Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bag of Bricks

I’m traveling with one pair of pants, no sweaters, and a single pair of shoes, but I’m lugging no less than eleven books around with me.  You don’t need to tell me how stupid that is.  I know -- I’m the one carrying the bag.  Naturally, I thought a lot about what I should read during this trip.  It’s important to be picky about the voices you let into your head while working on something as focused, intense, and solitary as a novel.

I’ve already mentioned Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in a previous posting.  It wouldn't be a bad idea to have that book in your back pocket at all times.  The other important texts I'm carrying are Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, both of which I’ve read before and are in my top-20 list.  I brought along Hemingway for inspiration, Hammett for style, and Dostoevsky for madness.

I’m also traveling with stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a novella by Raymond Chandler, Adrian McKinty’s forthcoming novel, and of course the necessary histories, guidebooks, and Caravaggio biographies.  By the way, if you haven’t already read McKinty’s brilliant crime novel Dead I Well May Be, stop reading this blog, call in sick to work, and go buy it.

36-Hour Blitz

Some guy in Rome told me there wasn’t much to do in Malta besides hit the beaches.  Who was that dude?  Here’s a quick photographic recap of a very full and varied day-and-a-half, staring Thursday afternoon and ending Friday night.  I’ll chime in with specifics on some of these things later.

I started the afternoon with a visit to the centerpiece of Valletta, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, where two paintings by Caravaggio hang in the Oratory.  Below you can see his Beheading of St. John at the end of the room.  I’ll write more about it in a future posting.

The Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck must take the prize for the world's best named religious institution.  Saint Paul brought Christianity to Malta after wrecking on the island in 60 A.D. Highlights in the church include a section of Paul’s wrist bone, presented in the golden reliquary below, as well as part of the marble column on which he was beheaded in Rome.

Afterwards I visited the National Museum of Fine Arts, saw their permanent collection and an excellent temporary exhibition of the Czech-born king of Art Nouveau, Alphonse Mucha.

I stopped back at my guesthouse to clean up for dinner.  My room sits alone on the top floor.  There are two doors – one to my hovel, which includes a cot, desk, and rusty sink, and another door to the roof terrace, which has stunning views, like this one, late afternoon, with birds.

I dined that night at Trabuxu – highly recommended – on Maltese wine and local delicacies, including fish cakes, meatballs, and amazing Maltese sausage (center top).

Friday morning I visited the Hypogeum (a 5000- to 6000-year-old necropolis) and the Tarxien Temples, which I won’t say much about here – not because I was unimpressed by these prehistoric sites, but because they are too deeply mysterious and mind-boggling to try to describe in a few sentences.

That afternoon I met with Sandro Debono, the curator of the National Museum of Fine Arts.  We rapped about Caravaggio for awhile, then he made a couple phone calls and hooked me up with the curator of Fort St Angelo, where Caravaggio was imprisoned and then dramatically escaped.  The Fort is closed to the public for at least the next five years as it undergoes extensive renovations, but the curator agreed to give me a private tour, which included showing me the bell-shaped pit where Caravaggio was most likely held.  I’ll post something on this later, complete with photos of the roach-infested cell and Caravaggio’s most likely escape route.

The visit to the Fort was followed by an after-hours tour of the Inquisitor’s Palace (where Caravaggio testified in a trial against another knight) given by the curator there.  Then I caught a ride on a wooden skiff across Grand Harbor back to Valletta.  Below you see the boatman’s face with Fort St Angelo behind him.

An hour later, I attended a piano concert at St. James Cavalier, which included works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy.

And finally, last night kicked off Malta's International Fireworks Festival, featuring a fierce competition between two local producers -- St. Nicholas Fireworks Factory and, the underdog, Our Lady of Consolation.  Check ESPN for highlights and results.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Greetings from the Happiest Place on Earth...

... and I'm not just being cheeky.  In a study a few years ago, Malta barely beat out Denmark and Switzerland to be crowned the happiest country in the world.  And I can see why.  I only arrived yesterday afternoon, but so far I'm in love with the tiny capital city of Valletta.  It's very quiet at night, which suits me fine right now.

I don't have internet at my guest house, so it will be difficult to write regular blog posts with photos, but I'll try.

I've made a great, lucky connection.  The curator of the National Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to give me a private meeting tomorrow afternoon.  He's the head of the art world here in Malta and has even published a book about Caravaggio on the island.  I'm sure he can put me on the track of some things I wouldn't have otherwise found.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sea Caves of Siracusa

I've been working on the scene today in which Caravaggio arrives in Siracusa, after escaping from prison in Malta the night before. A few days ago I took a boat tour of the sea caves north of the city so I could scout locations. I thought it would be fun to stick Caravaggio in a grotto at dawn while he's trying to elude his pursuers and wait for a chance to come to port in Siracusa. Here are some photos from the tour. Stretching along the coast are limestone cliffs, as well as towers of rock standing twenty or thirty meters offshore in the Ionian Sea.

