In Dark Times, I Sought Out the Turmoil of Caravaggio’s Paintings

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, born in late 1571 in Milan, is the quintessential uncontrollable artist, the genius to whom normal rules do not apply. “Caravaggio,” the name of the Northern Italian village from which his family came, reads like two words conjoined, chiaroscuro and braggadocio: harsh light mixed with deep dark on the one hand, unrestrained arrogance on the other. Raised in Milan and the village of Caravaggio in a family that some say was on the cusp of minor nobility, Caravaggio was 6 when he lost both his father and grandfather, on the same day, to the plague. He was apprenticed around age 13 to Simone Peterzano, a painter in the region, from whom he must have learned the basics: preparing canvases, mixing paint, perspective, proportion. He apparently developed a facility for still-life painting, and it was probably while studying with Peterzano that he absorbed the pensive atmosphere of Leonardo da Vinci and great Northern Italian painters of the 16th century like Giorgione and Titian.

Caravaggio most likely first went to Rome in 1592, and the reason might have been his involvement in an incident in Milan in which a policeman was wounded (the details, as with so much else in his life, are foggy). It would be far from the last time he had to get out of town. In Rome, it did not take him long to gain both acclaim and notoriety, and by the mid-1590s, his paintings had settled into the styles and subjects we often think of as Caravaggesque: lutenists, cardplayers, a panoply of brooding androgynous youths. Eminent collectors vied for his work, Cardinal Scipione Borghese and Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte among them. Success went to his head, or perhaps it activated something that had always been there. His language coarsened; his drinking worsened; he got into fights often and was arrested multiple times.

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Credit...Teju Cole

In 1604, Caravaggio was 32. He already had behind him a string of indelible masterpieces, made for Roman patrons and churches: “The Supper at Emmaus,” “The Calling of St. Matthew” in the Contarelli Chapel, “The Conversion of St. Paul” in the Cerasi Chapel, “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.” By that year he had also completed “The Entombment of Christ,” a work of profound grief and astonishing achievement, even by Caravaggio’s already high standards. But in his personal conduct, he remained reckless. “Sometimes he looked for a chance to break his neck or jeopardize the life of another,” writes Giovanni Baglione, a contemporary and one of his first biographers. Giovanni Pietro Bellori, a later 17th-century writer, tells us, “He used to go out on the town with his sword at his side, like a professional swordsman, seeming to do anything but paint.” At lunch in a tavern one day, he ordered eight artichokes, and when they arrived, he asked which were cooked in butter and which in oil. The waiter suggested he smell them to figure out the answer himself. Caravaggio, always quick to suspect insult, sprang up and threw the earthenware plate at the waiter’s face. Then he grabbed a sword; the waiter fled.

As a boy in Lagos, I spent hours poring over his work in books. The effect his paintings have on me, the way they move me but also make me uneasy, cannot be due only to long familiarity. Other favorites from that time, like Jacques-Louis David, now seldom excite me, even as Caravaggio’s mesmerizing power seems only to have increased. And it cannot only be because of his technical excellence. The paintings are often flawed, with problems of composition and foreshortening. My guess is that it has to do with how he put more of himself, more of his feelings, into paintings than anyone else had before him.

The themes in a Caravaggio painting might derive from the Bible or from myth, but it is impossible to forget even for a moment that this is a painting made by a particular person, a person with a specific set of emotions and sympathies. The maker is there in a Caravaggio painting. We sense him calling out to us. His contemporaries may have been interested in the biblical lesson of the doubting Thomas, but we are attracted to Thomas’s uncertainty, which we read, in some way, as the painter’s own.

But there’s more than subjectivity in Caravaggio: There’s also the way his particular brand of subjectivity tends to highlight the bitter and unpleasant aspects of life. His compact oeuvre is awash in threat, seduction and ambiguity. Why did he paint so many martyrdoms and beheadings? Horror is a part of life we hope not to witness too often, but it exists, and we do have to see it sometimes. Like Sophocles or Samuel Beckett or Toni Morrison — and yet unlike them — Caravaggio is an artist who goes there with us, to the painful places of reality. And when we are there with him, we sense that he’s no mere guide. We realize that he is in fact at home in that pain, that he lives there. There’s the unease.

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Late in May 1606, two years after the artichoke incident, Caravaggio lost a wager on a game of tennis against a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni. A fight ensued, in which several others participated, and Caravaggio was injured in the head, but he ran his sword through Tomassoni, killing him. After two days of hiding in Rome, he escaped the city, first to the estates of the Colonna family outside Rome, and then, near the end of the year, to Naples. He had become a fugitive.

Caravaggio’s mature career can be divided in two: the Roman period and then everything that came after his murder of Tomassoni. The miracle is that he accomplished so much in that second act, on the run. His work changed — the brushwork becoming looser, the subject matter more morbid — but he remained productive, and he remained valued by patrons. He worked in Naples, in Malta, in as many as three different cities in Sicily and in Naples again before he set out for Rome in 1610, in the expectation of a papal pardon. He died on that return journey.

