- Mar 26, 2012
There are multiple hypotheses upon Caravaggio's death:
The mystery of Caravaggio's death solved at last – painting killed him
Remains found in Tuscany are likely to be the artist's, proving that lead poisoning was one cause of his death 400 years ago
The remains of Italian painter Caravaggio are presented during a press conference in Ravenna, Italy. Photograph: Enzo Russo/AP
He killed a man, brawled constantly, rowed with patrons and fled justice while revolutionising painting with his chiaroscuro style. Now, as if to underline how dramatic Caravaggio's short life was, researchers say he may have quite literally died for his art.
Scientists seeking to shed light on the mysterious death of the Italian artist in 1610 said they are "85% sure" they have found his bones thanks to carbon dating and DNA checks on remains excavated in Tuscany.
Caravaggio's suspected bones come complete with levels of lead high enough to have driven the painter mad and helped finish him off.
"The lead likely came from his paints – he was known to be extremely messy with them," said Silvano Vinceti, the researcher who announced the findings today .
"Lead poisoning won't kill you on its own – we believe he had infected wounds and sunstroke too – but it was one of the causes."
Art historians already suspect that Goya and Van Gogh may have suffered from the ill effects of the lead in their paints, which can cause depression, pain and personality changes.
Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio after the Lombardy town where he grew up, was a young man at the height of his career in Rome when he killed a man in a brawl in 1606, fleeing to find new patrons in Naples and then Malta, only to be thrown off the island two years later for more brawling.
"After a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ballcourt to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument," wrote one observer.
In between fights he found time to astound his contemporaries with his shocking realism and use of light and shade – chiaroscuro – although he won no favours with religious authorities in Rome when he reportedly used a famous prostitute as a model for the madonna.
From Malta, Caravaggio moved to Sicily, where his paintings became as dark and shadowy as his worsening moods which prompted him to sleep armed and tear up paintings after any criticism.
Returning to Naples, Caravaggio was the victim of a possible attempt on his life, leaving him with the wounds Vinceti believes became infected and spurring him on to Tuscany were he hoped to obtain a pardon for the Rome murder.
How Caravaggio died there, at 38, has been shrouded in mystery ever since – a blank page that Vinceti and a team of archaeologists and forensic scientists have set out to fill 400 years after his death.
To test existing theories that he died of malaria on a Tuscan beach, was devoured by syphilis, or was murdered by one of his many enemies, the team needed to start by locating Caravaggio's remains, which had never been found.
Vinceti went into action when a document was unearthed suggesting the painter was buried in the tiny San Sebastiano cemetery in Porto Ercole.
Discovering that the site had been built over in 1956, the team headed for the town's municipal cemetery to where the bones had been shifted, turning up nine potential sets.
"Set number five turned out to be from a tall man – Caravaggio was described as such – while tests showed he was between 38 and 40 and died around 1610," said Vinceti.
The team's next stop was the town of Caravaggio to compare DNA from the bones with local people. No descendents were found but families with the same surname were traced, giving samples which were 50 to 60% compatible with the bones.
Add in the toxic level of lead in the remains and Vinceti is convinced he has his man, adding to his reputation as Italy's foremost cold case historian, which he won when he dug up the remains of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a philosopher at the court of the Medicis, to prove he had been poisoned.
Now Vinceti is aiming for Leonardo da Vinci, hoping the custodians of his tomb will let him in to create a facial reconstruction of the Renaissance polymath.
Vinceti's press conference today at which a purported fragment of Caravaggio's skull was displayed on a silk red cushion could not have been better timed.
Shunned after his death before coming to be recognised as one of the fathers of modern painting, an exhibition of Caravaggio's work at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome this year celebrating the 400th anniversary of his death attracted 580,000 visitors.
Caravaggio ' was killed by the Knights of Malta'
His mysterious death at the age of 38 has been blamed variously on malaria, an intestinal infection, lead poisoning from the oil paints he used or a violent brawl.
Now an intriguing new theory has been put forward for the demise of the rabble-rousing Renaissance artist Caravaggio – that he was killed in cold blood on the orders of the Knights of Malta to avenge an attack on one of their members.
