During his brief stay in the city, the artist created one of his last masterpieces, the Burial of Santa Lucia.

by Jeremy Dummett

In October 1608, Caravaggio brought off a miraculous escape from prison in Malta, arriving by boat on the south coast of Sicily. He made his way to Syracuse where he was met and looked after by his friend Mario Minniti.

Caravaggio portrait by Leoni

Caravaggio, portrait by Ottavio Leoni, c.1621 (Click on image to enlarge)

The artist’s proper name was Michelangelo Merisi, or Marrisi, da (from) Caravaggio, a small town near Milan in northern Italy. He made his reputation in Rome in the early 1600’s by supplying the church and wealthy private patrons with paintings of great originality and dramatic impact. In his work conventional biblical scenes took on a new realism through strong characterisation and recognisably contemporary settings. For his models, instead of following classical examples, he used people from the streets. The public, unused to seeing real life expressed in religious art, took him to their heart. Caravaggio’s paintings became hugely popular.

While his art was becoming the talk of Rome, and he was making friends in high society with people like the Colonna family, Caravaggio was also indulging his wild side. During the years of his greatest creativity, 1600-1606, an increasing number of violent incidents involving the artist was recorded by the police. An expert swordsman with a fiery temper, he enjoyed wandering through the rougher parts of the city with a group of friends looking for a fight. Eventually it got out of hand, a man was killed, and Caravaggio was condemned for murder by the pope. His influential friends obtained refuge for him in Malta, under the protection of the Knights of St John. At first all went well. The Knights’ Grand Master, Alof de Wignacourt, was so pleased with his work, especially his Beheading of John the Baptist and his portrait, Wignacourt and Page, that he made Caravaggio a full member of his order. Then another fight took place in which a leading knight was badly wounded. Caravaggio, who was involved in the fight, was thrown into an underground prison. Somehow he managed to escape, avoid the tight security in the harbour, and board a boat to take him to Sicily. According to a contemporary source, this was done at night with the use of ropes, presumably with inside help. The Knights, infuriated by his escape, expelled him from the order.

Mario Minniti, who met the artist upon his arrival, was a Syracusan who had worked with Caravaggio in Rome, had been his model, and had been present at the fight when the man was killed. Having obtained a pardon for his role in the crime, Minniti was now married and the owner of a successful studio in Syracuse which produced a large quantity of paintings. He was able to introduce Caravaggio to the leading men of Syracuse. The timing could not have been better. The city’s senate was in process of restoring a basilica in honour of their patron saint, Santa Lucia, who was martyred for her faith in 304. Caravaggio, whose reputation extended to Sicily, was commissioned to paint a new altarpiece for the basilica, to be ready for the saint’s feast day on December 13th.

While in Syracuse, Caravaggio was shown around the ancient monuments by Vincenzo Mirabella. Mirabella, who studied the archaeology of ancient Syracuse, published his work in 1613, containing the first reconstruction of the ancient city. In his book, he recalls that Caravaggio was particularly interested in one of the quarries with a tall, narrow shape and exceptional acoustics, thought to have been used as a prison. “Having personally taken Michel Angelo of Caravaggio, that remarkable painter of our times, to see the prison, I remember him saying, prompted by his unique talent for portraying nature: Don’t you see how the Tyrant, wishing to hear what was being said, made the prison in the shape of an ear?” The name, the Ear of Dionysius, is used to this day.

The painting

Caravaggio’s 'Burial of Santa Lucia' (click on image to enlarge)

Caravaggio’s ‘Burial of Santa Lucia’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Caravaggio’s painting for the basilica, the Burial of Santa Lucia, was finished in early December. It was a vast canvas, four metres by three, another realistic scene and a far cry from the conventional religious paintings of the time. Two huge grave diggers dominate the foreground, with a group of mourners behind, and in the middle, the small, broken body of Lucia. Caravaggio worked directly onto canvas with a brush. During restoration work it was revealed that an earlier version had showed Lucia’s head severed from her body. This must have appeared too extreme, if historically correct, and in the finished painting she is shown with a gash in her throat. For his models, Caravaggio used contemporary faces. The gravedigger on the left is thought to be Wignacourt, the Knights’ Grand Master, whether in revenge for imprisoning him in Malta or simply because his face was easily remembered, is unknown. Other faces in the painting may include Mirabella, Minniti and a self-portrait of the artist. The bleak atmosphere of the painting, recalling the city’s catacombs, owes something to Caravaggio’s own mood at the time, for he was in fear of his life from the Knights’ agents.

His work in Syracuse completed, Caravaggio left with Minniti for Messina, a larger city where he felt safer. Here he carried out two commissions, the Raising of Lazarus and Adoration of the Shepherds. He may then have left for Palermo, where he did a commission for the Oratory of San Lorenzo, called Nativity with saints Lawrence and Francis. New research, however, suggests that the painting was done in Rome in 1600. This painting was stolen from the oratory in 1969 and never recovered. By September 1609, Caravaggio was in Naples where he was attacked and wounded in the face. Little is known about his final months in 1610 except that after leaving Naples for Rome, where he hoped to receive the pope’s pardon, he died near Porto Ercole. The cause of death is unknown and could have been an illness, such as typhus, or murder at the hands of the Knights of Malta. He was thirty-eight.

Mario Minniti, who lived on until 1640, left paintings that can be seen in the Bellomo Museum and in the churches of San Benedetto and the Carmine in Syracuse. His paintings are not high quality and are largely of historical interest. Minniti is remembered in Ortygia by a street in his name which leads off Via della Giudecca.

Basilica of Santa Lucia

Basilica of Santa Lucia

Caravaggio’s altarpiece was commissioned for the Basilica of Santa Lucia, in Piazza Santa Lucia, in a district known as the Borgata, which is to be found on the far side of the Little Harbour. It is one of three monuments in this location, together with the sepulchre, which was built over the saint’s original burial place, and the catacombs below. Here the painting was displayed at its best, in its correct historical context.

In 2010, when restoration on the basilica started, the painting was moved to the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, in Piazza Duomo. Here, while it attracts more visitors, being in a central location, it lacks the atmosphere that surrounds the basilica. A smaller church than the basilica, it gets very crowded. However, it seems likely that the painting will remain here for the foreseeable future, as the environment is thought to be less humid and thus safer for the condition of the painting.

To follow the story of Santa Lucia, a visit to the complex of monuments which includes the basilica, the sepulchre and the catacombs, is well worth while. It is to be hoped that one day the painting will be returned to its rightful place in the basilica.

To this day Santa Lucia remains a potent force in Syracuse. She is celebrated on her feast day of December 13th as well as during a festival in May. Her body stayed in the city until 1039 when it was taken first to Byzantium and later to Venice where it lies in the church of San Geremia. In December 2004, the remains of her body were returned to Syracuse from Venice for one week, to mark 1,700 years from her death. Her arrival at the harbour was met in silence by a huge crowd who went on to celebrate her return to the city throughout the following week.

Sources

Vincenzo Mirabella, Dichiarazioni della pianta delle Antiche Siracuse (Lazzaro Scoriggio, Napoli, 1613).

Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio (Allen Lane, London, 2010).

Peter Robb, M, a biography of Caravaggio (Bloomsbury, London, 2000).

Walther Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies (Schocken Books, New York, 1955).