In the summer of 2016, I had plans to be in Rome and Milan for work. The U.S. presidential campaign was proceeding with wall-to-wall coverage, and the body politic was having a collective nervous breakdown. The bizarre candidacy of Donald Trump had established him, against all odds, as a contender. Right-wing movements were gaining ground across the world. Fleeing war and economic distress, thousands of people died in the Mediterranean. The brutality of ISIS had made videos of beheadings part of the common visual culture. What I remember of that summer is the feeling that doom wasn’t merely on its way; it had already arrived. (It had arrived, but then it evolved, and this present evil, four years later, is something else again.)

I knew I would revisit paintings by Caravaggio in Rome and Milan. At least he would tell me the truth about doom, and I would find in him the reprieve certain artists can offer us in dark times. And that was when an old and long-cherished idea came back to me: What if I traveled farther south, to each of the places where Caravaggio spent his exile? Many of the works he made in those places remain, some in situ. Naples, Valletta, Syracuse, Messina and possibly Palermo. The more I thought about the idea, the more I wanted to make it happen. I wasn’t after a luxurious summer sojourn. The places of Caravaggio’s exile had all become significant flash points in the immigration crisis, which was not entirely a coincidence: He’d gone to them because they were ports. A port is where a given territory is most amenable to arrival and to escape, where a stranger has a chance to feel less strange. I had two strong reasons for deciding to undertake the journey: First, I longed for the turmoil I knew I would feel in front of Caravaggio’s paintings in the museums and churches where they were held. But second, I wanted to see something of what was happening at that moment outside, beyond the walls.

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Credit...Teju Cole

I arrived in Naples in late June, by train from Rome. It was my first time in the city, and the taxi driver, a middle-aged man, must have guessed as much. He explained that there was a fixed fare of 25 euros between the Napoli Centrale station and destinations in town. By the time the concierge at the hotel confirmed that the trip shouldn’t have cost more than 15 euros, the driver was gone. Later that evening, on Via Medina, half a block from my hotel, I passed by a woman sleeping on the ground. Most of her body was covered by a small blanket, but her feet stuck out, and I was reminded of the bare and dirty feet of the Virgin Mary that had so offended the first critics of Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin.” The next day, the sleeping woman was gone, but I saw another woman seated near the same spot, yelling at passers-by in garbled words that were probably incomprehensible even to speakers of Italian.

Naples bookended Caravaggio’s years of exile. The first visit was late in 1606, the second in 1609, and he undertook important commissions on both visits. By October 1606, he was already being plied with offers and welcomed into the highest Neapolitan artistic circles. One of his first completed works in Naples was for the recently formed charitable society of the Pio Monte della Misericordia. The work, for which he was paid without delay and which he was quick to deliver, was a large canvas titled “The Seven Acts of Mercy.” It can be seen to this day in the church it was commissioned for in the center of the city, just off the narrow Via dei Tribunali. “The Seven Acts of Mercy” is a complex painting that tries to compile into a single vertical plane seven distinct vignettes, allegorical counterpoints to the seven deadly sins. In reproduction, the picture seems a congested mess. But in real life, at more than 12 feet high in a small octagonal building, it is uncannily absorbing.

The protagonists emerge from pools of darkness to play their respective roles, and they seem to drop back into that gloom when the viewer’s eye moves on to other sections of the painting. On the right side of the painting is an allegory of charity from ancient Rome: The elderly Cimon is breastfed in prison by his daughter. A body being carried out behind her (we see only the feet) represents the burial of the dead. In the foreground, a bare-torsoed beggar, sprawled at the feet of St. Martin, represents the clothing of the naked. “The Seven Acts of Mercy,” with its stacked narration as well as its light effects, was to have a sensational influence on Neapolitan painting after Caravaggio. This was something of a pattern for him: In each city where he lived, he was like a lightning bolt, a startling but brief illumination in whose aftermath nothing was ever the same again. When I came out of the church into Via dei Tribunali, “The Seven Acts of Mercy,” with its surging movement and sharp divisions of light and dark, seemed to continue on the busy street.

On the day I arrived in Naples, I saw some young African men selling shirts and hats just outside Napoli Centrale. That afternoon, I went down from Castel Nuovo to Castel dell’Ovo, where boys dived from the causeway into the bay. Near the entrance of the castle, a man sat selling trinkets. He was Senegalese and sometimes worked as a translator of books. He was fluent in French, Italian and English. His current project, he said, was about the African presence in Italy. I asked him where the Africans were in Naples, and he said perhaps I’d find some at Piazza Garibaldi. But, he added, that was not a neighborhood I’d want to be in after nightfall.