The chivalric order, which was formed during the Crusades, hunted down the painter because he had seriously wounded a knight during a fight, according to Vincenzo Pacelli, an Italian historian and expert on Caravaggio.
The death of Caravaggio, who earned notoriety during his lifetime for his quick temper and hell-raising ways, has long been shrouded in mystery.
Some historians believe that he died of malaria in the Tuscan coastal town of Porto Ercole in 1610 and that he was buried there.
But Prof Pacelli, of the University of Naples, has unearthed documents from the Vatican Secret Archives and from archives in Rome which suggest that the artist was instead murdered by the Knights of Malta, who then threw his body in the sea at Palo, near Civitavecchia north of Rome.
If true, it was a violent end that Caravaggio himself foretold in one of his most famous works, David with the Head of Goliath (1610), in which he painted his own face onto the severed head of the slain giant.
The "state-sponsored assassination" was carried out with the secret approval of the Vatican, Prof Pacelli claims in a forthcoming book, Caravaggio – Between Art and Science.
"It was commissioned and organised by the Knights of Malta, with the tacit assent of the Roman Curia" – the governing body of the Holy See – because of the grave offence Caravaggio had caused by attacking a high-ranking knight, he said.
The decision to dump the body at sea explained why there are no funeral or burial records recording Caravaggio's death.
"Had he died at Porto Ercole, he would have been given a funeral, especially given the fact that his brother was a priest," Prof Pacelli said. "He would not just have been forgotten." Caravaggio, whose artistic genius was matched only by a supreme talent for creating enemies, was subjected to a violent attack in Naples in 1609 by unidentified assailants which left him disfigured.
Prof Pacelli believes they were almost certainly assassins sent by the Knights of Malta, an order which was founded in the 11th century to protect Christians in the Holy Land and which subsequently established its headquarters on the Mediterranean island.
The academic found historical documents which suggest that the Vatican, which objected to Caravaggio's questioning of Catholic doctrine, tried to cover up the truth of Caravaggio's death.
He discovered mysterious discrepancies in correspondence between Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a powerful Vatican secretary of state, and Deodato Gentile, a papal 'nuncio' or ambassador, in which the painter's place of death was cited as the island of Procida near Naples, "a place that Caravaggio had nothing to do with."
A document written by Caravaggio's doctor and first biographer, Giulio Mancini, claimed that the painter had died near Civitavecchia, but the place name was later scrubbed out and replaced by Porto Ercole.
Prof Pacelli has also found an account written 20 years after Caravaggio's death, in which an Italian archivist, Francesco Bolvito, wrote that the artist had been "assassinated".
Caravaggio – whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi – lived a turbulent life in which violent altercations forced him to flee from one city to another.
After finding fame in Rome for his distinctive "chiaro-scuro" painting technique – the contrast of shadow and light – he suddenly had to leave the city in 1606 after he was involved in a brawl in which he killed a man.
He eventually wound up in Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, where he was made a member of the order.
But by 1608 he was in prison, most probably after becoming involved in another fight, in which he wounded a knight.
He was expelled by the Knights on the grounds that he had become "a foul and rotten member" of the order and imprisoned in a castle dungeon.
He was released under mysterious circumstances and fled to first Sicily and then Naples.
He was heading to Rome in the hope of obtaining a papal pardon for the murder he had committed when he died.
Dr John T. Spike, a Caravaggio expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, agreed that there was no evidence to prove the theory that Caravaggio died in Tuscany.
But he was sceptical of the idea that the tortured genius was murdered by the Knights of Malta.
"They had ample opportunities to kill him sooner – either when he was in Malta, or during the time he spent in nearby Sicily afterwards." Dr Spike believes the artist was killed – possibly accidentally – in a fight, and that his body was unceremoniously dumped.
In 2010, after a year-long investigation using DNA analysis and carbon dating, Italian researchers claimed to have found Caravaggio's bones in a church ossuary in Porto Ercole.
They said they were 85 per cent sure that the remains belonged to the artists, but many historians have disputed those findings.
