Thursday, May 26, 2011


I know I've been slow in getting back to the blog.  Here's why.  I spent the final week of the trip up north on Lake Como, where access to internet was limited, and I was pretty tied up with working.  It was a perfect, thoughtful end to an intense and restless month.  And then I flew back to the States -- unpacking, settling in, hunting for a job, planting the garden, and, of course, continuing to work on this first draft.

But I don't want to turn away from the blog without writing more about one of the most thrilling days of the trip -- my visit to Fort St. Angelo in Malta. As I mentioned somewhere earlier, the Fort will be closed for the next five years or so while it undergoes extensive renovation. Hung on the front gate is a charming "Sorry we are closed" sign, as if it's only a roadside diner after-hours and not a 1200-year-old fort.

I was lucky enough to get a private meeting with the curator of the National Museum of Art in Valletta, who made a couple phone calls, gave me an address, and told me to race over to the Inquisitor's Palace in the town of Vittoriosa, where I would rendezvous in thirty minutes with the curator of the Fort, an ambitious young guy who just finished grad school and landed the job a few months before.

First, a few words about Caravaggio's time in Fort St Angelo. We don't know the full story about why he was jailed there, and, to be honest, we don't know for sure that he was, but the evidence is fairly solid. Fresh findings have emerged regarding the altercation that landed him in the slammer. At that point, he was already a Knight of Malta, although not a very high-ranking one, because he didn't have noble blood. He had been knighted because of his talent. The Grandmaster was enamored with a portrait Caravaggio painted of him, so he petitioned the Pope for special permission to make him a Knight, which was difficult to get, mostly because Caravaggio had committed a homicide, and there were strict rules against granting knighthood a known murderer.  But the Pope eventually agreed, which is especially ironic considering that the Vatican had a standing death sentence on Caravaggio at the time.

One evening, he and a group of other Knights threw a rowdy house party. It got out of hand, shots were fired, and when the smoke cleared, the owner of the house, who was also a Knight of Malta, was dead. Caravaggio himself wasn't blamed for the murder, but he was already on the shitlist for other unknown offenses, so he was punished for his involvement more severely than he might have been otherwise.  They threw him in the dungeon in Fort St Angelo that was reserved exclusively for Knights.

I entered the deserted Fort with my guide, and we climbed up through this tunnel towards the higher levels.

In the photo below you can see a square metal lid on the ground, bottom-right.  That's the entrance to the cell where Caravaggio was incarcerated.  The second photo shows my guide lifting the lid.

The cell is shaped like a bell, wider at the base, and there is no way in or out except by ladder through the opening in the roof. There is also, of course, no electric light, so the photos below are not top quality. But you can see where previously jailed Knights carved their names and even their coats-of-arms into the stone walls. The last time the prison was used regularly was around 1570. That's when these carvings would have been made. There were some pretty hefty cockroaches darting around the cell.

Considering the design of the cell, Caravaggio could not have escaped without help and a lot of luck.  No one had ever escaped from Fort St Angelo before. He did it at night, and ropes were left behind, leading the authorities to believe he scaled down the side of the castle walls. A fews days later, he appeared in Sicily, so he must have had a boat waiting at the base of the Fort and sailed immediately for Siracusa.

My guide let me explore the area around the cell to figure out Caravaggio's most likely escape route. Once out of the dungeon, he surely would have crossed the courtyard below [the building on the left was not there at the time], and he would have bee-lined for the north wall, almost a straight shot from the cell and the shortest sailing route out of the Grand Harbor. The Fort walls are slightly angled, as you can see in the third photo below, so he could have almost walked his way down using the ropes. The final photo shows a view of Fort St Angelo from Valletta.  According to my theory, he would have escaped on the left, where you can see some extra structures at the level of the water. Those structures wouldn't have been there at the time. The walls would have ended in the harbor.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Maltese Buses

Malta has the coolest buses on the planet.  Read about them here.

