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A brush with Caravaggio

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / July 14, 2002

VALLETTA, Malta - The man who lived four centuries ago by the name of Michelangelo Merisi, known today as Caravaggio, was a bad-boy hothead who, among other things, stuck a sword in a man and killed him, got kicked out of Rome, and tried to restart his life here, a sirocco-scrubbed outpost in the middle of the Mediterranean.

But he was also a genius, a man who could take a brush and paint and a canvas and define his world, provocatively, honestly, in a basket of fruit, the hands of a cheating card player, or the angle of a severed neck losing blood.

Whenever Caravaggio set brush to canvas, reality was the goal, light the tool for getting there. There is plenty of that light here, south of Sicily, in hot midday sunstrokes that cut deep into shadowy corners and in soft wisps of twilit red that trail off toward Africa.

Soak this light in, then step through the towering, engraved door at the entrance of the Co-Cathedral of St. John, set in the center of the fortified hilltop capital built by the knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem - the Knights of Malta - some 40 years before Caravaggio arrived in 1607. Follow the cool, dark corridor into the oratory, as Caravaggio did.

At the far end of the narrow, high-ceilinged room hangs "Beheading of St. John," considered by many to be Caravaggio's masterwork. At 17 by 12 feet, it is the largest canvas he ever painted and the only one he ever signed. It is all about light and dark, the interplay known in Italian as chiaroscuro. The executioner, his arms and back and right leg brightly lit, leans over the freshly beheaded John the Baptist, a deep red cloak draped about his fallen waist.

On the oratory's right wall hangs a smaller Caravaggio painting, "St. Jerome." In it, an elderly man sits, his torso turned, a pen in hand. The gray whiskers of Jerome's beard and the sinew of his neck are richly detailed, vivid.

Such easy connection to an artistic heavyweight like Caravaggio can too often prove elusive. Grand museums gather masterworks in a proximity that allows visitors to survey one epoch to the next with the shuffle of tired feet. These collections show the evolution of style and technique. But individual works, surrounded by so many others, can lack the context of an artist's life and experience; or worse, an individual painting can blur amid the suddenly common feel of something so uncommon.

I have often spun from marble halls overwhelmed, numbed by brush strokes and the gaze of models who have long since stopped sitting. It even happened when I saw my first Caravaggios in Rome. The three works - an awesome series of Saint Matthew, first called by Christ, then killed, and lastly looking up to an angel - leapt from the shadowed walls in a side chapel of the Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi. But I was in the middle of a long, hot day wandering Rome's greatest hits, from the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain. I stared at the three canvases from a few feet, then farther back. I headed out into the light and bought a cup of crushed ice flavored with lemon.

On Malta, the Caravaggio connection came easily. The island has long been a crossroads; the apostle Paul passed through here, as did World War II bombers. The country's Baroque cathedrals are spectacular, its religious festivals legendary. But the pace of life is slow here. Distractions are few. Big things stand out.

I came to Malta in November 2000 with my wife, Julie, to run a three-day marathon. Julie's main goal was tracking down Father Marius Zerafa, Malta's "art ambassador," whom she had heard speak about Caravaggio in the States.

Each day, there was running - first across the highlands west of Mdina, the former hilltop capital, then above the cozy fishing village of Birzebbuga, and finally across the north shore of the island into the stone streets of Valletta - and Caravaggio.

On our first morning in Malta, we met Zerafa in front of the Dominican Priory in Sliema. Zerafa has an open, eager style. He carried a pipe and a leather-bound notebook filled with loose papers.

We walked to a corner cafe. Zerafa chatted in Maltese with two waiters amid the clink of cups and saucers and the spouting steam of an espresso machine - all of it a kind of Mediterranean morning symphony.

Zerafa leaned toward us, cupped his hands to his face, and talked of the way Caravaggio used shadow and light in his paintings. He sliced the air with a finger, gesturing how Caravaggio used lines to build perspective on his canvases.

Caravaggio today is known by the name of a town, located outside Milan, in or near which he was born, by most estimates, in 1571. By age 12, he was a painter's apprentice in Milan. By his early 20s, he had headed to Rome, the equivalent of a hot young filmmaker moving to Hollywood.

His early works - "Boy With a Basket of Fruit," "The Cardsharps," and "Bacchus" among them - sharpened an eye for realism few others could match. Within a decade, despite resistance from counter-Reformation hard-liners (Caravaggio's paintings often featured tender young boys, hints of the rougher side of Roman street life, or tortured self-portraits), he was painting commissioned pieces for church chapels and wealthy art collectors.

But he also nurtured a disruptive hot streak.

Zerafa ticked off a few of Caravaggio's run-ins: He threw a plate at a waiter and stones at a landlady and was fond of his sword. In May 1606, he got into an argument and killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, a member of a military family, near tennis courts that drew wagering spectators.

Caravaggio's flight led first to Naples, then, in the summer of 1607, into the protected harbor beneath the high, stone walls of Valletta. If Caravaggio could reach the rank of knight, the historical thinking goes, he could more quickly earn a papal pardon for the killing and so return to Rome.

