The ‘de-Caravaggisation’ of Caravaggio | Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci

Malta’s chosen entry for the 2022 Venice Biennale is a project called ‘Diplomazia astuta’. GIUSEPPE SCHEMBRI BONACI - whose work (together with Italian artist Arcangelo Sassolino) forms part of the exposition - talks us through an artistic concept that promises to “resonate with current world cultural events’ and ‘offer viewers a visceral examination of justice and peace’

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci
Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci

In its description of the Malta Pavilion, the Arts Council website envisages a ‘re-articulation of Caravaggio’s seminal altarpiece The Beheading of St. John the Baptist’. Let me start with this: why Caravaggio? What is it, about this particular 17th century master, that is still relevant for an exposition of contemporary art?

It is a multi-layered question; and if you don’t mind, I’d rather not give a complete answer, for now. Let’s just say that we’ve been working on the project since 2018; but there’s still a year to go, and – please don’t take offence – there are some things I’d rather not reveal just yet. I wouldn’t want to ‘let the fascinating cat out of the bag’, as it were…

What I can say for now, however, is that we will not merely be exhibiting, or showcasing, Caravaggio’s ‘Beheading of St John’. We are also trying to… ‘challenge it’. In a sense, the idea is to ‘de-Caravaggize’ Caravaggio. That’s probably the best way to explain it. We are trying to tackle Caravaggio, by ‘negating’ Caravaggio; by ‘de-iconising’ the icon… and putting it in context of our contemporary world.

But as for why we chose Caravaggio, specifically… again, there are many layers to that. First of all, the theme is partly to celebrate the long centuries of artistic and cultural exchange between Malta and Italy, and between Malta and the rest of the artistic world of that time. And while there are other exponents of that cultural bond – such as Mattia Preti for instance: who lived here, worked here, and died here…. a fact which, as far as I’m concerned, makes him a ‘naturalised Maltese’…

…but for the purposes of this undertaking, we felt we had to offer something that is not just pertinent, but absolutely essential to our own cultural identity.  At the risk of being misunderstood: I am a firm believer in ‘the export of ideas’. It is admittedly more of an economic, mercantile approach; but I am using it here only as a metaphor. To go onto the international fora, at this level - to be recognised as having something to ‘sell’, on the international market - you really have to go with the best thing you have.    

And of course, I’m not saying we don’t have a lot to choose from. It could have been Prehistoric art, for instance; but there can be no doubt that Caravaggio is one of the most important - if not the most important – components of our artistic heritage: not just of the Baroque period; but arguably, for our national artistic identity as a whole. And the ‘Beheading of St John’, in particular, is a masterpiece…

I won’t ask you to reveal any more secrets: but you yourself said you would be ‘de-Caravaggising Caravaggio’. This suggests a ‘new’ approach to what is ultimately a classical work of art. How, then, can a painting that has been so intensely and exhaustively dissected, for so many centuries, still yield perspectives that are relevant today?

That, to me, is the very question that has made this experiment so fascinating, over the past couple of years. How are we going to link our present, contemporary experience – in an age of great technological advances, yes; but also, violence and brutality on a hitherto unimaginable scale - with a milestone of Maltese art history, such as Caravaggio

Because Caravaggio is not the only aspect that we are trying to explore. We are counter-challenging this masterpiece with the metallic age of the 20th-21st centuries: ‘the Age of Metal, or Steel’…

Yes, that is in fact the theme of your own part of the project, ‘Metall U Skiet’: and the programme also notes that “steel [is] the material intrinsic to 20th century modernity… and impending doom.” Could you expand on that? Why ‘impending doom’?

The idea is that: metal – and steel in particular – has come to define the age we live in, in more ways than just the obvious. One can relate with Malevitch, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, the Bauhaus school, and many others who believed that the era of metal gives superhuman force that would lead to some kind of global and universal domination.

In fact, if I emphasise ‘steel’, but not only, so much, it’s because – apart from being a metal of industry, which has shaped the world we live in: everything from armaments, wars, genocides, to skyscrapers, transportation, Space exploration, etc… all of it is made, from the ground up, from industry metal - steel is also a ‘cold’ metal. Icy cold… the coldness of Dante’s hell.

And the 20th century – and now, the 21st – was beyond shadow of doubt a ‘Century of Metal’. It was metal that provided all the material for modern technology - all the way down to the microchip - but the 20th century, in particular, also witnessed the coldness of steel: the gulags, the concentration camps… the weapons of war, that made atrocities possible… all that, too, was also built upon the most advanced technology of the time.

And… this is what I meant, when I said that the experiment has been so fascinating. This is precisely where Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of St John’ comes into the picture.

