Keith Sciberras: The island crucible of an inflammatory genius

From a lecture on Caravaggio by the teacher at the University of Malta, given at the National Gallery

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted some of the greatest works of his career for the Knights of St John of Malta. They include the magnificent
Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, a monumental and dramatic altarpainting that adorns the Oratory of San Giovanni Decollato in Valletta.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted some of the greatest works of his career for the Knights of St John of Malta. They include the magnificent Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, a monumental and dramatic altarpainting that adorns the Oratory of San Giovanni Decollato in Valletta.

The Maltese period, which lasted less than 15 months, was the longest he stayed in a single place during his post-Rome years - the subject of the exhibition at the National Gallery - painting during a crucial phase in his stylistic development without subservience to patrons who in many ways held the keys to his liberation from exile.

Whatever drove the artist to Malta, Caravaggio's good fortune there was initially great; his first year was probably even better that he had expected. His outstanding pictures from this period testify to his sense of wellbeing and emotional stability. Seeing him at work, the Knight's Grand Master, Alof de Wignacourt, and his close collaborators were very conscious of the benefits to be reaped from Caravaggio's presence.

They must have also been as aware that a man of such talent would not stay on unless he was offered a prize greater than mere money. How to keep him in Malta exercised their minds. An honorific knighthood was the answer. His virtuosity was to be honoured. Life seemed too good - until, not uncharacteristically, Caravaggio kicked it in the face and all went so suddenly wrong.

Caravaggio's Maltese period is largely concerned with chivalry, that is, his ambition for knighthood. In his request for a papal dispensation for Caravaggio's knighthood, Alof de Wignacourt made specific reference to the desire to honour virtuosity. The Grand Master predicted that the island of Malta would glory through Caravaggio's art.

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