The Order of St. John, still recovering from a brutal siege by the Turks in 1565, needed world-class art to highlight its freshly built cathedral. The "Beheading of St. John," no doubt, would help seal the deal for Caravaggio.

Zerafa detoured from Caravaggio's journey to recount more recent intrigue surrounding the second, lesser-known painting in the oratory: In 1984, two men walked into the Co-Cathedral of St. John, much of its stunning Baroque interior designed and painted in the late 1600s by Malta's own Mattia Preti, and cut the "St. Jerome" from its frame. Jerome, it seems, was too tempting a target so close to the birthplace of the Mafia.

Two years later, a man approached Zerafa, once director of Malta's museums, outside the priory and gave him a letter from a guy named "Joe Borg," a common name, a Maltese "Joe Smith."

Zerafa rushed upstairs to his eclectic, cluttered room - a photo of Zerafa meeting the pope, Zerafa's own reproduction of a Fra Angelico painting - and tore open the letter: The thieves were demanding nearly half a million dollars ransom for "St. Jerome." The letter included a photo of the Jerome spread on a table, a pot of coffee set on one corner of the canvas. The thieves would call to negotiate. The password: Merisi.

Zerafa bought time, worked back channels within different Maltese ministries, and sleuthed on his own. After more than a year, tracks led to a local factory where only four men worked. The police pulled out all the stops, sending helicopters after the thieves as they drove near Valletta. The Jerome, a bit worse for wear but not too damaged to restore, lay rolled up in the trunk.

I asked Zerafa, who has studied in Florence and spent a life pondering Caravaggio, which is his favorite painting.

"Now it is the St. Jerome," Zerafa said. "It practically drove me crazy. I was afraid the thieves would come to me for confession."

Later, as we walked back toward the priory, Zerafa celebrated the man who created such a scandal with reckless living and art that didn't shy from the grittier side of life, even when depicting saints.

"I think Caravaggio was so good because he was so bad," Zerafa said.

After the next day's race, Julie and I caught a taxi to a street corner near the oratory. Across from the Co-Cathedral's main entrance, a midday crowd settled into a terrace cafe for plates of pasta and seafood. Indoors, we bought tickets, then wandered in to find we were the only visitors.

The oratory is a rare, intense place: an intimate point at which to cross paths with a man who ran from one reality to the next, stopping long enough to create his own on canvases that resonate 20 generations later. In Caravaggio's day, the oratory, added to the cathedral in 1603, was a simple, relatively undecorated room.

By 1608, "Beheading of St. John" dominated the oratory, looming over young knights-in-training and setting the tone for trials of wayward knights, held here. That summer, no doubt aided by his masterwork and the support of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, leader of the Order, Caravaggio was made a Knight of Grace, a rare title for talented men. Most knights enter only through right of birth.

David Stone, an art professor at the University of Delaware who is writing a book to be called "Caravaggio and the Knights of Malta," says Caravaggio experimented by loading the left side of the "Beheading" canvas with people and action, while keeping the right side relatively empty. And that signature, left in the trail of St. John's blood? Perhaps a sign that Caravaggio was simply the latest to join an order that traces its roots back to St. John, the patron saint.

"You can see it on the most simple level, without knowing anything, and understand what Caravaggio has to say," Stone told me recently. "But there's this other level, if you are immersed in the culture of 17th-century baroque Italy, in which he's really showing off."

For a man so famous, even during his own lifetime, there is scant record of Caravaggio's days on the island. Where did he eat and sleep, and with whom? And, perhaps most strikingly, what bad thing landed Caravaggio in trouble again?

Within weeks of becoming a knight, he was thrown in jail.

In the book "M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio," published in 1998, Peter Robb took up one compelling argument: that Caravaggio may well have seduced a page among the crowded ranks serving Wignacourt, angering the Grand Master. In recent weeks, Keith Sciberras, an art professor at the University of Malta, has argued that newly uncovered documents from the Order of St. John confirm a long-held theory: Caravaggio got in another brawl.

Whatever happened, Caravaggio was jailed in Fort Saint Angelo, a walled compound atop a promontory facing Valletta. But he soon escaped - no doubt aided again by powerful supporters - and sailed on to Sicily. Knights would gather in the oratory, beneath "Beheading," and pull a cloak from a stool, symbolically stripping Caravaggio of his rank.

Caravaggio would paint again and run again, and two years later die along the coast of Italy in circumstances that are still debated. Was it an illness, as so many have theorized, or the revenge of an angry knight, as Robb argues?

Standing in the oratory beneath the "Beheading of St. John" and "St. Jerome," perhaps it is best not to regret the unknown forces that twisted the turns on Caravaggio's road.

Instead, absorb the colors and shadows; study the look of horror on the old woman's face and the thoughtfulness on St. Jerome's. This, after all, is what Caravaggio, mysteriously on the run again, chose to leave behind.

Tom Haines can be reached by e-mail at thaines@globe.com.

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