Syracuse, 1608–1609

The beautiful island of Sicily, technically part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, was separated, administratively as well as geographically, from the mainland by the Straits of Messina, and ruled independently by a Spanish viceroy at Palermo, Caravaggio spent nearly a year on the island.

William Lithgow, who came in 1616, thought the Sicilians “generally wonderfull kind to strangers,” if, among themselves, “ready to take revenge of any injury committed.” He was astonished by the island’s fertility; “the porest creature in Sicily eateth as good bread as the best Prince in Christendome doth.” However, he warned that Sicily was far from safe, “ever sore oppressed with Rebells and Bandits.” There was almost as much danger from the Barbary corsairs and the Turks; while Caravaggio was living on the island, the city of Reggio di Calabria, just across the Straits of Messina, was sacked by Turkish galleys. Lithgow cautioned against traveling along the coast, as Caravaggio would do often, because of the Moorish raiders who came at night and kidnapped the country people, “carrying them away captives to Barbary,” despite the strong watchtowers.

We would know almost nothing about Caravaggio’s visit to Sicily were it not for Francesco Susinno’s manuscript history of the artists of his native city, Messina. If sometimes unreliable and padded out with details borrowed from Bellori, it contains information found in no other source. Clearly, both Caravaggio’s genius and his aggressive eccentricity were long remembered by the Sicilians. Susinno must have had access to contemporary accounts of him, in letters or memoirs that perished in the earthquakes that destroyed Messina.

Understandably, Caravaggio was in a mood of black despair. “After leaving his profession [as a Knight], Caravaggio started to question a good deal about our most holy Religion, from which he gained the reputation of being a miscreant,” Susinno tells us. By “Religion” he means the Order of Malta, not Christianity, as some historians have mistakenly supposed. He had forfeited what he regarded as his spiritual vocation and his social position. Nevertheless, he stubbornly continued to call himself a Knight of Malta, and presumably to wear the cross round his neck.

Susinno continues, “As a man, he was very distracted … caring little how he lived…. This was due to a mind scarcely less disturbed than the sea at Messina with its raging currents…. He always went armed, so that he looked more like an assassin than a painter.” He also seems to have acquired another large black dog, a successor to Cornacchia, who performed similar tricks, accompanying his master everywhere. Susinno’s considered opinion of Caravaggio was “a lunatic and quite crazy.”

Syracuse was the most important Sicilian city after Palermo, renowned among antiquarians for its huge Roman amphitheater. In the quarries where the Athenian prisoners were confined after failing to capture the city in the fifth century B.C., there is a man-made, serpentine cavern, the Orecchio di Dionigi, or “Ear of Dyonisius,” famous for its echoes, which legend says was carved out for the Sicilian tyrant Dyonisius. He is supposed to have hidden in the cavern, eavesdropping on the prisoners.

The legend, in reality, is a monumental joke, fabricated by Caravaggio, who had been taken to see the cavern by the celebrated archaeologist Vincenzo Mirabella. “Don’t you see, in order to make an ear-trumpet for listening, the Tyrant used as his model what nature had used for the same purpose?” Caravaggio is credited with telling the credulous Mirabella. “So he made this cave just like an ear.” Despite his misfortunes, he had not lost his sardonic humor.

On a rocky point of land between two havens, the city was dominated by the massive Castello Maniace, a Byzantine fortress rebuilt in the thirteenth century by the Hohenstauffen emperor Frederick II. In Caravaggio’s time it housed the inevitable Spanish garrison. The threat from Muslim raiders was unrelenting. Every night, troops of horsemen had to ride out to search the seacoast for signs of danger. Nonetheless, amid its ruins, Syracuse was beautiful and opulent, a pleasant refuge for an exile. George Sandys remarked on the inhabitants’ dignity, and on how the women’s faces were hidden by their long black mantillas. If it was hot, there were plenty of gardens, watered by cooling springs.

Susinno informs us that when Caravaggio arrived at Syracuse he was given a warm welcome by an old friend from Roman days, Mario Minniti, who had returned to his native island and remarried after the death of his first wife. Minniti had become a well-established local painter, setting up a workshop at Syracuse. He welcomed Caravaggio “with all the kindness to be expected from such a gentleman.” Susinno says that Minniti begged the Syracusan senate to offer Caravaggio a commission, partly because he wanted to keep his old friend in Syracuse for as long as possible, and partly because he hoped to learn as much as possible from him, since he had heard that Caravaggio “had become Italy’s greatest painter.”

