Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Anyone who has watched season one of Netflix’s “The Crown” surely knows that Queen Elizabeth II, back when she was Princess Elizabeth, lived for a while in Malta. At the time, Malta was still a British possession and an important base for the Royal Navy, and Elizabeth accompanied Prince Philip here during his naval service.
But most of us are likely unaware, not before visiting, of the other historical personages connected to this tiny island country.
First up, St. Paul. In 60 A.D., Paul set sail from Crete to Rome to face trial. A storm blew the ship off course. The Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:27—28:5) tells the story:
On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. . . . Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight.
Paul’s shipwreck led to the conversion of Malta, which today remains mostly Catholic. The sandbar where the ship struck ground is now called St. Paul’s Island, and the bay is called St. Paul’s Bay.
Then there was Caravaggio. The Italian painter might have been a genius but was also notoriously combative and had a rap sheet that could fill his easel. In 1606, he managed to kill a man in a fight. Caravaggio fled to Naples and then Malta in 1607, which was then ruled by the knights of the Order of St. John. Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, all too pleased to have a painter of Caravaggio’s calibre serve as artist in residence, inducted him into the Order. For the knights Caravaggio produced several major paintings, most significantly “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” a milestone in the history of art. It was meant as an altarpiece for St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta’s capital, Valletta, and remains there still. Alas, Caravaggio just couldn’t keep his fists away from other men’s faces, and after just one year he was expelled from the Order and forced to leave for Sicily.
Finally there was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The famed English poet and drug addict, the author of such majestic poems as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan [sic],” traveled to Malta in 1804. Just a few years earlier in 1798, Napoleonic France had ended the rule of the Order of St. John by annexing Malta only to immediately face a Maltese revolt and British intervention, so that by 1800 Malta had become a British possession. Now Coleridge came to serve as secretary to the governor and war hero Admiral Alexander Ball. He returned to England in 1806 but was in Malta again in 1807-8.
This second stint was part of an effort to improve his health, which by this time was declining due to opium use. Alas, according to Thomas de Quincey, the return to Malta had the opposite effect, and Coleridge grew then into a full-blown addict.
In fact, some name Coleridge as the first known case of drug addiction in Maltese history.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."