That evening I wandered instead through the Quartieri Spagnoli, the crowded “Spanish Quarter,” where Caravaggio lived and where he found the combination of high culture and low life that so appealed to him. The streets of the quarter were narrow, the buildings tall; many walls were decorated with graffiti. It was easy to imagine it as a place where life had been boisterous and cheerful for a long time, a place of concealment and informality — just the thing for a man on the run. The Quartieri Spagnoli was crowded that night, full of residents, students and tourists. My server at the pizzeria where I dined, a jovial young man, had a tattoo on his arm: veni, vidi, vici. It was an allusion to Julius Caesar, of course, but it could also be, I later found out, an identifying mark among members of Italy’s resurgent far-right movement, a sign of their nostalgia for Mussolini’s fascism.

The next morning, I went up to the Museo di Capodimonte, located in the northern part of the city in a building that used to be the palace of the Bourbon rulers of Naples and Sicily. After a long, straight sequence of rooms, I arrived at Caravaggio’s “The Flagellation of Christ.” Christ stands at the column, life-size, and around him are three assailants, two of whom pull at him and the third of whom crouches, preparing a whip. As so often with Caravaggio, there is the story that is depicted, but beyond it, and often overwhelming it, is an intensification of mood accomplished through his use of unnatural shadow, simplified background and a limited color palette. It is an image of brutal injustice, an image that makes us ask why anyone should be tortured.

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Credit...Teju Cole

When I left the museum and walked down the Capodimonte hill, strolling through the busy city at evening, I was distressed. I imagined that I was being watched by people in the doorways and windows. I began to think about how Caravaggio, once he escaped into exile, could never take a good night’s sleep for granted, but I was also thinking about all the people in the city at that very moment who were in one way or another precarious guests: the woman in the doorway at Via Medina, the man selling trinkets at Castel dell’Ovo, the many young Africans I saw at the train station.

Naples had given me two magnificent late paintings by Caravaggio, but my efforts to see a third had been thwarted. “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula,” reputed to be his very last painting, was out on loan. I decided I would leave for Palermo the following day. I wasn’t traveling in correct order: Caravaggio went from Naples to Malta, and only then to Sicily and eventually back to Naples. But my intuition was to leave Malta almost for the end, a remote culmination to a dream journey.

Night had fallen by the time I got back to my hotel room in Naples. Below me lay the city, its houses packed close in the dusk, their lights glittering like a cloud of fireflies all the way to the edge of the water with its ferries and cruise ships — beyond which lay, in almost total darkness now, the Bay of Naples, Mount Vesuvius, the Isle of Capri and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Oratory of San Lorenzo on Via Immacolatella in Palermo is surrounded by a tangle of streets so narrow and twisty that I got quite close to the building without seeing it. I took two wrong turns before I finally found the entrance. On the high altar in the chapel of this oratory, Caravaggio’s “Nativity With St. Lawrence and St. Francis” hung for centuries. Caravaggio is likely to have made the painting in 1609, though the somewhat conservative style (elements of the composition bring to mind his much earlier “Calling of St. Matthew”) as well as the paucity of documents put that date in doubt. What is certain is that the painting was made before 1610 and that it was one of the treasures of Palermo until the night of Oct. 17, 1969, when it was hacked out of its frame by persons unknown, never to be seen since.

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The consensus now is that the Mafia was most likely involved in the theft and almost certainly responsible for the final fate of the painting. What was that final fate? Stories have floated around. It was sold off; it was fed to pigs; it was burned in a fire. But nobody knows for sure. In its place now, in the high altar of the oratory, hangs a copy commissioned in 2009 and painted from photographs of the original, a plucky facsimile that looks nothing like an authentic Caravaggio. Perhaps this is why the printed tourist information asks visitors to cast their eyes elsewhere and enjoy “the beautiful marmoreal floor realized in 1716 by the artists of murble Francesco Camanlino and Alojsio Mira.” But my pilgrimage was not to see a marble floor. Caravaggios are so few — around 80 are agreed upon by scholars — that the absences feel like scars: those mentioned by 17th-century writers that haven’t survived or been identified, the three that burned in Berlin in 1945, the one that haunts the oratory in Palermo.

The summer of my trip was a difficult time in Italy, but Sicily had its own special difficulties. For instance, I couldn’t quite be sure whether the many examples of graffiti I saw with the word “ultras” referred to soccer fanatics, right-wing political thugs or some combination of the two. In the heat of the afternoon, I walked through the Ballarò market, its gaudy stalls offering produce and cheap goods. When I returned, the sun was going down, and the city had undergone a change. The market’s stalls were shut, the streets almost silent. There had been stories about the conflicts some Nigerians in Palermo had had with the Mafia, their involvement in prostitution, the terrible acts of violence they both endured and perpetrated, the stabbings and slashings. None of that was visible during my stroll through the Ballarò market that evening, but the vibe was tense, and I knew that I didn’t want to stick around.

