COPP’S HILL MOMENT: Breakfast with Caravaggio

(They say it is the journey, not the destination that matters. But, there are exceptions, especially when it comes to ocean crossings in autumn. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to appreciate the true worth of such an experience and the strange things encountered upon reaching the safety of dry land.)

I was misinformed. No one bothered to tell me that that I had booked passage on a voyage of the damned when I set sail from Montreal to Liverpool in October 1970 with a group of American college students bound for a foreign studies year in Ireland. The promotional brochure from the program had made the first leg of our journey sound so glamorous. A trans-Atlantic cruise on a ‘luxury liner’. Gourmet dining. An intimate cinema with first-run films. And, a disco, cabaret and health spa thrown in for good measure. There were twenty-two of us in the company of an affable Jesuit economist from a Catholic university in the midwest. Father D.’s rough-hewn appearance, 3-day-old beard and watch cap lent him the appearance of a cast member from On The Waterfront – minus, of course, the colorful language.

We boarded the 650-foot S.S. Empress of Canada in the warmth of an Indian summer evening and slipped downstream with 800 passengers and a crew of 350 into the black tidal currents of the St. Lawrence River, passing under the flood-lit ramparts of Quebec City which was bathed in midnight gold. The students were quartered below deck in coffin-sized cabins with sealed portholes. But, who cared? We pigged out that first night on fine wine and rich food at reserved tables in a ballroom that exuded a certain shabby elegance. Still, it was all so exciting for the likes of our motley bunch who would soon enough come to rue their gluttonous excess.

The excitement of our romantic send-off lasted less than 24 hours before our vessel left the calmer waters and protection of the Gulf of Lawrence and steered into the frigid headwind and swells of the North Atlantic. I did not sense something amiss until midway through the featured move – A Man Called Horse – in a claustrophobic theater buried deep within the ship’s belly.

I was fairly distracted by Richard Harris’ performance as an English aristocrat captured by a Sioux war party and subjected to all kinds of trials and tribulations which we would now recognize as ‘enhanced interrogation’. I first noticed the heavy stage curtains and screen drapery swaying back and forth over close-ups of Harris’ contorted face. And that’s when I suddenly felt lightheaded with a queasy stomach and looked around in panic for the red-lit exit signs. I made it just in time to the railing of an outer deck where I was blasted by sub-Arctic winds rushing southwards from Labrador. We can skip the rest of the details. Let’s just say that I would have preferred hanging by my hands from the tripod of a teepee alongside Richard Harris than to have undergone my private ordeal in that moist and freezing salt air.

Of the passengers listed on the ship manifest, probably 100 escaped seasickness and an anti-histamine shot in the buttocks from a gruff dispensary nurse. During the next five days, we were largely confined to our miniature quarters. We pitched and rocked and lurched and shifted in gale-force winds. Things were bad, but worse was yet to come.

In mid-ocean, several of the gals got it into their heads that they could self-medicate their way out of nausea by toking marijuana in their cabins. After all, this was 1970 – the ‘sixties were hardly dead. The girls were caught with pot in their possession by stewards who sniffed strange, sweet smoke seeping through the ventilation system. Naturally, they reported this to the captain who immediately radioed British authorities with the news that American drug smugglers had been encountered on the high seas. Our fearless skipper was a stiff, phlegmatic character garlanded with golden epaulettes. He strode the corridors projecting an impressive military bearing, but had the personality of a fire plug. Each day he presided over a question-and-answer session with whatever storm-tossed stragglers wandered into the lounge from the upper decks where they had their breaths sucked from their throats by 50 mph gusts. One brave soul had the temerity to inquire how far away we were from land just as the captain was winding up his presentation. Pointing his finger downwards, our fearless commander solemnly responded: “Madam, we are always at least one mile from the nearest point of land.” (Note: My father would have described such commentary as ‘having a little savage amusement’.) Upon receiving this particular bit of wisdom, the assembled audience dizzily stumbled out of their padded chairs and raced towards the exits, presumably back in the direction of the outer decks.

We were not exactly given a hero’s welcome when we tied up in Liverpool. The American troublemakers were immediately culled from the passenger queue while customs agents decided whether we would be allowed on British soil. We were incredulous. Not allowed to disembark from the SS Empress of Canada even for a transfer to the Dublin ferry? We were shepherded into the ship’s infirmary for individual interviews with a psychiatrist who questioned me on the source of the ‘merry-gee-wannah’ and then asked – not jokingly – whether I liked girls. I was still in the throes of seasickness and haunted by the prospect of onboard confinement for an equally harrowing return passage to North America. At that moment, I would have driven a wooden stake through the sternum of the ringleader had I been given the opportunity. Our luggage was searched with painstaking and humiliating precision, including an examination of our undergarments. But, her belongings were inspected in microscopic detail which yielded birth control pills banned in Ireland at that time. (“Father, your fine Catholic girls have menstrual regulators”). Our chaplain-escort looked down in grim silence, but regained his composure once we received final clearance to cross the Irish Sea.

