a commission. Michelangelo had famously plucked up the courage … But in the provincial artistic milieu of Messina, Caravaggio’s assertion of independence was still being talked about a hundred years later.

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In 1609, also in Messina, the wonderful Adoration of the Shepards.

800px-caravaggio_-_adorazione_dei_pastoriBy September of 1609 he had returned to Naples, and the protection once again of the Colonnas, both Bellori and Baglione mention the enemies chasing him. Graham-Dixon argues that this return to the Colonna fold means that both his patrons had forgiven him for his escapades on Malta, but also that they had negotiated a truce with the knights there.

His fear was well-founded, he was severely wounded in an attempt on his life as he emerged from the Cerriglio — a rather famous brothel, his face disfigured — sfregiato, an injury inflicted to avenge an insult to reputation. Probably by Rodomonte Roero, the Conte della Vezza, who had indeed, almost certainly, been tracking him.

Caravaggio never really recovered. In Naples he painted the Martyrdom of St Ursula (1610), thought to be his last picture.

martyrdom_of_st_ursula1609-10oilcanbanca_intesa_coll_naples_-_version_2He traveled to Rome, with either a pardon in hand or on its way, and the lack of clarity surrounding his death seems characteristic of most of his life. He was arrested when he disembarked from his boat at Palo, a fort manned by the Spanish. Something went wrong and he was arrested, thus his belongings and the three paintings he had brought with him made the rest of the boat’s journey to the Porto Ecole. Bellori has him running from Palo to Porto Ecole and dying on his arrival from heat and exhaustion — but it was days on foot between the two.

He did die in Porto Ecole, however, of fever, in July of 1610. Then the feeding frenzy was on over the paintings he had left behind him.

This is one, an uncommissioned painting of melancholy treating a subject he had painted several times before. To me it embodies both his queerness (which I know I don’t look at enough here) and his regret and suffering.

st-john-the-baptist-iii-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggioA life that as I say, troubles me and sits with me.

Writing this I found that there is a show on at The National Gallery, Beyond Caravaggio, and I am looking forward to seeing it immensely. Graham-Dixon notes only a few of his influences — Ribera and Zurbaran in particular, through his work in Naples. Another wonderful story about the Madonna of the Rosary, which was brought to Antwerp through a joint effort spearheaded by Rubens, and involving Bruegel, Van Bael and Cooymans. But of course, I will be seeing more about this…

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