Two things were clear to me by the time I took a train the following morning along the Sicilian coast from Palermo — via Cefalù, Capo d’Orlando, Gioiosa Marea and Barcellona, a succession of unfamiliar towns — to Messina. The first was that I could no longer separate my exploration of Caravaggio’s years in exile from what I was seeing around me in contemporary Italy: the sea was the same, the sense of endangerment rhymed. The second was that, after my stymied attempt to see “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula” in Naples and the predictable disappointment of seeing the replica “Nativity” in Palermo, I was more than ready to stand in front of a real and great Caravaggio painting again. I got into a taxi at the station in Messina. The driver said, “So, you’re a football player?” I laughed. Indeed, what else could a young African headed to a hotel be? “No, I’m here to look at paintings by Caravaggio.” “Ah, Caravaggio,” he said, unconvinced. “Caravaggio. Great.”

In Messina I met up with Alessandra Coppola, a Neapolitan journalist who had agreed to be my guide in Sicily. After lunch, we walked around the city, which was unlike any I had seen in Italy: modest, modern, full of flat-roofed multistory buildings devoid of ornament. There was a good reason for this: An earthquake leveled Messina in December 1908, destroying 90 percent of its buildings and killing more than 70,000 people in the surrounding area. The city that emerged in the aftermath was plainer and more rational than many other Italian cities its size. Many of the new buildings were designed to withstand future earthquakes.

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Credit...Teju Cole

In the late afternoon, Alessandra and I went to the Museo Regionale di Messina, a simple building on a rise near the strait that separates Sicily from the mainland. There were trees and marble antiques scattered about its grounds. We were visiting on a Wednesday afternoon, and almost no one was there at all. We felt fortunate as we moved through the silent galleries. Stepping into a large gray room, without fanfare or warning I found myself standing before “The Raising of Lazarus.” It hit me like a sudden gust of wind. I don’t know if I cried out, but I know I began to shake. I approached it, making sense of it as I moved closer — a harshly lit, frightening picture, an entanglement of limbs, some as yet unresolved drama — and as I did so, I saw that there was a second painting in the room, also by Caravaggio: his “Adoration of the Shepherds.” This was a quieter work, but it was also large and had its own force field.

I sat on a bench in the middle of the room, the two paintings set at a right angle to each other. I was awe-struck, out of breath, caught between these two immensities. The very act of looking at an old painting can be so strange. It is an activity that is often bound up with class identity or social aspiration. It can sometimes feel like a diverting, or irritating, stroll among white people’s ancestors. It can also often be wonderful, giving the viewer a chance to be blessed by a stranger’s ingenuity or insight. But rarely, something even better happens: A painting made by someone in a distant country hundreds of years ago, an artist’s careful attention and turbulent experience sedimented onto a stretched canvas, leaps out of the past to call you — to call you — to attention in the present, to drive you to confusion by drawing from you both a sense of alarm and a feeling of consolation, to bring you to an awareness of your own self in the act of experiencing something that is well beyond the grasp of language, something that you wouldn’t wish to live without.

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“The Raising of Lazarus,” painted around 1609, is dominated by the dark expanse in its upper register. Below, as though spotlit, is the scene of resurrection. At the center, stretched out in a diagonal, taut between death and life, is the pallid, almost greenish body of Lazarus. A man supports him, and his sisters mourn on the right side of the painting. On the left is the figure of Christ, with his head backlit, stretching out his right arm to summon life back into the dead man. Golden light is flecked over hands and faces, arms and legs.

I’ve always been moved by the story of Lazarus as it is recounted in the Gospel of John. The basic shape of the narrative is recognizable and relatable: Someone dies, and the heartbroken family pleads for their loss to be reversed. In the case of Lazarus, Christ is so moved by the family’s grief that he interferes with the natural order of things and grants an exception like no other: He brings the dead man back to life. This makes it an exemplar of a kind of cosmic partiality, what we would all hope for at our most wounded and vulnerable. Caravaggio pins the scene down to its material facts: the confused faces of the onlookers, the downcast faces of the sisters, the necrotic body of Lazarus, the supernatural authority of Christ.

The drama that unfolds in “The Adoration of the Shepherds” is, by comparison, much quieter. What can one do with the stable where the infant Christ was born? Many artists cannot rise above the story’s fairy-tale baggage, but in Caravaggio’s hands, the narrative is brought alive again. The key, as usual, is his trust in realism: Show what things look like, and the feelings will come. The painting is a pool of burnt umber, swirling around the placental red of the robes worn by the Virgin and one of the shepherds. This is no sweet family scene, but rather a document of roughness and need. Why should a newborn and his mother be in such a dirty place, barely protected from the elements? What corner of a refugee camp is this? Why do these people not have a home?

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Caravaggio left Naples in 1607 and ended up in Sicily in late 1608, taking commissions in Syracuse, Messina and probably Palermo. But between his time in Naples and his arrival in Sicily, he spent more than a year farther south, in Malta. He had to leave Naples for reasons that are not clear. Then, Caravaggio being Caravaggio, he had to escape from Malta, after committing a crime there. And when he left Sicily, it was inevitably in a hurry, this time because he feared for his life. He went from Sicily back to Naples and then began to make his way toward Rome. He was productive in those convoluted final years and months, but he was also harried and homeless. It isn’t hard to imagine that when he painted “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” he might have found himself in deep sympathy with the Holy Family. They were, after all, confronted with one of the simplest and most complicated of all human needs: a safe and decent place to spend the night.