I'm in Milan at the moment, leaving in a few minutes for Lake Como, where I'll be working for the next week in a villa offered to me by a very generous supporter on Kickstarter.  I don't think I'll have internet access up there, or certainly not regularly, so my final posts -- about the prison escape, the Archibishop's Palace in Mdina, etc. -- may have to wait until I get back to the States, which is in about 9 days.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Beheading of St. John the Baptist

There are two paintings by Caravaggio in Malta – St. Jerome Writing (above), a quiet, dark portrait of the saint waking up in the middle of the night to jot something down, and the massive, magnificent Beheading of St. John the Baptist.  I love the Jerome painting.  It calms me just to look at it.  But the Beheading is a masterpiece, one of Caravaggio’s greatest and certainly a touchstone work of European art.  It’s his biggest painting, by far – 3.6 meters tall and 5.2 meters wide (approx. 12 x 17 feet).  The figures are larger than life-size.

The painting depicts a moment during the beheading in which John has already been struck by the executioner’s sword, and now the man has drawn a knife from his belt to finish the job.  With the exception of the old woman covering her face with her hands, the other characters appear unaffected by the act.

Helen Langdon wrote: “It is an ignoble scene.  John does not kneel as is customary in art, but is brought low on the ground, and his body is trussed like that of a sacrificial lamb, his hands tied behind his back, his red cloak suggesting blood, and a rope snaking across the floor.  Action is arrested, and the group, earthbound, downward-looking, is utterly still, gesture and expression muted.  Caravaggio emphasizes the reality of John’s death in a gloomy prison, unattended by angels; the threat of the prison, the terror of torture and punishment, are powerful – this was a place where justice was meted out.”

This is Caravaggio’s only signed painting.  Written with the blood that has spilled from John’s neck, he scrawled: “f. michel.” – meaning Fra Michelangelo, Brother of the Knights of Malta.  The Beheading was most likely painted as his passaggio, an offering to the Order that was given by prospective knights.  It was commissioned to hang in the Oratory, which, among other uses, was the setting for criminal trials.  Ironically, on December 1, 1608 – a few months after completing the painting and two months after escaping prison and fleeing the island – a trial was held for Caravaggio in abstentia to defrock him and cast him out of the Order of St. John.  The trial took place directly underneath his painting.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bag of Bricks

I’m traveling with one pair of pants, no sweaters, and a single pair of shoes, but I’m lugging no less than eleven books around with me.  You don’t need to tell me how stupid that is.  I know -- I’m the one carrying the bag.  Naturally, I thought a lot about what I should read during this trip.  It’s important to be picky about the voices you let into your head while working on something as focused, intense, and solitary as a novel.

I’ve already mentioned Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in a previous posting.  It wouldn't be a bad idea to have that book in your back pocket at all times.  The other important texts I'm carrying are Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, both of which I’ve read before and are in my top-20 list.  I brought along Hemingway for inspiration, Hammett for style, and Dostoevsky for madness.

I’m also traveling with stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a novella by Raymond Chandler, Adrian McKinty’s forthcoming novel, and of course the necessary histories, guidebooks, and Caravaggio biographies.  By the way, if you haven’t already read McKinty’s brilliant crime novel Dead I Well May Be, stop reading this blog, call in sick to work, and go buy it.

36-Hour Blitz

Some guy in Rome told me there wasn’t much to do in Malta besides hit the beaches.  Who was that dude?  Here’s a quick photographic recap of a very full and varied day-and-a-half, staring Thursday afternoon and ending Friday night.  I’ll chime in with specifics on some of these things later.

I started the afternoon with a visit to the centerpiece of Valletta, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, where two paintings by Caravaggio hang in the Oratory.  Below you can see his Beheading of St. John at the end of the room.  I’ll write more about it in a future posting.

The Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck must take the prize for the world's best named religious institution.  Saint Paul brought Christianity to Malta after wrecking on the island in 60 A.D. Highlights in the church include a section of Paul’s wrist bone, presented in the golden reliquary below, as well as part of the marble column on which he was beheaded in Rome.

Afterwards I visited the National Museum of Fine Arts, saw their permanent collection and an excellent temporary exhibition of the Czech-born king of Art Nouveau, Alphonse Mucha.

I stopped back at my guesthouse to clean up for dinner.  My room sits alone on the top floor.  There are two doors – one to my hovel, which includes a cot, desk, and rusty sink, and another door to the roof terrace, which has stunning views, like this one, late afternoon, with birds.

