The Maltese Islands — Malta, Gozo, Comino and Manoel —might be small, only 330-square-kilometres in total, but they brim with historical sites, ancient temples, baroque churches, and much more. So, which are the most visited attractions among them? The answer might surprise you!
The Maltese Islands—Malta, Gozo, Comino, and Manoel Island—are around 330 square kilometres, making them the tenth smallest islands in the world. However, if comparing cultural, historical and heritage assets on a per-square-metre basis, they have to be the world’s leader when it comes to riches that go beyond Malta’s alluring blue skies and beaches, and year-round sunshine.
We have freestanding Stone Age temples in Goza—Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija—that date back 5,000 years. We also have the Tarxien Hypogeum, one of the world’s deepest and most extensive tomb networks that go back to Phoenician times. Rabat has extensive catacombs and nearby, there are cart ruts hewn in rock whose existence bears no explanation.
Malta’s cathedrals and churches are amongst the most beautiful and elaborate in the world, and the capital city Valletta is a treasure trove of baroque architecture that enchants visitors and residents alike. So, which of these magnificent landmarks and sites draws the most visitors to Malta? The answer is none of them!
Malta’s Big Draw: Two Caravaggio Masterpieces
Of Malta’s more than two million annual tourists, roughly 450,000 of them (the largest recorded number) come to see two world-renowned paintings –The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome—created by Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, better known simply as Caravaggio. Both masterpieces are currently housed in the oratory Valletta’s stunning St John Co-Cathedral.
A disused building next to the cathedral is being repurposed into a gallery reflecting the life and work of Caravaggio that will be known as The Caravaggio Centre, a virtual and interactive space that will open in the early part of 2024. The Beheading of Saint John will remain in the cathedral’s Oratory but Saint Jerome Writing will be relocated to the new centre, which will also contain relevant information about the notorious painter including an audio-visual film of his life story and snaps of his many paintings from art galleries throughout Europe.
A Man & Artist of Extremes
It has always struck me that the enigmatic and stormy life and lifestyle of this Italian painter is strongly reflected in his painting style. Known as Tenebrism (from the Italian dark, gloomy, mysterious) or otherwise Chiaroscuro, extreme darkness is a dominating feature and violently contrasts with extreme light. Many of Caravaggio’s themes reflect violence, particularly beheading, and just as his painting reflects, he is also revealed to be a man of extreme light and darkness.
I have spent much time deliberating about Caravaggio, a man with so much artistic ability and imagination, and yet also a violent drunkard and killer. His paintings fully reflect his character and the enigma that he was, with light and dark representing the good and the bad side of a man who was, unquestionably, graced with unrivaled talent.
Caravaggio’s Troubled & Tumultuous Life
Born in Milan in 1571, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio ranks among the most influential painters in the history or art. By 1606 and in his 35th year, he had moved to Rome where he opened a studio. But he also became a notorious violent brawler, one of which ended in the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni.
The killing shocked Rome, and the Pope immediately issued a bando capitale (death warrant) against Caravaggio. Fearing for his life, he fled to Naples where he was nevertheless embraced by the Church, gratitude for all the paintings he’d carried out in various other churches. Yet despite his success and apparent rehabilitation, Caravaggio set out again and relocated to Malta to answer a call by the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, the pinnacle of European nobility who were in search of a court painter.
He arrived in Malta on on 12 July 1607, where he was immediately embraced by the Order who obtained a unique Papal clearance for his appointment. His works gained him immediate success and a year later, on 14th July 1608, he was inducted into the Order as a Knight of Obedience, an honour bestowed upon those not of noble blood but who work to sustain the Knightly Order. Whilst there, Caravaggio produced his two aforementioned famous works. They remain his legacy and gift to Malta, and a significant boon for visitors and residents interested in his work.
Caravaggio’s good standing was short lived. Just a month later, in August 1608, he was once again embroiled in trouble. This time he caused damage to the residence of one Fra Prospero Coppini, the organist in the cathedral. To boot, he also wounded a Knight of Justice, Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, Conte della Vezza, both under the influence of a flaring temper and copious amounts of wine. Caravaggio was immediately imprisoned, pending trial, but somehow managed to escape to Sicily then Naples, bidding farewell to Malta forever.
Shortly afterward, the Order announced he had been “expelled and thrust forth like a rotten and fetid limb” and that was that. It’s quite a fitting statement from an Order dedicated to the medical and nursing profession to use such language to oust him. Caravaggio died in 1610 in Porto Ercole. Some say it was illness, others say murder, payback from the knight he assaulted in Malta. But, the details around his death remain an enigma, much like Caravaggio himself.
Visit the Paintings
Malta has much to explore, but if you have the time and are interested in art, history and Caravaggio, don’t miss out on these two masterpieces.
St John’s Square, Valletta
BeSeeingYou In: Malta
Good To Know: Entry is €15 and you can reserve online. St John’s Co-Cathedral also opens its doors after hours for private guided tours.
WOW! Factor: Comparing the man’s enigmatic history to his masterpieces.
Tip: Arrive early. These artefacts are the most viewed throughout the islands and there are always queues.
“He died as he lived.”
(A fitting epitaph for Caravaggio)
Author bio: Albert Fenech