At the hotel in Messina, I read in that morning’s Corriere della Sera about a boat that sank more than a year earlier with 700 people onboard. That boat had now been retrieved by the Italian Coast Guard. It had been raised and was being taken from the sea to the Sicilian port of Augusta. I decided I would go to Augusta and watch the berthing of the boat. We departed from Messina and drove down the coast, past Taormina and Catania, on a clear bright morning that had Mount Etna’s smoky peak visible on our right for long spells. The town of Augusta, when we reached it, was bright and deserted. We had lunch at a cafe there but could not find any information about the retrieved boat. So we drove farther down, past Syracuse, all the way to the southern tip of the island, to the resort town Pozzallo. There was heavy traffic as we made our way through the town. A hearse went by, tailed by a large crowd on foot.

At the beach in Pozzallo, we met up with some Italian and American friends and then drove into the port area, where ferries and container ships usually docked. The gates were open, but there was no one at the window and no one else on the grounds. Between the dock and the road, fenced in behind the port area and sitting on the parking lot some 50 yards away from us, were eight large wooden boats. Painted blue, white and red, they were crammed up close together, each tilted to one side, several leaning against one another. I left my companions behind and began to walk toward the boats. Orange life jackets covered the decks and spilled out from them, and by the time I reached the boats, the strong smell they emanated had become a stench. The boats seemed to have been dragged in from the sea with no attempt at cleaning them. They were festooned not only with huge quantities of dirty life jackets but also with plastic water bottles, shoes, shirts and all the filth of many days of human habitation at close quarters.

There was no way of telling which, if any, of these boats had tipped its human cargo over into the Mediterranean, which had been intercepted by European authorities or which had brought terrified travelers safe to shore. I had my notebook with me as I walked among them, and I made notes of what I was seeing. I observed the details, wondering how I might set it all down in writing. What happened next took me by surprise: I suddenly collapsed to my knees and began to sob. My chest pulsed, my tears flowed and between those boats with their strong smell of human bodies, I buried my head in my hands, ambushed and astonished by grief.

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Credit...Teju Cole

When I regained my composure, I climbed into one of the boats, unbothered now by the stench, wanting only to be there, imagining the unseen and desperate crowd of seafarers. Then, after a while, I rejoined the group. We drove out of Pozzallo and returned to Augusta. It was a provincial port, full of cranes and ships and containers, much busier and much more extensive than Pozzallo’s. There was a large fenced-in area set aside with tents for people who had been picked up within the last few days or weeks and who were awaiting processing and transfer to other sites. The large ship that was supposed to come in, we were now told, would not dock that night.

But a smaller group of migrants had arrived during the day, and a police officer gave me permission to speak with two of them. I was led to a room with bright fluorescent lighting. The men were Bangladeshi, both young, probably in their 20s. They looked dazed. They’d been given clean clothes — a checked button-down shirt for one, an athletic T-shirt for the other — and on their feet they wore plastic Crocs. They presumably spoke Bangla. There was an interpreter, a Pakistani man who was fluent in Urdu. He could get the general idea of what the men were saying, I assumed, possibly because they also knew some Hindi, which overlaps appreciably with Urdu. But there was another problem: This interpreter spoke fluent Italian but only halting English. And so, there was work involved in getting him to understand my questions and further work involved in him getting the Bangladeshi men to understand his interpretation of my questions. When they finally understood something of his questions and responded, there were the same number of imperfect steps to get the answer back to me.

The men were both named Mohammed. One of them was bigger than the other. They had been rescued from a boat coming from Libya, where they had been living and working for more than a year. Why did they leave Bangladesh? To find work, they said. And how had Libya been? Big Mohammed shook his head. It was very bad, he said, they had to get out of there, the Libyans were cruel; but it cost a lot of money to gain passage on the boat. And how was the journey? Again, it was big Mohammed who answered: The traffickers had lied, he said. The passengers were told they would be in Italy in six hours. But they were out at sea for almost an entire day, before they were picked up by the Italian ship.

I asked them what they hoped to do, and it was the smaller Mohammed who spoke up now. They wanted the freedom to work in Europe, he said. The other Mohammed nodded in agreement. Their fatigue was apparent — the fatigue of having just that day survived an ordeal at sea. That’s what I kept thinking about: that they had lived but others had died. Why had things turned out that way? It was a matter of luck, and this seemed to contribute to their bemused air.

