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Visiting the Island of Malta

My heart beat faster as I walked toward the cathedral museum, where the Caravaggios were exhibited. The museum was closed, but the guard told me it would open in the morning.

"The Caravaggios are there?" I asked excitedly.

"Oh, Miss," he said, and his light brown eyes were sad. "Only one is there. The better one, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, is being restored in Florence."

I felt like someone who has seen a silver bowl full of caviar at the head of the table, and when it's finally passed to her, discovers that it's empty. There was nothing to do for my sorrow but drink a pistachio milk shake. I sat in Republic Square, at the Café Cordina, under a leaf-covered arbor; a man on a portable organ played once-popular Italian songs-- "Volare," "Santa Lucia." The waiter asked if I was Russian. No, American, I said. His reply was music to my ears: "Not many Americans come here." Another good reason to visit Malta. There aren't many places left where an American seems exotic.

In my fatigued state, the safety and quiet of the Valletta streets were a relief. No one was shouting; no one was begging; the store windows and walls were free of pornography. It was perfectly possible for a tired, middle-aged woman, even a New Yorker, to make it to her hotel without feeling the shadow of menace over her shoulder.

I dined at the Phoenicia's restaurant, the Phoenix, which has a shipboard feel to it. Green-and-white awnings flapped, and a breeze cooled the sultry evening air. The specialties were enjoyable but unremarkable-- I had a tomato-based octopus stew and the local Maltese white, a light and quite pleasant Pinot Grigio. My waiter was young, eager, and friendly. He asked if I was German.

i had an early breakfast on the terrace, watching the white sails in the harbor; then I took a swim-- by eight the weather was more than warm enough-- and decided to devote my day to a walking tour of Valletta.

At 9:30, the cathedral museum opened. If the St. John wasn't there, at least the St. Jerome was. I stood alone in a dark room, part of the cathedral. Rows of religious paintings from the Renaissance covered most of the walls. And there, lit by a bulb that seemed to be the pure light of artistic inspiration, was a painting whose obvious greatness made my heart stop.

Caravaggio's St. Jerome is bare-torsoed. His hairless chest is muscular, his arms strong. He is not a young man. His baldness makes a wrinkled plane of his forehead, furrowed from the labor of writing. He grips a pen; his other hand is tense with effort and concentration. On his table are a skull, a crucifix, a rock, and a candle in a brass holder. In the dark background is a red hat, which relates to the red of the cloak covering the lower half of his body just as the wrinkles of his belly rhyme with the wrinkles of his forehead. This is a painting about no longer being young, about the struggle of writing in the face of death, whose approach is not distant.

The painting is in Valletta because Caravaggio, who had what might be called impulse-control problems (he left Rome for Naples after killing a man in a drunken squabble), jumped at the chance to be named Knight of the Order of St. John and thus endowed with respectability. The painting is marked with the Maltese cross, symbol of the order. Unfortunately, Caravaggio got into trouble in Malta; he is said to have fought with and wounded one of the Knights. The story goes that his brief bid to improve his reputation ended in a prison sentence, and that he escaped the island in secrecy.

After my siesta I changed into a sleeveless blouse, then set out for St. Paul's Shipwreck Church. Cheerfully, the caretaker showed me a variety of silk remnants: printed ones, pastels, and bright monochromes. I could have my pick to drape over my shoulders-- women can't enter a Catholic church in Malta with bare arms.

St. Paul is an important presence in Malta. The Acts of the Apostles tells of his Maltese shipwreck, probably in a.d. 60, as he was voyaging from Jerusalem to Rome to stand trial for inciting a riot in the Holy City. Once in Malta, St. Paul cured the father of Malta's Roman governor, Publius. The governor converted, and Christianity was established in Malta.

One church altar displays a silver reliquary. Through its central glass window, surrounded by diamonds, I glimpsed what is believed to be St. Paul's right wristbone.

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