First, some fishermen who were coming in as we were going out.

The Burial of Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia is the patron saint of Siracusa. For those who don't know her story, she gave all her money to the poor after her mother was healed at Santa Agatha's tomb. The money had been intended for her dowry, but she broke the engagement and offered her chastity to God, which of course didn't sit well with her pagan groom. He denounced her as a Christian, and the Governor of Siracusa, the local ruler during the Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians, sentenced her to be deflowered in a brothel. But no one could move her. They tried oxen, witchcraft, and a thousand men, but still she stood immobile. They even tried burning her, which failed. So they pried her eyes out with a fork and finally killed her with a knife in the throat. This happened in Siracusa in 304 A.D.

When Caravaggio arrived in town, his first major commission was for the church that had been built on the site of her death. The most common theme of paintings of Santa Lucia was to depict her martyrdom, but Caravaggio decided to paint her burial. The figures are huddled into the bottom half of the canvas, leaving a vast, dark, empty weight above them, and most of that lower portion is given to the hulking gravediggers and the armored soldier, each seemingly twice the size of the mourners. Caravaggio's tragic religious paintings often featured the workmen, the laborers.

Near the Ear of Dionysius in the hills of Siracusa are the Crypt of San Marciano and the 10,000-square-meter catacombs of San Giovanni. Caravaggio would have visited these places while working on the painting. You can see from my photos below that his setting for the Burial of Santa Lucia was not only influenced by the crypt and catacombs, but perhaps he even set up his studio there.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Libyan Refugees

Several people have written to ask if I've encountered any evidence here of the situation in Lybia. The other day in Siracusa, I came upon a fascinating scene. Early in the morning I was walking from the old section of the city into the modern section to do laundry, and as I passed the port, a police escort came by and momentarily stopped traffic. I watched from the sidewalk as they shepherded two giant tour buses through town. When the buses rolled by, I first noticed armed police onboard wearing surgical masks. Then I made eye-contact with some of the seated passengers, most of whom were smiling young Libyan men, staring with excitement at Siracusa, Sicily, a place that might become their new home. Most likely the refugees had already been on the overrun island of Lampedusa and were being brought to the mainland for processing. Or perhaps Siracusa was their first port-of-entry after fleeing Lybia.

The whole situation here is a complicated and difficult one with no easy answers, but I will say it was strangely heartening to see these young men grinning from the windows of tour buses, even with the masked guards watching over them. They might not find the glorious life they've dreamed about here in Europe, but then again they might.

Trapped in Pozzallo

I left my hostel in Siracusa this morning at 5:30, only to find that the daily 6-o'clock train wasn't running. (Although the Trenitalia website said it would be.) No buses, either. So I was stuck catching a taxi for the hour-long drive to the ferry port at Pozzallo. It was a great hour to work on my Italian with Giovanni, the driver, although the fare cost what a semester-long course in a language school would cost.

When I arrived in Pozzallo, the winds were so strong that it was difficult to walk outside. I waited an hour huddled against the shuttered ticket office, then someone came by and pointed out a sign that said the ferry had been canceled due to inclement weather. The seas were high, frothing in the wind.

I stood behind a coast guard building for protection as I considered what to do. I was a couple miles from town with no way off the island. Pretty limited options. Finally I hitchhiked into the village and found a bed and breakfast with an available room. It appears that the next boat to Malta isn't until Wednesday morning, so I'm trapped here for a couple nights. That's a bad blow to my Maltese research, but maybe I can make it a good time for writing. There doesn't seem to be much else to do here, at least not in this weather.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Good Friday Street Party

Buona Pasqua, my friends.  Happy Easter.  I spent this morning at Siracusa's beautiful Duomo, attending the Pontificale di Pasqua, followed by a typical Easter meal of braised goat and plenty of seafood.  It was a nice way to leave Sicily.  Tomorrow I'll wake up before dawn to catch a train to the southern village of Pozzallo, where I'll board a boat for Malta. By lunchtime, I'll be settled in the tiny capital of Valletta.

On Friday night I stepped out for a bottle of wine to bring back to the hotel and assist me in my evening labors. I unwittingly ran into a Good Friday Procession in which hundreds of people were marching with statues of Jesus and Mary through the streets, backed up by a pretty solid band. I shot some impromptu video with my small digital camera. (Apologies for the quality.) The first video gives a general view of the scene coming through the Piazza del Duomo. The second video focuses on the band, as I marched with them down a narrow alley.