We were told of another boat that was to dock later that night, at a second and smaller port in the Augusta area, a few minutes’ drive away. The large ship we had expected, we were now told, had been prevented by the authorities from docking. But a handful of its passengers were to be brought ashore for emergency medical attention. And so we went to this other port, and after half an hour, a small covered boat did indeed come in. There were other members of the press present on the pier with us, and we were all allowed to witness the boat’s docking but not to get close to it or to take pictures. Police officers patrolled the area while six or so medical professionals, clad in white full-body protective gear and white face masks, boarded the boat. Soon, they lifted out a frail man and placed him onto a stretcher. He was wheeled over to the ambulance. One of the Italian journalists suggested he was Eritrean.

Not long afterward, the medical professionals in their white suits and masks led a Black couple, a man and a woman, out from the boat, and then a second couple. Both women were pregnant. Each of the four was helped off the boat and onto the pier and then led up the pier to the waiting ambulance. I went up to the ambulance. One of the men was seated near the door, and I asked him where they were from. “Nigeria,” he said. Feeling that I was somehow overstepping my professional bounds, but also imagining that perhaps these people would not hear many soft words in the coming days, I said, “Welcome.” Then I added, “God be with you.” Before the man could respond, a police officer closed the ambulance door and waved me from the area.

Syracuse is built of a honey-colored stone, the same stone used for humble homes as well as for the cathedral dedicated to the city’s patron saint, St. Lucy. Her legend is typical of female Christian saints: a vow of chastity, consecration to God, defiance of the temporal authorities (in her case the governor of Syracuse) and subsequent gruesome execution. Versions of the legend say that Lucy’s eyes were gouged out before she was executed. St. Lucy is the patron saint of the blind, and in her statue atop the cathedral, she holds a dish in which she carries her eyes.

A contact in Syracuse had put me in touch with a young man from Gambia who came across by boat from Libya some eight months earlier. D. had registered as a minor — he admitted to me that he was no longer one, and I put his age at about 20 — and he had been placed in a group home with other minors. He had a dark and intelligent face and an easeful manner that reminded me of my younger cousins. He seemed glad to be speaking English to someone and was even happier when I told him I was Nigerian. “I love Nigerian music,” he said. “It’s all I listen to.” I asked him why he migrated. His father had been a small-time politician, he said, and had fallen afoul of Gambia’s then president, Yahya Jammeh. “My father was forced into exile in Dakar. Things were very difficult for my family. For my mother, for my sisters.” But why didn’t he then move to Dakar? “I wasn’t so close with my father.” But then his father died, and the situation became even more desperate. He went to Libya, to find work there, and managed to send small sums home. When he at last decided to pay money to human smugglers for a passage to Europe, he told no one back home.

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Credit...Teju Cole

“You weren’t afraid of dying?”

“I was, a little,” he said, “but Libya had become bad. I had to go.”

It was the same story, in essence, as that of the Mohammeds. “And the journey, was it as bad as you feared?” “Worse,” D. said. The smugglers had given a radio to one of the passengers, whom they arbitrarily appointed “captain.” The instructions were that he try to contact one of the Italian ships after a certain period of time. After a few frantic hours, the stratagem worked, and the migrants were picked up and taken to Sicily. Only on arrival did D. let his family know he had even attempted the trip. D. said the Italians had been kind to him. He was still living in the house for minors, where he had a certain amount of freedom. But he had very little money and no working papers. Months had passed, and he was now itching to leave Syracuse and go to a larger city.

Then he asked me why I was in Syracuse. I told him I was there to see a painting by Caravaggio. I pointed toward the Piazza Duomo and asked if he would like to accompany me. He said he didn’t see why not. As we entered the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia together, he said, “You know, I come around here every day, around this piazza, and I’ve never been inside a church. Not this church, not any church. In my whole life, I mean. I’ve never seen the inside of a church.” He was raised Muslim. He seemed amazed that he could just walk in, that no one questioned his presence there or stopped him at the door. We went to stand in front of the altarpiece.

“The Burial of St. Lucy” is enormous, at 10 feet across and more than 13 feet high. It is in poor condition now: The paint surface is abraded, and large areas are damaged. But this does not weaken the effect of the painting. If anything, the material frailty of the image helps focus your attention on its funereal mood. St. Lucy, dead, is stretched out on the ground, a cut visible in her neck, her eyes sealed shut. A crowd has gathered behind the body. In the foreground, two powerful-looking men dig into the ground, but this “ground,” lost in a field of dark browns, makes it seem as though time itself were burying the picture. Darkness encroaches on the protagonists from all sides. As D. looked at the painting, I wanted to tell him about how Caravaggio, by this point in his travels, was quite paranoid and had taken to sleeping with his sword. But I didn’t. We looked at the painting together for a while, and then we stepped out of the church. Outside, D.’s eyes seemed full of wonder, as much from Caravaggio, I supposed, as from me, this strange fellow West African who appeared out of nowhere, asking odd questions.