The city’s unusually likable patron saint was the charming St. Lucy, who had escorted Dante to the gate of Purgatory. The wealthy daughter of a Syracusan noble family, in the fourth century she had been denounced as a Christian by the man to whom she was betrothed, after giving away her entire fortune. Commanded by the consul Paschasius to sacrifice to the pagan gods, she staunchly refused. “Then Paschasius summoned panders and said to them, ‘Invite the crowd to have their pleasure with this woman, and let them abuse her body till she dies,’ ” The Golden Legend relates. But the panders were unable to carry her off. Even oxen could not drag her away. “Then the consul, beside himself with rage, commanded that a great fire should be built around her, and that pitch, resin and boiling tar should be thrown on her. This, too, made no impression on the dauntless maiden. When a sword was plunged into her throat, she cried out that the Church had triumphed. ‘This day Maximilian has died and Diocletian has been driven from the throne.’ ” As she spoke, officers came from Rome to seize Paschasius and put him to death. Lucy lived long enough for a priest to bring her Communion before she died.

Although there is no mention in The Golden Legend of St. Lucy being blinded by her tormentors, as is sometimes claimed, another legend relates how, when a besotted admirer praised the beauty of her eyes excessively, she tore them out and gave them to him on a plate, whereupon they were miraculously restored to her. The story probably derives from her name, which means “light.” She was regarded as a saint who could cure any disease of the eyes. Blindness was commoner in the seventeenth century than it is now, and the church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro, just outside Syracuse’s walls, built where she is said to have been martyred, attracted pilgrims from all over Sicily.

The Syracusan Senate commissioned an altarpiece of St. Lucy from Caravaggio, who must have heard the many tales about her. In Susinno’s words, his picture shows “the martyr’s corpse lying on the ground while the Bishop comes to bury her, and two workmen, who are the main figures… are digging a grave in which to lay her.” This conveys neither the painting’s savagery nor its melancholy. A terrible wound in the throat was later made less obvious by the artist, perhaps in response to protests, Lucy being a much loved patron. Filled with sadness, the huge canvas is essentially a painting of mourners. There is grief even on the faces of the grave diggers.

Caravaggio must have realized that if St. Lucy’s bones had vanished long ago from their shrine in the dimly lit chapel beneath the church, her bones’ former resting place was still deeply venerated, which is why he concentrated on the burial rather than the saint. The brushwork is less careful than in his Roman, Neapolitan, or Maltese paintings, the colors are fewer, and there is less light. It is likely that he painted without models, working from memory; the face of an old woman bending over the body seems familiar from his days in Rome. Even so, Syracuse was delighted by the tribute to its beloved patron saint, which was immediately hung over the high altar of her church.

The applause at Syracuse did little to soothe the painter’s misery. “Michele’s disgrace would not leave him alone,” writes Bellori, who claims that he was terrified. Just what was he afraid of? It cannot have been the Order of Malta, since during his time in Sicily he was always in cities where it was much in evidence. However, Susinno speaks of his being “pursued by his injured antagonist,” apparently meaning the unknown knight he had fought before being put in the Birdcage. It is possible he had heard that his former confrere had recovered and was planning a revenge.

According to Susinno, “Michelangelo’s disturbed brain, ever fond of wandering through the world, made him leave the house of his friend Minniti soon after. So he went to Messina.” This was during the winter, at the end of 1608 or the beginning of 1609. Was he fleeing from the unknown knight’s hired killers, was he merely restless, or had he had an invitation from the Messinese? Whatever his reasons for leaving Syracuse, when apparently he had every reason to stay, Messina was not all that easy to reach. Sandys, from personal experience, warned travelers who were contemplating a journey overland that they would almost certainly be robbed and murdered by the country people.

As for traveling by sea to Messina, Fernand Braudel reminds us of the hazards of the Mediterranean at the beginning of the seventeenth century. “Anyone sailing in the winter knew very well that he was at the complete mercy of the elements, that he had to be on the alert all the time, and that he had every chance of seeing the storm lanterns hoisted.” The Sicilian coast was especially dangerous. Although small vessels like the feluccas used by Caravaggio hugged the shore, their crews were well aware that at this time of year a lethal gale could blow up at any moment. The Straits of Messina had a terrifying name; their shores were littered with shipwrecks. Yet Caravaggio took his chance and sailed. He must have had some very good reasons for leaving in such a hurry.

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