The Malta Independent 19 September 2020, Saturday

Sacred art and the return of the Caravaggio

Malta Independent Sunday, 13 October 2013, 09:30 Last update: about 7 years ago

How would you describe the connection between sacred art and religion?

In a sense, every art form is religious. It is an act of creation, an expression of man’s genius.

Throughout history, sacred art has been a most effective instrument for the spreading of God’s message. In spite of his wild life, Caravaggio can be described as a very profound religious artist.

To quote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”


You were responsible for the setting up of Malta’s National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. Was this an interesting time in your career?

Yes very much so. Located in one of Malta’s most beautiful buildings in South Street, it was a fantastic museum. It worries me that they are going to move it. The Auberge d’Italie could certainly be put to good use, but it is the modern and contemporary section that needs updating and expanding. The Pretis and the Favrays should stay where they are. It would be a pity to see this lovely building in South Street where the Fine Arts Museum is located being changed into offices. If anything, what Malta still needs is a space for Modern Art. It is a pity that the Contemporary Art Museum opened years ago in St Julian’s was closed just because there was a change of government.


During this time, you also had a pivotal role to play in the return of the stolen ‘St Jerome’ by Caravaggio. How long did the chase take, and did you feel your life was in danger at any point?

The St Jerome was stolen on 29 December 1984 and two years later, on 24 November 1986, the thieves contacted me asking for half a million Maltese liri for it. They gave me a tape and a Polaroid photo of the stolen painting with a coffee pot on it. I started receiving calls from them almost every day, sometimes three times a day; then a number of bits of canvas cut from the painting. It was a very intense eight months. On 5 July 1987, we traced the calls to a shoe factory in Marsa. I obtained the workbooks from the Ministry so we had the details and the photographs of people working there. The factory had Italian connections since they traded with Italy, and there is no doubt that they had been commissioned to steal the painting by an Italian Mafia. The painting certainly went to Italy, and when the Prime Minister authorised me to say that we had the money available, they brought the painting back to Malta. Naturally, we finally got the painting without paying a single cent.

Finally, I got the help of the police and Major Calleja had men on helicopters including a Mr Calleja, circling the factory where the painting was being held. The painting had been moved to a house in Marsascala by one of the men at the last minute, but we caught the thieves on 4 August 1987, which happens to be the traditional feast day of St Dominic (Fr Zerafa joined the Dominican Order at the age of 16). A new government had been elected and they made a show of this success.

I never really felt my life was in danger; however, the Police told me that the thieves had paid £5000 to have me kidnapped during the exchange. Luckily, they were caught before this happened.

In your book Caravaggio Diaries you mention that the ‘Beheading of St John the Baptist’ has another tale all of its own. Can you please share some details about this story?

I wanted to draw a contrast between the story of the ‘St Jerome’ and that of the ‘Beheading’ The lack of interest in the case of the ‘St Jerome’ made all the difference. After the St Jerome was retrieved, it took over two years to restore it in Rome. I went to Rome on a military plane and when I brought it back it would not fit in the box they gave me so I had to carry it.

The Monsignors, at one time, did not want it back unless the government provided proper security. The whole process got so complicated that at one time I wrote that “at times it was easier to deal with the Mafia than with Ministers and Monsignors”.

While in the case of the ‘Beheading’, which had been slashed while some silver was stolen, I took it to Livorno on an Italian cruiser and then to Florence where it was exhibited in the Sala del Cinquecento, replacing a Michelangelo for some time. It was planned to send it to Rome for restoration but I got talking to Veltroni, the Minister for Culture, and he said in a speech: “We are very happy to restore it here in Florence,” and that’s where it was done, thankfully without having to wait too long.


The ‘Beheading of St John the Baptist’ is one of Malta’s national treasures. What more can you tell us about it?

Caravaggio escaped from Italy after he killed a young man from an important family called Ranuccio Tomassoni on 6 May 1606 in a duel, most likely over a woman. He came to Malta and hoped to become a knight so as to get a pardon from the Pope. Instead of paying the normal ‘passaggio’ to become a knight, he presented his ‘Beheading’. Completed in 1608 in Malta, the painting was commissioned by the Knights of Malta as an altarpiece – it was the largest altarpiece Caravaggio would ever paint. It still hangs in St John’s Co-Cathedral, where Caravaggio himself was received in the Order and briefly served as a knight.

