October 22, 2013


David Ellis

THERE are a couple of blokes gone down in history in Malta for enjoying a cold drink on a warm day – with its mostly warm days, Malta having every reason for a cold drink.

And many a visitor to its capital Valletta, pays homage to both these men – to one in the sanctity of a cathedral where hangs a priceless work of art he created some 400 years ago, to the other in a pokey bar where he dropped dead less-salubriously during a very boozy session in more recent years.

Michelangelo Merisi was an Italian artist born in the late 1500s, adopted the name Caravaggio after the town in which he grew up, and earned fame for his chiaroscuro style of painting (use of light and shade,) which he coupled with the dramatic and often theatrical.

And throughout his just-38 years he lived a bizarre double-life, being favoured by patrons from the Vatican and Italy's highest society for his art, whilst also being a street brawler, habitué of anywhere a drink could be had, and killer – the latter seeing him flee to Malta after the death of a young man in a fight in Naples in 1606.

He was thus no stranger to the law, although he also enjoyed some protection by his many patrons, including in Valletta the famed Knights of Malta who conferred membership upon him after he did complementary portraits of their hierarchy.

Living this erratic mix of fame and notoriety, Caravaggio would paint furiously for days on end, then maraud his way through town for equally long nights on end, indiscriminately picking arguments and fights while a faithful servant traipsed behind to rescue him from bars, and not the occasional whore-house (many models in his most-famous religious paintings were, in fact, prostitutes.)

One of his most lauded paintings finished shortly before his death was 'The Beheading of St John The Baptist,' an extraordinary work measuring 361cm by 520cm (nearly 12-feet by 17-feet) that today draws thousands of viewers to Valletta's St John's Cathedral.

Caravaggio disappeared somewhat in mystery in 1610, reputedly dying in the Italian town of Porto Ercole: some said it was of fever, others syphilis, some claimed he was murdered on the orders of the Knights of Malta who'd tired of his errant ways, and yet others that wealthy patrons had equally tired of the discredit his lifestyle was bringing upon them.

Researchers, however, recently tested bones unearthed in a cemetery in Italy's Port Ercole, and from carbon dating and DNA are convinced they are those of Caravaggio… and believe he died, in fact, from lead poisoning.

Reputedly a "messy" painter, these researchers say the heavily lead-based paints he used could explain his bizarre behaviour, aggression and mood swings – all typical indicators of lead poisoning.

Malta's other famed embracer of a drink or three was swashbuckling British actor Oliver Reed, who died in a Valletta bar, The Pub after a lunchtime session in which he downed eight beers, twelve double rums and a half bottle of whiskey.

On Malta for the filming of 'Gladiator' with Russell Crowe in 1999, Reed had gone to The Pub on May 2nd  with his wife Josephine, and around 2.30pm got into an arm wrestling challenge with some visiting Royal Navy sailors.

A few minutes in, Reed suddenly collapsed over the table and crashed to the floor, dead of a massive heart attack.

His bar stool is now displayed in his regular corner, surrounded by memorabilia from his visits there – together with news coverage of "Ollie's Last Order" famed drinking session.

There are also newspaper clippings of his many other legendary drinking exploits, as well as radio and TV misdemeanours that included the time he arrived drunk and attempted to hug a renowned very feminist writer on-camera, blurting at the same time one of TV's more memorable impromptu quotes, "Give us a kiss, Big Tits".

As well as Caravaggio's famed painting in the cathedral and a visit to The Pub, Valletta's picturesque streets and architecture, and its Upper Barrakka Gardens with its panoramic harbour views, are all worthy of days of exploring.

As Sir Walter Scott once put it: "Here is a city built by gentlemen, for gentlemen…"

Caravaggio and Ollie Reed, we're sure, would doubtless drink to that.



1.MALTA's capital Valletta from the air: A city built by gentlemen, for gentlemen(Malta Tourism Office)
2. THE Pub, where Oliver Reed had his last fateful drinks... eight beers, a dozen double rums and half a bottle of whiskey over lunch. (Wikimedia)
3. OLIVER Reed as Proximo the ex-gladiator who trains the Gladiator (Russell Crowe.) (Universal Pictures)
4. CARAVAGGIO's The Beheading of St John The Baptist measures 361cm X 520cm (nearly 12ft X 17ft) and hangs today in Valletta's St John's Cathedral. (Wikimedia)

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