March 2


Caravaggio in Sicily

By Rick

March 2, 2021

“There was art before him and there was art after him. And they were not the same." #baroque #art #Italy #Caravaggio

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The history of Caravaggio in Sicily is as dark as the man himself…

Wanted for murder in Rome, hounded by creditors and cuckold husbands all over the Italian peninsula, and then finally chased across the Mediterranean Sea by the Knights of Malta, Caravaggio must have felt some degree of relief when he arrived on the shores of Sicily.

Thanks to arrangements made by his old friend Mario Minniti, a roster of wealthy Sicilian noblemen had lined up to pay him handsomely for his considerable talents. Having double-crossed his former Maltese brothers, and using up the last of his political favors in Rome, his paintbrush provided him with one last chance at salvation in Sicily.

The two friends began their Sicilian tour in Minniti’s town of Siracusa, where the local consul had been convinced to overlook Caravaggio’s many transgressions against various laws, both of heaven and Earth. They commissioned him to paint a grand canvas of their patron saint, Saint Lucy, depicting her at the moment of her death—set on fire, covered in boiling oil, and stabbed through the neck, refusing to denounce her faith…and refusing to die until she was given holy communion. The painting is now quite worn with age, but can still be visited in her hometown of Syracuse today at the Basilica Santa Lucia al Sepolcro in Piazza Duomo.

caravaggio in sicily, burial of saint lucy
Burial of Saint Lucy (1608) Oil on canvas 408 x 300 cm Syracuse, Italy, Bellomo Palace Museum

Still feeling restless and becoming increasingly paranoid (it is said that he was sleeping with his sword at this point), Caravaggio left town even before the official unveiling of his masterpiece, heading north to Messina where the financial rewards promised be even greater. He traveled up the east coast of Sicily, all the while keeping an eye out to sea, where the galley ships flying the flag of Saint John were often visible in the near distance. The Knights of Malta were not about to leave him alone.

In Messina, he was awarded his biggest pay-out to date—triple the price he had been getting in Rome—by a wealthy merchant named Giovan Battista de’ Lazzari. Inspired by his patron’s last name, he commenced to paint an altarpiece for the family chapel called, “The Raising of Lazarus.” The finished product was as gloomy and dark as the artist’s mood in those days. Ninety percent of the canvas is black; the darkness of death from which Lazarus would arise.  Caravaggio himself would not be so lucky.

caravaggio at museo regionale in messina, sicily
Raising of Lazarus (1609) Oil on canvas 380 x 275 cm Messina, Italy Museo Regionale

A legend suggests that as a model for his painting, he had asked some workmen to dig up a corpse that was already in the beginning stages of decomposition. This sacrilege obviously did not sit well among the local Catholic leadership. Indeed, it was around this time that Caravaggio entered a church in Messina, accompanied by a few local priests who were keen to save his poor soul.  They offered him a bowl of water.

“What’s this for?” Caravaggio asked impatiently.

“It is holy water,” replied the humble friar, “it’s to cleanse you of your venial sins.”

Caravaggio waved him off, “Then it’s of no use to me. All of my sins are mortal ones.”

Caravaggio painted one other grand altarpiece in Messina before setting off on the fugitive trail again. Today, both “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” and “The Adoration of the Shepherds” can be seen in Messina at the Museo Regionale.

caravaggio in sicily
Adoration of the Shepherds (1609) Oil on canvas 314 x 211 cm Messina, Italy, Museo Regionale

Caravaggio in Sicily

From here, the remainder of the time for Caravaggio in Sicily gets even more murky. It is thought that he stopped in Palermo to paint the “Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence,” before jumping on a boat and heading back up the west coast of Italy towards Naples.

This last of his Sicilian paintings has a shadowy history of its own. For centuries it was displayed in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo. But on October 18, 1969 it was stolen from the church and has not been seen in public since. The most popular theory suggests that it was taken by members of the local mafia, but no arrests have ever been made. If it were to ever come to auction these days, estimates of its value are in excess of 20 million dollars.

stolen painting by caravaggio in sicily
Nativity with St. Francis & St. Lawrence (1609?) Oil on canvas 268 x 197 cm. Palermo, Italy Church of San Lorenzo. Stolen in 1969

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio found an equally mysterious end. It is believed that he died in Port Ercole on the Tuscan coast on or about July 18, 1610. The cause of death is the subject of some dispute. Some say that he contracted malaria and died of a fever. Others are convinced that the Knights of Malta caught up with him at last and had their revenge. Either way, his life was cut short at the age of 38—but not before changing the way we see art forever.

In the words of one contemporary critic, “There was art before him and there was art after him.  And they were not the same.”


In Rome

The artist established his reputation (for better AND worse) in The Eternal City.  The bulk of his masterpieces are on display in the churches and museums, most of which you can see for free. 

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

    • You’re going to love it! Fair warning: the museum itself in Messina is bit off-putting. Pay your 8 euros to see Caravaggio and Antonello di Messina and move on. Not much else to see there, as most of the building is in a state of constant disrepair. Don’t let that bother you, though, and in a way it makes it even a bit more special to see a masterpiece so grand in such humble surroundings.

  • So many stories about him…think of how he painted such pieces while running, hiding and being hunted…

    • Maybe the “excitement” fueled his artistic abilities…although, in my opinion, his best work was in Rome when his life was relatively stable.

  • I always look forward to your posts,they are always so educational,interesting and the photos are beautiful. When I see your posts it is time for coffee and to sit and learn and enjoy.
    Thank you

    • Wow, thanks Maxine! That’s very kind of you to say. Tomorrow, bring your appetite…it’s all about the food scene in Rome!!

  • Grande articolo di un grande blogger “statunitaliense” ;o) che ama, conosce e critica, giustamente, il mio piccolo grande paese, sul, per me, più grande artista, non perché lombardo e cresciuto a Milano, come me. (I wrote this in Italian to stimulate some of your readers to study my little big language ;o)…)

    • GRAZIE! Si, era lombardo, ma “cresciuto” come un artista a Milano, a Roma, a Napoli, in Malta, in Sicilia…un vero “italiano,” insomma. ah, ah, ah…

    • Thanks! Caravaggio is great to study because his life was as interesting as his art…never a dull moment, always lots of “chiaro-scuro!!”

  • Have been following your blogs recently, and they are wonderful. Thank you for the Caravaggio pieces. What a master. It’s just mind boggling to think of the artists (and musicians) who did so much in their lives and died at an incredibly young age. Caravaggio, 38. Masaccio, 27 (!). Shubert, 31 (!). Mozart, 35. Giorgione, 32. Van Gogh, 37. Not to mention all the 20th and 21st century deaths of modern and popular musicians and artists. But there’s something about the previous centuries that hit me harder.

    • Yes, one has to wonder if perhaps a life full of difficulty and personal tragedy inspires great art. Or maybe it’s the other way around?

  • I like this post a lot. I am a fan of Caravaggio. However, I don’t remember if I saw the painting of St. Lucy or not though I know I visited that Duomo when I was in Sicily in 2007. I know that I did not see the others. I did a Caravaggio tour in Rome several years ago with Context and in the two or three trips to my favorite city since then, I have taken the Caravaggio wander on my own. And I will do so again I hope.

    • Hi Joan,

      The painting of St. Lucy is not actually in the Duomo…it’s in a lesser church (now a museum) in the same piazza. And of course the other two surviving paintings are here in Messina. The last one? Probably hanging over the Don’s fireplace in Palermo.

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