Caravaggio’s service to the Order was brief and troubled, as he was soon a fugitive from justice, having escaped from Malta while imprisoned for a minor crime. About a year and a half after his was received into the Order, he left Malta without permission, so he was defrocked in absentia by the Order as a “putrid and fetid limb”.

The ceremony must have taken place in the Oratory before this very painting he had signed with the blood coming out of the neck of St John. He signed as ‘Fr Michelangelo’ – as a member of a religious Order. This is in fact the only painting Caravaggio signed.

Both the ‘St Jerome’ and the ‘Beheading of St John’ are now kept in The Oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedral. I believe the Oratory should be turned into a sancta sanctorum dedicated to Caravaggio since this is where both paintings are kept and also where he was accepted and rejected by the Order of the Knights of St John in this very same room, so it has a lot of history.


What were some of the most defining moments in your career, which gave you a sense of satisfaction?

My life has been a series of happy moments. As a boy I never had any idea of entering a religious order, but I used to listen to Dun Gorg Preca at Sarria church and he encouraged me all the way. I was not yet 16 when I joined the Order and lived happily ever after. I was sent to Oxford for four years and then another four years in Rome. I studied Philosophy, qualified in Theology and obtained a Doctorate in Social Sciences. On the side I obtained a degree in Art History at London University, and followed courses at the Sorbonne and at Florence and Rome universities. I also worked at the Louvre on a Council of Europe fellowship. The Order never spent a cent on my art studies since everything was provided through scholarships given by the British, Italian, French and German governments.

I joined the Museums Department almost by accident since at the time I was still hoping I would settle in Florence where I was working with the help of Professor Lapira, ex mayor of Florence, to open an Art Centre in S Marco. In 1970, I joined as Assistant Curator of Fine Arts and set up the National Museum of Fine Arts. I became Curator of Fine Arts in 1975 and Director of Museums in 1981. I was responsible for the opening of a number of museums in Malta and Gozo. It was during this time that I was involved in the recovery of the St Jerome.

I was lecturing on art at various centres and I used to take groups of students abroad. I was co-founder of the Russian Maltese Friendship Society in 1974. I visit Russia frequently and last year I lectured at Moscow University and at the Contemporary Art Centre. I have also lectured at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, at Aspen, Colorado, and other places.

I love Fra Angelico’s art and I have copied many of his masterpieces. I have designed a number of sculptures found in Malta and abroad – such as the full-scale figure of St Dominic at the De Porres Hall in Sliema, and a number of sculptures of my uncle – the ex- Prime Minister of Malta, Sir Paul Boffa.

I have now retired as Director of Museums but I am still lecturing at the Toronto University in Canada for two months a year, as well as at the Angelico University in Rome for two months a year.


Do you still lecture in Malta?

Yes, my next lecture will be held at the Angka Cafe Rejuvenation Centre in Aldo Moro Street, Marsa in November. I also lecture regularly at the Italian Cultural Institute.


For those who have an interest in art, which overseas destinations would you recommend they visit?

There are so many to choose from such as Florence in Italy and Paris in France – as well as Prague and New York.


Are there any notable places you still wish to visit?

I would return to Paris, Florence or New York any day.


In which ways do you wish to see Malta’s heritage given homage to and protected further?

A lot of good has been done over the past years– such as the restoration of the Bastions in Valletta. St John’s Co-Cathedral has also been transformed and it has been restored well. I was very pleased to see the Wignacourt Museum recently restored and a number of other museums, both government and local. Overall I am quite happy and there are only a few things I am worried about.

Firstly of losing the Museum of Fine Arts. I believe it should be preserved and they should add a Museum of Contemporary Art. Secondly, the museum of St John can be improved and more items put on display, as they were when the museum was first opened. Above all, I think a solution can be found for a better display of the tapestries and a better evaluation of Caravaggio’s presence in the Oratory of St John.

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