The fall of the Byzantine empire in Cavafy’s poem ‘Captured’

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I came across this poem by Cavafy recently about the fall of Byzantium. It’s one of his hidden poems and is rather difficult to translate because it quotes folk songs written in Pontic Greek. So, apologies for any mistakes.

Recently I have been reading folk songs,
about the exploits of the klephts and wars,
our own, charming, Greek things.

I have also been reading laments for the loss of the City
“They have captured the City, they have captured it: they have captured Salonica.”
And the Voice that both of them praised there.
“the Emperor on the left, the Patriarch on the right”,
was heard telling them to stop
“Priests, put down your papers, close up the Gospels”
they have captured the City, they have captured it: they have captured Salonica.

But of the other chants, the one that touches me most
is the one from Trebizond, with its strange language,
and the sorrow of those distant Greeks
who perhaps still believed that we would yet be saved.

But alas, a fateful bird “comes from the city”
with a document under its wing
alighting neither in the vineyard nor the orchard
it went and settled in the roots of a cypress tree.
The high priests can’t (or won’t) read it out
“The son of the widow Gianika takes the paper
and reads it out and laments
“Let it be read, let it be mourned, let your heart be broken.
Woe to us, alas for us Romania has been captured.”

March 1921

There are some interesting features of the poem, apart from the difficult language. Cavafy chooses to reflect on the fall of Byzantium (‘Romania’ is what the Byzantines called their empire) through a Pontic folk song. Pontos is the name given to the area on the southern edge of the Black Sea in north east Anatolia. In Byzantine times this was known as Trebizond or the Trapezuntine empire which lasted until 1461 when it was captured by the Ottomans under Mehmet II.

The date of the poem is also significant. Trebizond had been occupied by the Russians in 1916, but as the Russian Revolution took hold, their troops withdrew. The area came under increasing pressure and control by the Young Turks who initiated a process of ethnic cleansing of the Greek and Armenian populations that continued until the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. So in the poem, Cavafy is obliquely referring to what was happening to the Pontic Greeks in his own time.

Finally, the original Pontic Greek song ends on a more positive note:
“Though Romania has passed, another will come and flourish.”
But Cavafy’s poem is more negative: there is no hope offered that another Byzantine Empire will come along; just the aching sadness for its loss and a lament for its passing, and by extension for what was happening to the Pontic Greeks in his own day for whom there was also no hope of salvation.



Encountering Caravaggio in Sicily

The Piazza del Duomo in Siracusa is ringed with beautiful buildings, but the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia isn’t one of them. Both inside and outside it is a dull piece of architecture, but the architecture is not the reason why it attracts visitors. Its claim on the attention is a painting by Caravaggio that hangs behind the altar which depicts the Burial of Santa Lucia.

The painter came to Sicily in 1608, having left Rome after murdering a high ranking cleric. Initially he went to Malta where he heard about a commission for a church in Siracusa: an altarpiece depicting Santa Lucia, the patron saint of Sicily, who was martyred in the early 4th century during the Diocletian persecutions.

Caravaggio decided to depict the saint’s burial, rather than a glorification of her death and dashed it off in 1-2 months before leaving Sicily in a hurry. Caravaggio painted straight onto the canvas without drawing it out first. It is a very strange painting.Image result for caravaggio burial of st lucia

It’s not clear from the cropped image above but the burial scene only occupies the bottom one third of the canvas. The top two thirds is empty because it just shows the blank wall of the crypt in which Santa Lucia is being buried.

You have to look hard to make out the subject of the painting. St Lucia is a frail, grey body lying on the floor of the crypt, almost as if she is already turning into the colour of stone. Behind her stands a sorrowful young man with a crimson cloth round his neck which points down at the saint’s lifeless body. To the right of the canvas a bishop, distinguished by his white mitre and crozier, raises his hand in blessing. There’s a small cast of mourners, mainly ordinary people and a soldier in a shiny cuirass. The faces of the bishop and soldier are not clearly depicted, almost as if they were painted in great haste, whereas the group of three characters in the centre of the centre of the picture is well lit and clearly painted.

However what frames a the picture are the two muscular gravediggers who, in a dislocation of perspective, almost appear outside of the scene and not related to it. They dominate the painting, particularly the gravedigger on the right whose white backside reflecting the light is the brightest part of the painting. This is echoed by the bright reflection on the shoulder of the gravedigger in the lefthand side. Could the gravedigger on the right represent Caravaggio’s attitude and be mooning at the Church?

Another oddity is the restricted colour palette that Caravaggio uses generally (and not just in this painting): shades of brown, with the exceptions being crimson and white. Everything is very muted and almost understated.

Apparently the Church didn’t like the painting and wanted him to fill in the empty space in the top two thirds, for example with angels. Caravaggio is alleged to have told them that he couldn’t do this as he had never seen an angel (though he did include them in some of his other paintings). I wonder (without any evidence) whether he was an atheist who just used the church to make a living. Or am I just trying to interpret him from the perspective of our times? What a strange and troubled character Caravaggio was.

The painting was sent to Rome for restoration because after several centuries the subject could hardly be made out any more. During the restoration, X-rays showed that Caravaggio painted Santa Lucia with a severed head (as this was how she was martyred), but in the final painting her head is back on her body.

You can’t get very close to the painting and have to view it from the altar rail. Every few minutes, from the back of church, an official barks out ‘No photos!’ through a megaphone to anyone trying to take a shot with a phone or camera. So not the best of conditions in which to look the painting and try to understand it.