The Strange Death of Caravaggio

The Latest Italian Crime Sensation Is a Very Cold Case Indeed

One of the world’s most renowned artists and troublemakers had finally gone too far. And this time no one could pro­tect him.

Previously, even after being convicted of a brutal murder, he had been allowed to join the Knights of Malta who had become his protectors. That had lasted until he committed another offense the nature of which remained un­known until this century, but it was serious enough to have him booted out of the order. So his erstwhile protectors, the very same Knights of Malta, contracted for a hit to be made on his life. The Vatican was asked for approval of the assassination and consented. The artist was then murdered, his body never found.

In a matter that might be titled the “Da Vinci Code meets Cold Case,” four centuries after the murder of one of Italy’s most famous artists, the crime is apparently still under investigation. The four-hundred-year anniversary now has Italy in a frenzy that has been described as Caravaggio-mania; but art historians, archaeologists, scientists, and at least one independent investigator are hot on the trail of the perpetrator.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Milan in 1571 and trained at the tender age of 13 under one of Ita­ly’s most famous artists, Titian. It was a time when many new churches and palazzi were being built and many new works of art were needed to decorate them. Before he was 30, Caravaggio’s radical naturalism and unique contrasts of light and darkness made him famous. Even after his death he is given credit for considerable influence on Baroque painters. After his initial public commissions he was never without patrons. But despite the religious themes of most of his work, his life was more like that of a modern rock star whose early success had gone to his head. He would go to work for a few weeks producing his remarkable art and then turn to the streets where he behaved like a brute. He is believed to have committed his first murder as a teenager. At just 21 he fled to Rome after seriously wounding a po­lice officer.

His artistic career in Rome started badly as well. He arrived penniless and ended up doing minor work for Pope Clement VIII’s favorite artist Giuseppe Cesari. He lived in the Campo Marzio neighborhood which was seedy and fre­quented by other starving artists and artisans. With the help of his new connections and a few close friends, he soon rose to fame again. One of his friends was the architect Onorio Longhi; another was the Sicilian artist Mario Minniti. And a third was the painter Prospero Orsi. Orsi introduced him to wealthy collectors including the Colonna and Sfor­za families.

Regarded as a ruling Renaissance family, the Sforza clan’s power extended well beyond Italy. Today the family tree even includes the Spencer family and Princess Diane. Equally powerful in the middle ages, the Colonna family was strong enough to depose Popes and elect their own family members to the College of Cardinals where one could be­come Pope.

The architect Longhi reintroduced Caravaggio to the streets and Fight Club, Roman style. With a menacing ser­vant at his side and his sword always ready to be drawn he swaggered from sports event to tavern spoiling to start a brawl, or finish one. In May of 1606, one such brawl had the young artist killing another man named Ranuccio To­massoni. The murder was so brutal that it offended sensibilities even in the violent streets of medieval Rome. Accord­ing to one version of the story, Ranuccio’s girlfriend, Lena, was a prostitute and pregnant with either his child or the artist’s. After she was found dead, Ranuccio was arrested. The Tomassoni family was powerful and Ranuccio was known as a swordsman. Upon his release, Caravaggio challenged him to a duel and killed him in the streets. Since dueling was illegal but also because of the viciousness with which he finished his crime, Caravaggio was convicted of murder; but thanks to the protection of the Colonna family he was freed. He next turned up in Naples.

The violent nature of his life also began to bleed into his art. Decapitations, violence, torture, and death played such a prominent role that much of his art was regarded as vulgar and even rejected by those who had commissioned the works. One was the Death of the Virgin intended for a private chapel in the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria della Scala. One reason for the rejection was that a well-known prostitute had posed as the Virgin. Caravaggio had his share of friends in low places, and many of them would serve as models for his religious paintings. Another reason was that her bare legs were depicted. It mattered little to Caravaggio, though, as the Duke of Mantua purchased the work rejected by the Carmelites.

In Naples, and under the protection of the Colonna family, Caravaggio was still a wanted man for the murder in Rome. He found there was a bando da Roma, a price on his head. This meant anyone could exact the death penalty on him and collect a reward. The artist then fled to Malta. On that island the Co-Cathedral of St. John had recently been consecrated. Malta was the new home for the Order of the Hospital of St. John which had a long history dating back to the Crusades when they had been organized in the Italian city of Amalfi. The order had become a rival of the Knights Templar and had survived the backlash against such orders, but just barely.

After the fall of Jerusalem they went to Cyprus, then Rhodes, where they operated mostly as pirates against Mus­lim shipping. Finally they were given the tiny island of Malta which lies south of Sicily. Valletta, a tiny city on a tiny island, became their capital. Nonetheless they were a powerful order that has survived into modern times.

The Grand Master of the order was Alof de Wignacourt who saw opportunity in becoming Caravaggio’s protector. The artist was allowed to join the prestigious order and in return produced one of his most famous works for their Cathedral, The Beheading of John the Baptist. He also did a portrait of the Grand Master himself as well as portraits of many Maltese knights. They are not re­garded as his best works but did serve to keep him alive.