And a couple photos...

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Ear of Dionysius

In Siracusa today I visited an ancient archeological site that Caravaggio himself toured while in Sicily. He arrived in Siracusa by boat, the morning after escaping from prison in Malta. And even though he was a hunted man and living on the edge of madness, his fame was so great that his appearance in this Spanish-ruled city was celebrated, and he could live in public somewhat safely.

The archeologist and architect Vincenzo Mirabella was beginning a project in which he would map the Ancient Greek caves and catacombs around Siracusa, and he invited Caravaggio to the hills above town to see these caverns carved into the limestone. Caravaggio was shown a man-made grotto that was used as a prison by the tyrant Dionysius in about 400 B.C. The acoustics in the cave are incredible. A person can speak at a normal volume inside the cave and the sound will carry well enough to be heard outside through small openings cut high in the cliffs at each end of the grotto.
Legend has it that Dionysius was a paranoid ruler who used the acoustics to eavesdrop on his prisoners. Caravaggio heard this story, and he noticed that the shape of the cave -- with its strangely curved walls tapering into a kind of funnel at the pinnacle of the 75-foot-high ceiling -- resemble the human ear. He pointed this out to Mirabella, naming it the Ear of Dionysius, which it is still called today.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Caravaggio Mafia Heist

I'm in Palermo, where the presence and influence of La Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian mafia, literally translated as "Our Thing") is still considered impressive.  There once was a great Caravaggio painting to see here, "Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence," but it has now been undergroud for 41 years.

Some claim the painting was burned in the 1980s after being stored in a barn and badly eaten by rats and pigs.  But here's a 2005 article by Peter Robb that ran in the Telegraph, which tells a different story:

[On] a rainy autumn night 35 years ago, there was a stunning Nativity by Caravaggio hanging in a Palermo church. Some time between October 17 and 18 1969, it was cut with razor blades from its frame over the altar of the Oratory of San Lorenzo and was never seen again.

In the capital of Cosa Nostra, people knew what to think about this, or thought they did, but nobody talked. The silence lasted until November 1996, 27 years after the theft, when the former Mafia heroin refiner Francesco Marino Mannoia was giving evidence in the trial of Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister who was accused of association with the Mafia. Andreotti was acquitted late last year.

Mannoia mentioned, quite parenthetically, that as a young man he had been one of those who stole the Caravaggio Nativity. It was, he said, a theft on commission, carried out so clumsily that the painting on the huge and crudely folded canvas – more than five square metres – was irreparably damaged. The person it was stolen for had burst into tears when he saw the ruined work and refused to take it.

A lot of other people felt like crying when they heard this. Earlier intimations from an undercover agent and a British journalist had suggested that the painting was intact, at least until the 1980s. Forget about it, Mannoia said he had told the murdered anti-Mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone.

This was the first account of the Caravaggio theft from inside Cosa Nostra and it seemed to end the story.

Three years after this, I was in Rome at the headquarters of the carabinieri's Art Work Protection Unit. I was looking into several matters and not getting much satisfaction.

A young officer with gleaming eyes and enormous carabinieri moustaches noticed my discontent. He drew me into his office and closed the door. He had overheard me mention Caravaggio and wanted to talk about the stolen Nativity.

"We know where it is," he said. "We're close to getting it back."

No recording, no note-taking allowed. What about Marino Mannoia? I asked. Mannoia was a serious and credible witness. Why would he lie about its destruction?

"He didn't lie. He just remembered wrongly. Another painting was stolen in Palermo around the same time. That's the one he took, the one that was ruined."

The young officer got excited and a colleague looked in to see why he was shouting. The Nativity was about to be recovered - I would see, the carabiniere said, and then I could tell the story.

The painting never was recovered, but a couple of years later the details of what the young officer had told me started filtering out. It was not, it turned out, a Cosa Nostra crime at all. The Nativity was stolen that wet Palermo night by local amateurs equipped with a blade and a three-wheeled delivery van. They had seen the painting on TV a few weeks before, in a programme on Italy's hidden treasures. They were amazed at its value and knew it was guarded only by an elderly janitor.

One of the thieves had a guest when they brought the canvas home. The visitor was on the run from the police and his brother was a mafioso. It was he who interceded the next day to save the fools who were now in bad trouble for operating on Mafia turf without Cosa Nostra's knowledge or consent, and to deliver the unexpected prize to Cosa Nostra. Years later, the visitor remembered that the painting was damaged in a lower corner - torn when caught in the door of a lift - and he recalled how they had all walked over the canvas when it was unrolled on the floor of the room he slept in. The Nativity passed from one Palermo boss to another to a third, Gerlando "The Rug" Alberti, commander of the Porta Nuova district in Palermo.

