Wednesday, April 01, 2009


All roads lead to Malta -- at least for me recently

First our good friend J sent via email an article from National Geographic News entitled "Lost Crusaders' Tunnels Found Near Palace on Malta". Then I read "The Lost Painting" by Jonathon Harr about the search for the lost Caravaggio masterpiece "The Taking of Christ".

Caravaggio, whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi, is considered by the Malta tourism web site to be "the most famous name who worked in Malta". He spent one of the last three years of his life on that tiny Mediterranean island leaving behind two masterpieces, "Beheading of St John the Baptist" (the only painting which he signed) and "St. Jerome"; as well as several portraits of leading members of the Knights of Malta. Caravaggio was formally inducted into that Order, but shortly thereafter expelled "as a foul and rotten member".

Mars and I traveled to Malta in 1997. We saw Jerome but John was out being cleaned. We heard nothing at all, not even gossip, about the tunnels. But we didn't go there for the enigmatic works of art or the mysterious underground caverns.

We went instead because Mars saw an article about the island in a magazine at the hair-cutting salon we used to frequent, and instantaneously felt "drawn" to the place. It was an article about "Travel Off Of The Beaten Path", and touted Malta as a not too expensive, English speaking land with architectural sites older than Stonehenge, a mixture of European and Eastern architecture, and enough history for a country ten times its size. All that plus beaches, warm ocean waters and very few tourists.

I had never heard of it. Or thought I had but later realized it was Yalta that I was thinking of. But the photos of intensely sunlit limestone buildings and beaches beckoned to me also.

This happens frequently. We both seem to be naturally, maybe preternaturally, drawn to these almost blindingly-white-with-natural-light localities -- high desert in New Mexico, arid wasteland in the Big Bend of Texas, sand bunkers on golf courses.

This could be due to previous past-life incarnations that we have in common, e.g. in Cleopatra's ancient Egypt. Maybe our shared philosophic education in Plato's Allegory of the Cave made more of a lasting impression than we realized. Or perhaps it is just the result of living together through too many gray New England winters.

In any event, with images of sun-blanched desert skulls fresh in our minds from a recently seen Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit, it took us about fifteen minutes to decide on our first illuminating trip to New Mexico. It was the same with the magazine photos and Malta.

Caravaggio probably didn't come to the small Mediterranean archipelago for the luminescence -- in fact he personally seemed to prefer the darkness. He was on the lam from a shady past in sunny Italy where he, perhaps unintentionally, had killed a man. The illumination in his painting often took the form of a singular, blinding shaft of light that spotlighted the subject amidst the overly dark surrounding shadows. Caravaggio "put the oscuro (shadows) into chiaroscuro."

Mars and I did occasionally come in from the bright Malta light to view some of its artworks, most of which were located in unlit church buildings as stumblingly dark as the blackest part of a Caravaggio canvas.

This was particularly true of the dimly visible Oratory of the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta wherein the most famous works of "the most famous name who worked in Malta" were sequestered. As mentioned above, the "Beheading of St. John" was not available for viewing during our visit. But we did get to see the portrait of "St. Jerome" which in itself was pretty awe inspiring -- even for someone who, like a moth drawn to a flame, had been lured to the artwork totally by its homeland's luminescent qualities.

St. John's absence however was quite distressing to a group of tourists from Ireland who, they said emphatically and often, had come specifically to view that particular painting of Christ's decapitated follower. As I learned in my recent reading of "The Lost Painting" there were at that time, and perhaps still are, a significant number of devoted followers of Caravaggio ("Caravaggisti") in the Emerald Isle -- some of whom were even willing to put up with the unremitting sun of the Mediterranean in order to see his work.

In fact hordes of these Irish esthetes may at this very moment be groping their way through the newly discovered subterranean Maltese labyrinths in search of further secreted examples of their master's work.

Not everyone needs the light to be enlightened.

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