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From the air, the first impression I had of the largest of the Maltese islands was of a large corkboard floating in the sea: a flat brown terrain set off from the water with vertiginous cliffs. On the drive in from the airport, the taxi driver offered, unprompted: “Malta is nice, but we cannot feed all these refugees. We are a small island. We are not a big country.” Malta is distinguished by well-preserved homes and churches, the imposing fort of Castel Sant’Angelo and the lasting and omnipresent influence of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. It was the patronage of this militant Christian organization, also known as the Knights of Malta, that drew Caravaggio to Malta in July 1607.

Caravaggio lived in Malta for a little over a year and in that time made a small number of paintings for the Knights, whose patron saint is St. John the Baptist. His stiff, dutiful portrait of Alof de Wignacourt, the grand master of the order, hangs in the Louvre. Another portrait of Wignacourt is presumed lost. These paintings were probably made to curry a specific favor: to get him into the good graces of Wignacourt, so that Wignacourt would grant him a knighthood, to improve his chances of a papal pardon for his murder of Tomassoni. The island still has two major paintings from Caravaggio’s time there. The first is “St. Jerome Writing.” The second is the work that, more than anything else, took me to Malta: “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” a painting I had known about since I was a boy, well before I had any idea of Malta as an actual place.

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The most populated part of Malta is a dense agglomeration of towns near Valletta, the capital. I stayed in Sliema, one of those towns, dined by the waterside, walked in the quieter streets, wandered. It wasn’t until the third day that I plucked up the courage to go to the Co-Cathedral of St. John in Valletta. The co-cathedral (so called because the old Maltese capital, Mdina, in the interior of the island, already had a cathedral) is gilded and ornate and pulses with the murmur of visitors. But if you follow the signs, passing through a small door at the back, you enter a small, quiet, chapel-like room, the oratory. Straight ahead, but visible only after you come around a fixed partition, is “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.” The effect is of having walked in on something horrible, something you wish to unsee.

The seven people depicted in the painting feel like real people in a real space, dwarfed by the dark background. The lighting, the monumental scale (even larger than “The Burial of St. Lucy”), the height at which the picture is hung and the distribution of dark and light all add to the impression that what you are seeing is an actual event: the two prisoners watching the execution; the servant girl with the gold plate; the old woman; the man directing the killing; the executioner reaching for the knife with which to finish the job; and St. John himself, prostrate on the floor, his neck spurting blood. Caravaggio signs his name below, the only time we know him to have done so, with a red line drawn out of that blood.

All the malevolent force of the paintings by Caravaggio I saw in the preceding two weeks — “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew,” “David With the Head of Goliath,” “The Flagellation” — all that murderous power seemed now to have been distilled into a single nightmare image, a surveillance camera trained on an unfinished crime, a snuff film.

“The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” was difficult to absorb into my understanding of whatever it was I thought painting was. More than a year would pass before I found a key that helped me process what I saw in Malta. That was when I saw two brief video clips from Libya made in 2017. The first clip is of men being sold at a slave market, filmed by an unnamed source. The second was made by CNN journalists who went into the suburbs of Tripoli to confirm the story. The men being sold are migrants from Niger, a few of them standing at night against a bare wall, a desolate courtyard like that in Caravaggio’s painting. The light is poor. It’s hard to see. The business is brisk and rapid: Prices are called out, unseen buyers bid and it’s over. In those clips, what I saw was life turned inside out, life turned into death, just as I had seen in Caravaggio’s painting. Not simply what ought not to be, but what ought not to be seen.

The painting impressed Caravaggio’s hosts. On July 14, 1608, not long after his completion of the painting, he was named a Knight of the Order of St. John. Alof de Wignacourt made the proclamation, comparing him to Apelles, the greatest painter of ancient times. Caravaggio was awarded a gold chain and, according to Giovanni Bellori, Wignacourt “made him a gift of two slaves.” Most of those enslaved in Malta were Muslim, at a time when the hatred between the Knights of Malta and the Ottoman Empire was at a mutually fanatical pitch (there were many enslaved Christians in the Ottoman lands). We don’t know the identity of the two people handed over to Caravaggio, but many enslaved people who worked in a domestic context in Malta were from Bornu, which spanned parts of present-day Nigeria and Chad.

Caravaggio did not get to enjoy his cruel status for very long. By late August, he was involved in yet another violent fracas. Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, a high-ranking knight, was wounded one night in an assault, and Caravaggio and five other men were implicated. Caravaggio was held at Castel Sant’Angelo for weeks. But he somehow escaped from captivity, lowering himself from the fort with a rope. Finding a boatman, whom he may have bribed, he made straight for Sicily. Thus came Syracuse, Messina, Palermo, the great paintings he made in those months trailing him like so many bread crumbs; and then, feeling he was under mortal threat in Sicily, perhaps fearing the reach of the Knights of Malta, he returned to Naples, to another spell of productivity in a city he knew well. He thought he would be safe in Naples. He was mistaken. In October 1609, on his way out of a tavern, he was surrounded by a group of men. They beat him up and slashed his face. It has been suggested that he was partly crippled and partly blinded after the attack. It took him a long time to convalesce. Between that assault and the end of his life, a nine-month period, he produced no more than a handful of paintings, the last two of which are believed to be “The Denial of St. Peter” and “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula.”

