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.