Vincenzo Pacelli Says Knights of Malta Murdered Artist Caravaggio
Apr 8, 2012 4:45 AM EDT
Lead poisoning or syphilis? Neither killed Caravaggio, says a Naples professor in a new book. Instead, the master artist was slain and dumped in the sea by the Knights of Malta—with the Catholic Church’s blessing.
There is no question that master artist Caravaggio lived a complicated life. Artistically, he was a genius who is best known for developing the technique known as “chiaroscuro,” which defines the intense detail of light and dark in his paintings. But his personal life was haunted by demons. His violent temper once led him to assault a waiter over the way his artichokes were seasoned. His lack of control led him to kill a man during a swordfight. His lovers all ended up hating him. His friends often beat him to a pulp out of frustration. His disregard for the law put him in prisons across Italy and Malta.
The artist, born Michelangelo Merisi, is thought to have died July 18, 1609, but despite many often-contradictory theories, no one has ever been able to prove just how he died until now. His last bout with the law, in 1606, resulted in a murder conviction for which a bounty was put on his head—literally. Whoever killed him was to bring his severed head to Rome for a reward. But his head was never brought to the Rome courts, and instead for centuries he was thought to have perished on an unknown Tuscan beach, either succumbing to a fever from an infection he suffered in a brawl or from malaria, which was rampant at that time. Then, in 2010, bones thought to be his were found in a seaside church grave in Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast. Analysis of the remains led some scholars to pin his death to lead poisoning from his oil paints or possibly to sunstroke, which likely turned fatal thanks to a bout of syphilis.
But now the latest theory on Caravaggio’s death seems the most likely. Professor Vincenzo Pacelli of Naples says it was the Knights of Malta who killed the rogue painter in a murder that the Catholic Church endorsed and then hid for centuries. Pacelli has spent years researching the inconsistencies of Caravaggio’s death in the Italian state archives. Three years ago he got access to the Vatican’s secret archives, which, he says, provided the missing link. “Caravaggio did not die in Porto Ercole of an illness,” he says. “He was the victim of a violent murder and dumped in the sea near Palo Laziale. His assassination was ordered by the state and blessed by the Holy See.”
Pacelli, who says his research unequivocally points to the Knights of Malta, a Catholic military order formed during the Crusades, outlines the theory in footnoted detail in a new book released in Italy this week, Caravaggio: Between Art and Science. During his time in Malta, Caravaggio was briefly inducted into the powerful order, effectively becoming its artist until he was kicked out
Noted art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon was the first to toy with the Knights of Malta–assassin theory publicly in his book Caravaggio: The Secret and the Profane. One of Caravaggio’s last acts of violence, the author writes, was an attack against Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, a senior knight with the order. Graham-Dixon uncovered the truth behind archives that had been obscured by the Knights of Malta order to clarify the legend. For centuries, scholars had thought that Caravaggio’s last crime was killing a noted Roman pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni, but it was an assault on the knight. Roero survived the brawl, and Caravaggio was sentenced to prison, from which he escaped under mysterious circumstances after only a month of incarceration.
Graham-Dixon writes that Roero then sought out Caravaggio and took his revenge on him one night in Naples outside the Osteria del Cerriglio, which was a well-known gay establishment at the time. The murder just a short time later may have been a vendetta on Roero’s behalf. And both Pacelli and Graham-Dixon agree that it was a convenient time for the church to see the last of Caravaggio’s work. At the time of his death, and despite his demons, Caravaggio was gaining a popular following, in part because of the way his masterpieces depicted Catholic Church doctrine with human emotion on the tortured souls and sinister saints, which was in stark contradiction to how the church wanted its divine words illustrated.
The church may have covered up Caravaggio’s death for centuries, but it certainly didn’t stifle his creative influence. The artist’s struggles were matched by his prolific talent, and his works are on display as masterpieces in many churches and museums, from Rome to Malta.
Italian geologist Antonio Moretti organizes bones presumed to be those of baroque artist Caravaggio, at the Porto Ercole cemetery in central Italy, Dec. 21, 2009 (Fabio Muzzi, AFP / Getty Images)