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Less than a year after I went to Naples, the Metropolitan Museum received “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula” on loan. I was able to see it side by side with “The Denial of St. Peter,” which is in the Met’s collection. Because we know he died not long after, we cannot help reading these paintings through the lens of a late style, as works that convey both the tremendous skill of the artist and his sense of hurry. They are paintings of great economy and psychological depth. The fear in St. Peter’s eyes, the grief on St. Ursula’s face: Was this the insight of a man who knew his life was almost over? It’s tempting to think so. But Caravaggio expected to recover from his injuries of the previous year. He expected a pardon from the pope. Even with a large body of work behind him already, he was only 38. He must have thought he was just getting started. He wasn’t moving from life into death, like John the Baptist. He was moving from death back into life, like Lazarus. So he thought; so he hoped.

It was in the summer of 1610 that Caravaggio received word that a pardon was being arranged for him in Rome, with the involvement of his old patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese. He left Naples on a felucca, a sailing boat, in the middle of July, taking three paintings with him as presents for the cardinal. A week later, he was in Palo, a coastal fort town 20 miles west of Rome, from which he presumably planned to make his way to the city. But something went wrong in Palo. On disembarking, Caravaggio got into a scuffle with the officers of the fort and was arrested. The felucca set sail without him but with his paintings still on board. It headed north to the coast of Tuscany, to the small town of Porto Ercole. Possibly there was another passenger to drop off. When Caravaggio was released, days later, he hurried over land in the direction of Porto Ercole, a day’s ride. Upon arrival, he collapsed in an exhausted heap. The felucca arrived around the same time.

It was a hot July day in 2016 when I headed to Porto Ercole. My train from Rome passed by Palo after about 30 minutes and arrived in Orbetello-Monte Argentario an hour and a half later. I imagined it could have been a fever-inducing journey in July 1610. I stayed in Orbetello and took a taxi from there the following morning, across a spit of land that ends in the promontory of Monte Argentario, on the southern side of which is Porto Ercole. I had breakfast at a cafe on the rocky beach. A quartet of visitors was seated near me, two of them, from their accents, American. One American was an older man. “Well maybe this guy will win the election, and he can put an end to all that,” the man said. “Political correctness is just crazy. You’re not even allowed to compliment anyone anymore. They’ll cry sexual harassment.” He held forth with the attitude of one who wished to be overheard. He complained about his ex-wife. The other three companions nodded sympathetically.

Caravaggio never painted the sea. I search his oeuvre in vain for a seascape; vistas of any kind are rare. We can address only what has survived of his work, and in what has survived, there are no swells, no waves, no oceanic calms, no shipwrecks or beaches, no sunsets over water. And yet his final years made a chart of the sea, and his ports of call were all literal ports, portals of hope, of which Porto Ercole was the final, unanticipated stop. He’s buried somewhere there, perhaps on the beach, perhaps in a local church. But his real body can be said to be elsewhere: the body, that is, of his painterly achievement, which has gone out to dozens of other places around the world, all the places where wall labels say “d. 1610, Porto Ercole.”

He was a murderer, a slaveholder, a terror and a pest. But I don’t go to Caravaggio to be reminded of how good people are and certainly not because of how good he was. To the contrary: I seek him out for a certain kind of otherwise unbearable knowledge. Here was an artist who depicted fruit in its ripeness and at the moment it had begun to rot, an artist who painted flesh at its most delicately seductive and most grievously injured. When he showed suffering, he showed it so startlingly well because he was on both sides of it: He meted it out to others and received it in his own body. Caravaggio is long dead, as are his victims. What remains is the work, and I don’t have to love him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his paintings, knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.

I walked down to the harbor in Porto Ercole. Small boats in their neat dozens bobbed on the water, and I asked one of the waiting men to take me out. The air was clear, the water a deep blue with faint hints of purple. For the second time on my journey, I got into a boat. We zipped along, and when the boatman took his shirt off, I did the same. He seemed to be in his early 50s, and he said he had always lived in Porto Ercole. He spoke little English. When I told him I was from New York, he grinned and gave me a thumbs up. “Oh, New York!” he said. We were a couple of miles out. Did he know of Caravaggio? Of course he did. He pointed to the beach. “Caravaggio!” he said, still smiling.

I signaled to him to cut the engine. It sputtered to a stop, and the silence came rushing in, so that the only sound was that of the waves lapping at the hull as the boat rose and fell on the Mediterranean.


Teju Cole is a writer and photographer. He wrote the magazine’s National Magazine Award-nominated On Photography column from 2015 to 2019. His novel “Open City” won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2012 and the Internationaler Literaturpreis in 2013 and was on the short list for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His photo book “Blind Spot” was a finalist for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First PhotoBook Award in 2017. Cole is a 2018 Guggenheim fellow and teaches writing at Harvard.

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