I dined that night at Trabuxu – highly recommended – on Maltese wine and local delicacies, including fish cakes, meatballs, and amazing Maltese sausage (center top).

Friday morning I visited the Hypogeum (a 5000- to 6000-year-old necropolis) and the Tarxien Temples, which I won’t say much about here – not because I was unimpressed by these prehistoric sites, but because they are too deeply mysterious and mind-boggling to try to describe in a few sentences.

That afternoon I met with Sandro Debono, the curator of the National Museum of Fine Arts.  We rapped about Caravaggio for awhile, then he made a couple phone calls and hooked me up with the curator of Fort St Angelo, where Caravaggio was imprisoned and then dramatically escaped.  The Fort is closed to the public for at least the next five years as it undergoes extensive renovations, but the curator agreed to give me a private tour, which included showing me the bell-shaped pit where Caravaggio was most likely held.  I’ll post something on this later, complete with photos of the roach-infested cell and Caravaggio’s most likely escape route.

The visit to the Fort was followed by an after-hours tour of the Inquisitor’s Palace (where Caravaggio testified in a trial against another knight) given by the curator there.  Then I caught a ride on a wooden skiff across Grand Harbor back to Valletta.  Below you see the boatman’s face with Fort St Angelo behind him.

An hour later, I attended a piano concert at St. James Cavalier, which included works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy.

And finally, last night kicked off Malta's International Fireworks Festival, featuring a fierce competition between two local producers -- St. Nicholas Fireworks Factory and, the underdog, Our Lady of Consolation.  Check ESPN for highlights and results.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Greetings from the Happiest Place on Earth...

... and I'm not just being cheeky.  In a study a few years ago, Malta barely beat out Denmark and Switzerland to be crowned the happiest country in the world.  And I can see why.  I only arrived yesterday afternoon, but so far I'm in love with the tiny capital city of Valletta.  It's very quiet at night, which suits me fine right now.

I don't have internet at my guest house, so it will be difficult to write regular blog posts with photos, but I'll try.

I've made a great, lucky connection.  The curator of the National Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to give me a private meeting tomorrow afternoon.  He's the head of the art world here in Malta and has even published a book about Caravaggio on the island.  I'm sure he can put me on the track of some things I wouldn't have otherwise found.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sea Caves of Siracusa

I've been working on the scene today in which Caravaggio arrives in Siracusa, after escaping from prison in Malta the night before. A few days ago I took a boat tour of the sea caves north of the city so I could scout locations. I thought it would be fun to stick Caravaggio in a grotto at dawn while he's trying to elude his pursuers and wait for a chance to come to port in Siracusa. Here are some photos from the tour. Stretching along the coast are limestone cliffs, as well as towers of rock standing twenty or thirty meters offshore in the Ionian Sea.

First, some fishermen who were coming in as we were going out.

The Burial of Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia is the patron saint of Siracusa. For those who don't know her story, she gave all her money to the poor after her mother was healed at Santa Agatha's tomb. The money had been intended for her dowry, but she broke the engagement and offered her chastity to God, which of course didn't sit well with her pagan groom. He denounced her as a Christian, and the Governor of Siracusa, the local ruler during the Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians, sentenced her to be deflowered in a brothel. But no one could move her. They tried oxen, witchcraft, and a thousand men, but still she stood immobile. They even tried burning her, which failed. So they pried her eyes out with a fork and finally killed her with a knife in the throat. This happened in Siracusa in 304 A.D.

When Caravaggio arrived in town, his first major commission was for the church that had been built on the site of her death. The most common theme of paintings of Santa Lucia was to depict her martyrdom, but Caravaggio decided to paint her burial. The figures are huddled into the bottom half of the canvas, leaving a vast, dark, empty weight above them, and most of that lower portion is given to the hulking gravediggers and the armored soldier, each seemingly twice the size of the mourners. Caravaggio's tragic religious paintings often featured the workmen, the laborers.

