Fort St Angelo on the island of Malta
I wrote this a couple of years after I climbed down into the rock dungeon below the fort pictured above, where Caravaggio was purportedly imprisoned by the Knights of St John for murder. As I stood in the claustrophobic space where he was allegedly held, and touched the cold rock walls, it gave me all of the incentive I needed to make it my mission to research this deeply troubled artistic genius. To this day no one is one hundred percent sure how he managed to escape. Most historians certainly aren’t. Uncertainty among academics always intrigues me…
I was put here by my brother Knights of St John. I curse them for their inept minds. I am the master when it comes to painting fine religious works, and yet I was censured for my forward thinking in my approach to painting by no less a personage than the Pope. I curse him to for his short-sightedness, his blinkered vision of what makes a great work of art. I am Caravaggio, the finest painter who has ever lived. The others who believe they are my peers are fools and charlatans. I curse them all. I have killed men for less…
My enemies await my return to Italy; all of them are liars who scheme and plot my demise. I spit on them, nay I piss on them. None are worthy to be in my presence. I painted my finest work here in Valetta for all to see and wonder at, and yet I am treated like a common criminal. I Caravaggio, who has created paintings so fine that not even those who presume to be my contemporaries can begin to compare their paltry daubs with one of my works.
This stinking cell beneath the fort is my living tomb. They think to break my spirit. Hah – never! My anger gives me strength where weaker men would wilt and die. I shall contrive to escape this lowly rock, this Malta. My gaoler brings me food – slops not fit for a pig, once a day at the change of the guard. Tonight I shall feign sickness. I shall call for the physic, or the apothecary. Better that it is the physic. He is a lay brother, a simple fellow of low intelligence, but I will admit he does relieve the vapours in my system when he bleeds me. One blow to his head, or my hands around his throat, choking him into unconsciousness and I shall exchange clothes with him and escape.
I need a boat. Tomelini the gate-keeper owes me his life. He shall smuggle me through the streets down to the docks in Grand Harbour. I always knew that when I plunged my blade into his attacker, Tomelini was mine to do with as I wish. What hour is it, four, five? My gaoler will soon come. I must prepare. When he opens the grating and lowers the ladder to descend, I shall lay feigning agony. The guard will stay above as he always does.
Hark; I hear the sound of footsteps above. Now is the time for my finest hour to begin. The guard never stands close because of the stench of my tomb. His back will be turned making him an easy target.
I can hear the key turning in the padlock. Steady now. The grating is opening. The ladder is lowered. I count the ladder’s rungs as he descends. The eighth from the top and the third from the bottom creak when stood upon. “Here’s your food your worship, eat it all up.”
Come a little closer fool. Closer… “Pray send for the physic good gaoler. I have need of him I implore you.”
“What of it your worship; I care not if you are ailing. I just deliver you a fine dish of food.”
“I implore you good gaoler, your masters above would not look kindly on you should I die in your charge – please good sir, please?”
“Guard fetch the physic. His worship is ailing.”
“Thank you kind sir; when I am released I shall praise your generosity of spirit – thank you.” Now just turn your back you loathsome slug. Hah – got you. Die you stinking toad spawn – die! Remember – avoid the third rung from the bottom – good, next the eighth from the top – good. Now slowly and calmly walk towards the kitchen. The guard will be back soon. Stop! Two figures approach. Let them pass. It is the guard and the physic. A quick blow to head of the guard; and now for the physic – die you leech, die!
His clothes are an ill fit, but no matter. The gate is unguarded, a welcome happenstance; now for Tomelini and freedom…
The painter Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was imprisoned on the island of Malta for killing a man in a brawl in 1608. He succeeded in escaping and returned to Italy. But his many enemies finally caught up with him, killing him. To my mind Caravaggio is possibly the finest painter of religious art.
PS – As some of you may know, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a novel loosely based on him, or someone like him, and the violent times he lived in.
I’m still undecided…
PPS – If you want to know more about his time in Malta, may I suggest that you click on this brief document, courtesy of The University of Malta.