Passion For Art

Caravaggio’s dark heart in Malta

We may never know who killed him, but the signs in Malta are that Caravaggio was paranoid, on the run and in deep trouble

St John Caravaggio

Darkness descends … Caravaggio’s Decapitation of St John the Baptist suggests the painter’s twilit world of anger. Photograph: Bridgeman Art Library

It seems like only yesterday that Michelangelo Merisi, better known asCaravaggio, was killed by poisonous paints. That was a theory floated in 2010. The latest idea, proposed by yet another “expert” and reported in some papers this week, is that he was assassinated by the Knights of Malta.

I was once lucky enough to be sent by the Guardian in search of all Caravaggio’s works, and Malta was the spookiest stop on the trip, the place I felt closest to his dark heart. He went there when he was on the run after killing a man in a fight in Rome. He was ordained as a Knight of St John there, joining a holy chivalric order with roots in the Crusades. Today, the traces of the Knights are easy to find in Valletta, their fortified city perched on a high rock above a deep harbour. It is a strange, spectacular place. Down in the harbour you can see the prison that Caravaggio escaped from after getting into trouble with the Knights (trouble was his middle name). Away from the British-style pubs in the centre you’ll find the eerie, eastern-style streets that lead to the old fortifications whose massive bulwarks have withstood sieges down the centuries. The most compelling place in Valletta is, however, its cathedral, where you can see Caravaggio’s huge, dark painting of theBeheading of St John the Baptist.

In a prison yard, an executioner is using a knife to remove the partially severed head of a slaughtered captive. Other prisoners watch in fascination and horror from a window: tomorrow it might be them dying in the dust. The painting suggests direct observation, intimate knowledge of crime and punishment. It takes us straight into the twilit world of anger and vengeance in which Caravaggio lived his life.

Was he killed by the Knights he had (mysteriously) offended? It’s just another futile speculation. It does not add much to our appreciation of him. But conspiracy theories will always circle round this painter becausehis art invites them. Dark paranoia pervades his unforgettable picture of the judicial murder of John the Baptist: you feel he is scared about something, haunted by something, by guilt, and yes, maybe anxious that his sojourn in Malta is turning very sour.

Caravaggio in Malta had a hellhound on his trail. But wherever he went it followed him. It was his own shadow.

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December 6, 2012 - Posted by | Articles | , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

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