It was raining sideways when we arrived at the ferry terminal. We’re talking torrential. But that was not what concerned us. We had only been on terra firma for one hour, and now we were heading back out into the deep blue — make that, the deep black — sea once again. We had to survive another overnight passage before reaching our destination. So we huddled in a corner of a large room midship and watched with envy as Tipperary farmers on their return from the U.K. with the proceeds of cattle sales stuffed into homespun jackets, slept soundly on the bowed interior deck without pillow or blanket.

Seven hours later with a following tide, we slipped through a mist and into the thin greying light of dawn past the channel markers of Dublin Bay. We were dockside at Ringsend in the industrial heart of Ireland’s capital which in that era possessed the charm and ambience of an incinerator plant. Still unsteady on our feet, the young men and women were herded into separate vans to be transported to temporary quarters. The girls got the better of the deal with placements at the bed-and-breakfast lodgings of elderly ladies who doubled as chaperones. Meanwhile the guys were consigned to Hatch Hall, a Jesuit residence for university students and seminarians which offered 9-by-5’ carrels furnished with an iron bed and straw mattress covered in striped ticking, most likely sewn by prisoners from leftover bolts of the same cloth used for jail apparel.

We were billeted there only for a handful of days as we recovered from the effects of the ill-fated crossing and acclimatized ourselves to local cuisine. Classes were about to start and assignments made for local digs. Breakfasts were particularly excruciating in a stark refectory that would have been more appropriate for a cloistered monastery with stone counters, rough-hewn wooden tables and straight-back chairs. The furnishings left something to be desired, but nothing compared to the food that ranged from sketchy to horrific when we awoke. Broiled tomatoes, watery eggs, toasted bread soaked in mutton suet, and blood sausage – the last item not even camouflaged with a culinary euphemism. Some of the students began to uncharitably refer to our temporary home-away-from-home as ‘Down-the-Hatch Hall’.

We were assigned tables directly under a dark and brutal painting of Jesus’s betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. I had never taken an art course in college, yet the altar boy in me recognized the theme, accustomed as I was with similar paintings in darkened chapels. This particular rendition was a cruel smack in the face for someone attempting to recover from sleep deprivation and motion sickness. There was a lot going on within that 4 x 6′ frame, including a terror-stricken apostle in flight, murderous soldiers, the bloodshot eyes of Judas, and a morose, compliant Jesus about to meet a cruel fate. The dramatic blend of blinding bright light and dense shadow stoked a migraine. I later learned that the intended effect of this baroque painting technique — ‘chiaroscuro’ as the Italians call it — is to intensify the emotions of the viewer with or without a side of blood sausage. Metabolically speaking, it certainly did a number on me.

Within a week Hatch Hall was history when we all secured permanent housing. It was quite a year to come as I morphed into adulthood and fell in love with Irish literature as well as a certain girl who would become my life mate. But that’s not what this story is supposed to be about. It’s really about what was discovered in that gloomy refectory 20 years later.

The Taking of Christ – By Caravaggio – Web Gallery of Art (Public Domain)

In 1990 a restoration specialist at the National Gallery of Ireland was asked to conduct an inventory of the artwork owned by the Dublin Jesuit community. Making his rounds and almost as an afterthought, the fellow dropped by Hatch Hall and spotted that same lugubrious painting still hanging on the refectory wall. He shook his head in disbelief, instantly recognizing a lost original masterpiece of Caravaggio, commissioned in 1602 by a Roman nobleman and last seen by the art world in 1802. When it was rediscovered in August 1990, The Taking of Christ was valued at millions of dollars. Today it is probably appraised at $80 million. Whatever its current worth, you probably wouldn’t want to mount this painting on a hardware-store hook in your kitchen.

When I returned to Dublin on a nostalgic trip in 2014, I purposely strolled past Hatch Hall which now served as a safe haven for abused women refugees. The red brick Victorian façade still looked the same to me. But I sincerely hoped that the breakfast fare had improved in the 44 years since I last slept on a straw mattress at that address. I was disappointed to learn that Caravaggio’s painting was temporarily on loan outside of Ireland. Ironically, on a tour of North American museums, it had even made its way to an art gallery at Boston College unbeknown to me.

On my bucket list is a return visit to Ireland and the National Gallery for an intimate re-acquaintance with The Taking of Christ. It’s been nearly 50 years. This time I would like to re-examine it close up and at my leisure. And, please, hold the suet toast and blood sausage.


(From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living)


2 Replies to “COPP’S HILL MOMENT: Breakfast with Caravaggio

  1. Thanks, Tom for this most informative and delightfully written travelogue! I truly enjoyed it and am sure you have continued to rejoice in the miraculous gifts of Caravaggio!

  2. What a well written, interesting and entertaining piece, Thomas. I enjoyed it immensely! I never had the opportunity for a semester abroad back in those days, but I could feel your excitement and consternation. Well done! Thank you.

Comments are closed.