Alberti ran a heroin refinery outside Palermo, and for the next 12 years, until his arrest in 1981, he also tried to sell the Caravaggio Nativity. The unsaleable prize became a burden. He tried and failed to sell it in Switzerland, Italy and the US. Then Alberti was convicted of killing the owner of a seaside bathing establishment and sentenced to life in prison.

Earlier, he had buried an iron chest containing – apparently – five kilos of heroin, several million dollars in cash, and the Nativity rolled in a carpet. His nephew, Vincenzo La Piana, who dug the trench the chest was buried in, was arrested some years later and collaborated with the prosecutors. He took them to the place where the chest had been buried, warning them first that it was "unlikely my uncle would have left it there". The Rug hadn't.

The Rug's arrest had coincided with the beginning of the extermination phase of the Corleone Mafia's bid for control of Cosa Nostra. This lasted for most of the 1980s and Gerlando Alberti was a lucky one. The Nativity's previous owner, the Palermo boss Rosario Riccobono, was throttled in 1982 at a barbecue lunch organised for that purpose by the Corleonesi. The physical elimination of Palermo's old Mafia families has blocked the Nativity's recovery. The dead can't speak, the survivors, in jail or on witness protection, are no longer on top of things. The Rug knows, but as one of the losers, he has reason for silence.

The years pass and the number of people alive who have seen the painting diminishes. When Caravaggio's Nativity is recovered – and it will be – something may have survived. So what, from photographs, are we still missing?

Caravaggio's last big complex painting is a thrilling and scary revisitation of the central Christian myth. An exhausted and blankly post-partum Mary clutches her belly and stares at the thing on the ground just issued from her. A gymnastic boy angel plunges overhead. The scene is usurped by a lithe and wiry youth in silver hose and a green jacket, with spiky blond hair. With his back to the viewer, his foot touching the Christ child, he twists to face the aged Joseph with a vigorous gesture of disbelief.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hunger Was Good Discipline

One book I'm lugging around is Hemingway's memoir of his early years writing in Paris, A Moveable Feast.  Here is a passage that's been stuck in my head for several years now:

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go were the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l'Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cezanne was probably hungry in a different way.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Naples = Fried Fantasy

That's a bit misleading.  Napoli is more than just delicious fried food sold from street stands (food that Italians call "fried fantasy").    Think lightly breaded squash blossoms fried and finished with a pinch of salt.  Or arancini, a ball of fried rice with meat, tomato sauce, and peas in the center.  Tasty.  (Notice the arancini recipe to the right includes "pills."  I guess I should have ordered it.)

Anyway, I adore that city.  It's fast and brimming with energy, but it's not a stressful energy.  It's gritty, but with beauty mixed in.  The atmosphere is working class, without the pretentiousness of Rome.  And don't get me wrong, I love Rome, but like most international capitals, there's a certain coldness and arrogance that comes along with being one of the most visited and important cities in the world.  Naples doesn't have that problem.  There are far fewer tourists than in Rome, Florence, or Venice, yet still plenty to see and do.  Pompei is a half-hour away by train. Also nearby you have the Amalfi coast -- gorgeous beaches, a string of charming villages, and the blue Mediterranean. The Archeological Museum in Naples is incredible, as are the churches and the art collection in the Capidomonte, which includes a late masterpiece by Caravaggio. And Naples is refreshingly cheap.  So there's my pitch.  Next time you're in Italy, ignore its reputation as a dirty and dangerous town, and pay a visit. It really feels like the perfect place for Caravaggio to have been -- and despite the incident just before his death when he was attacked in the doorway of a tavern and left with a face so slashed he was unrecognizable, he seemed to have felt at home in Naples. His painting there became even darker, and the models he used shifted from the softer Romans to the tough, wrinkled working class of southern Italy.  Here's one painting I saw there, the "Seven Acts of Mercy":

One disappointing difference between Naples and Rome is the presence of really bad graffiti.  Both cities are covered, but in Naples, nothing is sacred.  There were tags on every monument, and sometimes even on the facades of churches.  Here's a statue of Dante that towers over one of the central piazzas.

While it's great to be in a place where they would actually erect a monument to a poet, which would be almost unheard-of in the States, I was disheartened to see it adorned with such terrible tags.

Finally, a few photos from my visit to Pompei.  Here's one of the volcano, seen from the ancient streets of the city, followed by a field of spring wildflowers on the edge of town.