While living on Malta, Caravaggio frequently traveled to Sicily with his friend Mario Minniti. There he earned one lucrative commission after another while visiting Syracuse, Messina, and Palermo. He also allowed his inner brute to further emerge. In modern times it would be suspected that he suffered from a form of mental illness. He ate badly. He wore his clothes until they were rags. He reputedly slept fully dressed and armed, always ready for trouble. Mod­ern psychiatrists claim that his illness has been shared by Cellini, Goya, and even Michelangelo, but no others had such a violent reputation. Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched by Fire describes the manic or depressive behaviors that may plague as many as fifty percent of writers, musicians, and artists as both the root of creativity as well as great mental anguish. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) recorded his own bouts between melancholy and half-insane tem­pests and cyclones when he was at his most creative. Caravaggio’s character, however, was more dangerous.

Today his behavior might be considered schizophrenic which is meant to describe a person who cannot perform many of the normal activities of living such as preparing meals or maintaining normal hygiene. That, combined with unpredictable and untriggered agitation, might be considered paranoid schizophrenia. In any case he was much worse than simply a violent man in violent times. One Italian investigator blames the paint that artists used in the fif­teenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It contained lead, and prolonged exposure causes serious health issues and accentuates aggressive traits.

The artist still had not learned his lesson and even as a member of the order was still a brawler who never lost an opportunity to pick a fight. On Malta he picked one too many and was expelled from the order and its protection. Offi­cially his expulsion came from being a “foul and rotten member.” For the last few hundred years it was not known just what he did to earn his expulsion, but recent investigations suggest he battered down a door to attack another knight and left him seriously wounded.

Again he fled, this time back to Naples. In Naples he painted his final John the Baptist that is in Rome’s famous Borghese gallery and The Martyrdom of St. Ursula considered an important impressionist work. His art was evolving, but thanks to his troubles it would not get the chance to evolve further. He had first left Naples because he was an outlaw with a bounty on his head, but now he had more serious problems. By this time the contract on his life might have been placed by the Maltese Knights. He was attacked by a person, or persons, unknown and left for dead. The “murder” was reported to Rome where it was believed he was dead; That is, until he turned up alive although badly disfigured. His wounds had been severe enough to keep him in bed for months. Still alive and still the artist, he paint­ed his Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. The face of St. John was Caravaggio’s own disfigured face and the painting was sent to de Wignacourt possibly to earn forgiveness as he had obviously suffered. He painted another of his greatest works for Scipione Borghese, the art collecting nephew of the Pope, hoping he too could grant a pardon.

But Carvaggio’s fate was already decided and forgiveness was not forthcoming. Pope Paul V was Camillo Borghese and at best he was stern, unyielding, and not known for mercy. After the burning of Giordano Bruno for his heretical ideas of the solar system, Paul V personally warned Galileo about teaching heresy, such as that the earth might move around the sun. According to one researcher, neither the Pope nor the Grand Master wished for anything less than the death of Caravaggio. Vincenzo Pacelli, an art historian at the University of Naples, claims the Knights of Malta took it upon themselves with the approval of the Vatican, where he had already been convicted, to assassinate the art­ist. For the record, the Vatican has had no comment and a spokesman for the Knights of Malta recently called the claim, “science fiction.”

The last news of Caravaggio was that he had been heading to Rome by boat. He never arrived. On the way he was arrested, held briefly, and then released as the local police believed a pardon was imminent. Meanwhile his boat had taken off with his clothes and several paintings. He set off on foot to meet the boat but never did. Instead reports say he died at Feniglia beach near Porto Ercole a small town on an island connected by a large causeway to Tuscany. There, depending on just who tells the story, he died of malaria, or dysentery, or typhus, or pneumonia. Or, as other versions have it, he was murdered alone, or with another. It was said he was taken to a hospital, or direct to a grave at nearby San Sebastiano.

Because this year is the four hundredth anniversary of his death, the topic is of no minor importance in Italy. Today researchers from the universities of Bologna and Ravenna believe they have narrowed down their investiga­tion to nine possible Caravaggio corpses, which are in Ravenna for carbon dating as well as evidence of typhoid and malaria. The heavy metals found in seventeenth century oil paint might also have contributed to his death if, indeed, it was a natural death. The next step is comparing the DNA with surviving members of the Merisi family (da Caravag­gio is actually a name taken from the Merisi family birthplace). There are many relatives alive today, some descending from his brother, although no known children of Caravaggio himself. The scientists are cooperating with Silvano Vin­ceti whose lack of formal forensic training does not detract from his major successes in medieval detective work. He has among his credits the exhumation of Dante Alighieri and the reconstruction of that author’s face. He also re­moved the body of Petrarch from a tomb only to discover the skull had been stolen and replaced with another. Vince-ti, the head of the Italian National Committee for Cultural Heritage, insists “Caravaggio did not die alone on the beach.”

After his death his personal reputation preceded that of his art. For centuries there was little respect for him. Even when his popularity began to grow again, he was still overshadowed by other Italian artists, notably da Vinci, but now that may have begun to change. The artist, who left behind no drawings, no letters and not even a will, just his many paintings and a considerable police record, is now Italy’s odd anti-hero. And his murder will no longer re­main a cold case.

By Steven Sora

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