Near the Ear of Dionysius in the hills of Siracusa are the Crypt of San Marciano and the 10,000-square-meter catacombs of San Giovanni. Caravaggio would have visited these places while working on the painting. You can see from my photos below that his setting for the Burial of Santa Lucia was not only influenced by the crypt and catacombs, but perhaps he even set up his studio there.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Libyan Refugees

Several people have written to ask if I've encountered any evidence here of the situation in Lybia. The other day in Siracusa, I came upon a fascinating scene. Early in the morning I was walking from the old section of the city into the modern section to do laundry, and as I passed the port, a police escort came by and momentarily stopped traffic. I watched from the sidewalk as they shepherded two giant tour buses through town. When the buses rolled by, I first noticed armed police onboard wearing surgical masks. Then I made eye-contact with some of the seated passengers, most of whom were smiling young Libyan men, staring with excitement at Siracusa, Sicily, a place that might become their new home. Most likely the refugees had already been on the overrun island of Lampedusa and were being brought to the mainland for processing. Or perhaps Siracusa was their first port-of-entry after fleeing Lybia.

The whole situation here is a complicated and difficult one with no easy answers, but I will say it was strangely heartening to see these young men grinning from the windows of tour buses, even with the masked guards watching over them. They might not find the glorious life they've dreamed about here in Europe, but then again they might.

Trapped in Pozzallo

I left my hostel in Siracusa this morning at 5:30, only to find that the daily 6-o'clock train wasn't running. (Although the Trenitalia website said it would be.) No buses, either. So I was stuck catching a taxi for the hour-long drive to the ferry port at Pozzallo. It was a great hour to work on my Italian with Giovanni, the driver, although the fare cost what a semester-long course in a language school would cost.

When I arrived in Pozzallo, the winds were so strong that it was difficult to walk outside. I waited an hour huddled against the shuttered ticket office, then someone came by and pointed out a sign that said the ferry had been canceled due to inclement weather. The seas were high, frothing in the wind.

I stood behind a coast guard building for protection as I considered what to do. I was a couple miles from town with no way off the island. Pretty limited options. Finally I hitchhiked into the village and found a bed and breakfast with an available room. It appears that the next boat to Malta isn't until Wednesday morning, so I'm trapped here for a couple nights. That's a bad blow to my Maltese research, but maybe I can make it a good time for writing. There doesn't seem to be much else to do here, at least not in this weather.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Good Friday Street Party

Buona Pasqua, my friends.  Happy Easter.  I spent this morning at Siracusa's beautiful Duomo, attending the Pontificale di Pasqua, followed by a typical Easter meal of braised goat and plenty of seafood.  It was a nice way to leave Sicily.  Tomorrow I'll wake up before dawn to catch a train to the southern village of Pozzallo, where I'll board a boat for Malta. By lunchtime, I'll be settled in the tiny capital of Valletta.

On Friday night I stepped out for a bottle of wine to bring back to the hotel and assist me in my evening labors. I unwittingly ran into a Good Friday Procession in which hundreds of people were marching with statues of Jesus and Mary through the streets, backed up by a pretty solid band. I shot some impromptu video with my small digital camera. (Apologies for the quality.) The first video gives a general view of the scene coming through the Piazza del Duomo. The second video focuses on the band, as I marched with them down a narrow alley.

And a couple photos...

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Ear of Dionysius

In Siracusa today I visited an ancient archeological site that Caravaggio himself toured while in Sicily. He arrived in Siracusa by boat, the morning after escaping from prison in Malta. And even though he was a hunted man and living on the edge of madness, his fame was so great that his appearance in this Spanish-ruled city was celebrated, and he could live in public somewhat safely.

The archeologist and architect Vincenzo Mirabella was beginning a project in which he would map the Ancient Greek caves and catacombs around Siracusa, and he invited Caravaggio to the hills above town to see these caverns carved into the limestone. Caravaggio was shown a man-made grotto that was used as a prison by the tyrant Dionysius in about 400 B.C. The acoustics in the cave are incredible. A person can speak at a normal volume inside the cave and the sound will carry well enough to be heard outside through small openings cut high in the cliffs at each end of the grotto.
Legend has it that Dionysius was a paranoid ruler who used the acoustics to eavesdrop on his prisoners. Caravaggio heard this story, and he noticed that the shape of the cave -- with its strangely curved walls tapering into a kind of funnel at the pinnacle of the 75-foot-high ceiling -- resemble the human ear. He pointed this out to Mirabella, naming it the Ear of Dionysius, which it is still called today.