The Archeological Museum in Naples contains most of the mosaics that were dug out from the ashes of Pompei.  These works of arts are more than 2000 years old. Some of them contain more than a million tiny tiles.  I was as stunned by this exhibition as almost anything I've seen in a museum.  Here are a few highlights.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Quick Hello from Messina

Apologies for being out of touch for a couple days.  I just arrived in Sicily, after a whirlwind week in Naples, and I don't have internet access at my hotel.  I'm writing from a rundown internet cafe, apparently the only one in this rundown town, where two men are currently fighting over some sports news they found online.  Lots of yelling and dramatic gestures.

I fell in love with Naples these past few days.  I'll write more when I get settled in Palermo, and if I have internet there, I'll post some photos.  For now, I'm off to visit the cathedral before sunset, and tomorrow morning I'll see two of Caravaggio's late masterpieces before catching a train out of town.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


I'm off to see a couple paintings today, then I'll spend the afternoon in the library, where I've been told there are good places to work.  But at the moment, Naples is behaving like it actually is April, and a torrent of rain is falling.  While I'm waiting for a break in the weather, I thought I'd post photos of the best food I've eaten this week.  I thought about avoiding the subject of food altogether -- I don't want to generate any hate-mail -- but it's impossible to visit Italy without cuisine being a central part of the experience.

In a quiet piazza in Rome, a late lunch: spaghetti alla carbonara (eggs, cheese, and bacon), with a Roman-style artichoke on the side (their version was stuffed with herbs and finished with oil).

On the coast, near the castle where Caravaggio was detained, we ate a seaside lunch of risotto con frutti di mare (the sea-fruits included mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid).  Not pictured are bruschetta, caprese salad, and a desert of granita con panna (a frozen espresso slush with fresh whipped cream).

Finally, I asked around for the best pizza in Naples. There are a lot of opinions -- pizza is thought to have originated here, and the locals take it very seriously -- but most people mentioned D'Antiqua Pizzeria Da Michele. There was quite a wait when I arrived, and even though Julia Roberts' character ate there in that recent movie of hers (you know the one), the place was filled solely with Italians. I guess they like Julia Roberts more than we do. There are two choices on the menu -- pizza margherita or pizza marinara. No sides, no toppings. The only drinks offered are Nastro Azzuro beer (Italian PBR), Coke,  or water, all served with plastic dixie cups.  The pizzas cost only 4 euros.

By the way, a movie still from Eat Pray Love was plastered on every wall of the restaurant, and Julia is drinking red wine from a bucket-glass, which they had to have brought in as a prop. Now that's just shameful. What's wrong with cheap beer in plastic shot-glasses?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Death Scene

I had a terrific trip to the coast yesterday to investigate the scene of Caravaggio's final days. The rediscovered documents at the State Archives have revealed new information about his death.  Many biographers originally reported that he died on the beach, looking out to sea, with dolphins leaping and the sun setting and mermaids weeping. A nice romantic idea.  But the real story is even better.

Caravaggio was back in Naples towards the end of his life when he received word that the Vatican was finally going to grant him a pardon for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni.  Cardinal Scipione Borghese had helped orchestrate the deal, as long as Caravaggio delivered some new paintings to him.  The centerpiece of Caravaggio's apology was his "David with the Head of Goliath," with the face of Goliath as a self-portrait.

With this painting and several others, Caravaggio enthusiastically set sail for Rome. Along the way, his boat stopped at the tiny port of Palo, between the mouth of the Tiber and Civitavecchia. There was either a case of mistaken identity or some foul play, but either way, Caravaggio was arrested at Palo and imprisoned in the fortress there. The seas were getting rough, and the boat could finally wait no longer, so it sailed on without him, taking his paintings and other possessions with it.

Caravaggio offered up a good deal of money for his release, probably all he had, but once he was free, the boat was already on its way to Port'Ercole, 100 kilometers north. He had probably contracted malaria at this point, and he was certainly dealing with mental illness, so -- delirious, exhausted, and desperate -- he set off on foot to chase the ship. Here and there, he may have been helped along by strangers -- a meal, a boat ride to the next village. He made it a good distance, but 100 kilometers is a long way for a sick man to walk, and this was in the heat of mid-July. He collapsed before reaching Port'Ercole.  They brought him to the hospital there, where he died.

Yesterday I drove to the coast with two Roman friends who helped me communicate with the troll-like lady guarding the main gate. She wouldn't let us pass.

So we drove on to the next town, ditched the car, and hiked about a half hour down the coast, walking the same stretch where Caravaggio would have started his trek.

Finally we reached the castle of Palo. Some locals told us an old princess lives there with two or three dusty servants.  A princess of what exactly, no one knows.