For the Beheading is not just a ‘Biblical/Christian/Catholic’ narrative. And I’m not saying that to demean that particular interpretation of the story. But it’s not the only one. Apart from all the theological implications, the narrative itself – viewed only as a narrative; and without entering the question of whether one ‘believes’ or not - also explores far-reaching philosophical, theological, and theoretical ideas.

And there is a lot that comes out – even just from the theological dimension – that goes beyond its immediate purpose; and that is still very relevant today.

To me, the ‘Beheading’ – and I’m referring both to the painting, and to the event itself: real, or mythological – is not just about an execution that was ordered because of court intrigue. It’s not just about King Herod telling Salome: ’Oh, you danced so beautifully, you can have anything you want’…. so she asked for ‘St John the Baptist’s head’ on a plate.

There’s more to it than that. Why did she ask for the head of St John the Baptist, anyway?

As I remember it from ‘Jesus of Nazareth’: because he had spat at her mother, and publicly shamed her as an adulteress…

That’s just the ‘court intrigue’ part, however. In reality, ‘St John the Baptist’ was a lot more than just an inconvenient ‘Voice in the Wilderness’. Even in his own lifetime, he was also regarded as the harbinger of a New Era. He heralded the coming of the Messiah – which, in Biblical terms, signifies the New Testament: the start of a new age, a new definition of humankind based on love, and the promise of Salvation: another form, one may say, of a Utopian dream of everlasting happiness.

Historically, however: that ‘New Age’ that began with his death – the advent of Christianity – would go on to determine… everything, really. The whole evolution of the modern world: including all the progress, and all the devastation, it would bring…

OK, I’m beginning to see the connection: although it does require a certain amount of hindsight…

Yes, it does. But that is also, in itself, part of the what we – for I have to mention Arcangelo Sassolini here: a fantastic artist, with whom I’m fortunate enough to be collaborating on this project – are trying to do. And it ties in with what I mentioned earlier: the ‘de-Caravaggisation’ of Caravaggio.

By approaching the same narrative from this new interpretive angle, it opens up a beautiful new panorama to add to all the other interpretations that already exist. It expands our appreciation – in this case, of Caravaggio’s Beheading’ – precisely by ‘denuding’ it… by removing Caravaggio himself from the picture, as it were, and applying what’s left to our own, contemporary world.

And one way of looking at it, is that… the ‘ushering in of a New Age’ always ends in tragedy. Whether it’s Communism, with its gulags… whether it’s Marshall Mcluhan’s computerised global village, or Yoneyi Masuda’s Computopia, … or Nazism, with its Holocaust and global racial domination… and no matter how Utopian the ideology claims to be… it always ends in dystopic violence and brutality. Like the dominant dictatorship of steel in the 20th and 21st centuries, it ushers in an age war and genocide…

So if the idea is to strive towards a world in which there is more ‘justice and peace’ – and ‘war and genocide’ are, ultimately, the antithesis of that - to me, it makes sense to try and give a tangible form to this ‘Utopian/Dystopian’ dichotomy - to try and… as I put it in the programme… ‘un-conceal the concealed truth’…

Another theme explored by ‘Diplomazia astuta’ appears to be language: presumably, as a factor contributing to our cultural identity. “Metall u Skiet”, for instance, features an engraving of Psalm 139 in ‘Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Maltese, Italian, English’. Are you suggesting, however, that language itself is one of the means whereby these ‘truths’ are concealed?

Language in fact is not one of the means, but the means whereby truths are concealed so as to be unconcealed, manifested, and made open by language itself. And I went in depth as to the multi-cultural richness of the Mediterranean languages - in particular ancient languages that form our own Mediterranean identity, and that formed the whole cradle of European genetics: that is, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Arabic - and those forms that specifically make up our Maltese ‘structure’: that is Italian, Arabic, and English.

So a whole process started to evolve in juxtaposing the Caravaggio idea described a few moments ago, with the multiple-flow of languages that envelop our own selves. I came to this idea by the beautiful help of the Maltese ‘Greek-Phoenician’ Melqart pillars – today, one pillar can be seen at the Malta Museum of Archaeology, and the other at the Louvre, France: an unfortunate, cruel separation of the ancient pillar-twinning/duality… together with the beauty that is the Rosetta stone: both of which gave modernity the key to ancient languages, and thus the key to our primordial identity.

The texts chosen were specifically selected due to their chanting of the creation of humankind as a universal act of a work of art. Such ‘chanting’ is juxtaposed, in our project, with the iced metal modernity: that brings into our world the fire of destruction and purgation, through the phenomenal silence of Brian Schembri’s musical score.

Diplomazija Astuta is curated by Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip, through the creative collaboration of Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, Arcangelo Sassolino, and the composition of renowned Maltese conductor and musician Brian Schembri