An Old Master & Brawler: Caravaggio’s 400-Year-Old Mystery

Caravaggio, a pioneer of the Baroque movement, lived a tumultuous and violent life. The nature of his early death is a mystery that has endured for 400 years.

Dec 13, 2020By Jonathan Hemmings, MA English Literature w/ minor in History
medusa david goliath caravaggio
Medusa by Caravaggio, 1597; with David With the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, 1609


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known to history simply as Caravaggio, was one of the artists whose revolutionary paintings did much to usher in the Baroque movement in the early 17th century. He was a man given to excesses, who could as often be found working obsessively on a masterpiece as engaging in drunken brawls in Rome’s taverns. He kept company with both wealthy noblemen and low rogues. His paintings generally feature dramatic, intense chiaroscuro lighting, psychological realism and scenes of tumult and violence.


When he was not pioneering a new movement in painting, he could be found swaggering drunkenly about the streets with a sword in his hand, looking for fights. In the course of his short but intensely lived life, he produced a wealth of magnificent paintings, murdered a man, suffered grave illnesses, and ultimately left an imprint on the world of art that would endure for centuries. The nature of his premature death is a mystery that has still not conclusively been solved.


Caravaggio’s Early Life

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Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, 1598, in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, via Sotheby’s


In what could be interpreted as a foreshadowing of the nature of his future, life Caravaggio was born in a time of upheaval and rapid societal change across Europe. He was born in Milan in 1571, but his family fled the city in 1576 when a virulent plague, which killed his grandparents, devastated the city. They stayed in the rural region of Caravaggio, from whence comes the name by which he is now known. His father was killed by the same plague in the following year – one of almost one-fifth of the population of Milan who died of the illness that year and the next.


Having demonstrated a talent for drawing and painting from an early age, Caravaggio began an apprenticeship with master Simone Peterzano in Milan in 1584. The year was to prove a tragic one, for the artist’s joy at beginning his apprenticeship was tempered by his mother’s death. Peterzano had been a pupil of Titian, who was a renowned master of High Renaissance and Mannerist art. In addition to this sort of influence, Caravaggio would no doubt have been exposed to other Mannerist art, which was prominent and ubiquitous in Milan and many other Italian cities.


Apprenticeship and Flight From Milan

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Boy Bitten By Lizard by Caravaggio, 1596, via National Gallery, London

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Caravaggio’s apprenticeship lasted four years. No Caravaggio paintings from this period are known today; any art he produced at that time has been lost. Under Peterzano, he would likely have received the sort of education that was standard for painters of the time and would have been trained in the techniques of early Renaissance masters. Just as influential as his education, though, was the city in which he lived; Milan was a bustling city often plagued with crime and violence. Caravaggio had a short temper and a penchant for brawling, and after allegedly wounding a police officer in a fight, he had to flee Milan in 1592.


Rome: Developing His Own Style

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The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio, 1604, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


Following his exodus from Milan, he arrived in Rome, quite penniless and possessing little but the clothes on his back and a few meager possessions and art supplies. His only major asset was his talent for painting and armed with this formidable weapon in his limited arsenal, he soon found work. Lorenzo Siciliano, a notable painter from Sicily, employed the newly-arrived young artist in his workshop, where Caravaggio mostly painted “heads for a groat apiece and produced three a day,” according to one of his biographers, Bellori.


Caravaggio later left this job, and instead worked under master Mannerist painter Giuseppe Cesari. Much of this time was spent in Cesari’s workshop, producing relatively tame and repetitive still-life paintings of fruit, flowers, bowls and other inanimate objects. He and other apprentices painted these pieces in almost factory-like conditions, and not many specific Caravaggio paintings from his period of apprenticeship are known today. The new city did little to dampen his fiery temper; he continued to live a tumultuous life in Rome, frequently drinking and fighting in the streets.


However, it was during this time that the artist began to work in earnest on his own paintings. The earliest known Caravaggio paintings stem from this period of his life. His Bacchino Malato (Sick Young Bacchus) of 1593 is a self-portrait, imagining himself as the Roman god of wine and excess, painted when he was convalescing with a major illness. In this work, we can see the elements which characterize much of his later paintings, but chiefly the tenebrism, prominent in much later Baroque art, with which he is credited with pioneering. Tenebrism, in which intense darks are dramatically contrasted with stark and bold areas of light, with little tonal variation between these two extremes, is a distinguishing feature of almost every known painting by him.


Caravaggio Paintings Come Into Their Own

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Bacchino Malato by Caravaggio, 1593 via Galleria Borghese, Rome


Perhaps owing to his extensive experience painting still-lives while working in Cesari’s factory-like workshop, the first historically known Caravaggio paintings contain fruit, flowers and other standard still-life subjects. He combined this rather mundane imagery with his love for portraiture, resulting in a number of versions of Boy Peeling Fruit, which were all painted in 1592 and 93, and 1593’s Boy With A Basket Of Fruit. In these embryonic works can be seen the beginnings of his dramatic use of tenebrism. With their somewhat prosaic subjects, however, they lack the psychologically unsettling realism and often graphically violent and gory imagery characteristic of his later, more famous works, such as 1597’s Medusa.


Unlike many of his contemporaries, Caravaggio usually painted straight onto the canvas without preparatory drawings. Another thing that set him apart from most other painters of his time is the fact that he never painted any female nudes, despite keeping company with prostitutes. He did use the female prostitutes he was friendly with as models, but they were always clothed. He did, however, paint plenty of male nudes, which, along with the fact that he never married, has led to much speculation about his sexuality. One of his most notorious male nudes is 1602’s Amor Vincit Omnia, depicting a nude adolescent boy as Cupid in a suggestive pose.


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Amor Vincit Omnia by Caravaggio, 1602, via Gemäldegalerie, Berlin


Regardless of his sexual preferences, what cannot be debated is the extent to which his paintings revolutionized the world of art. His subject matter, like that of many of his contemporaries, was often biblical in nature, but he imbued his works with a stark realism that was unparalleled in its intensity. Violence, murder and death were oft-used themes in Caravaggio paintings, and the manner in which these were conveyed by his deft brushstrokes had a frighteningly lifelike physicality to it. He often used common men and women as models, giving his figures an earthy realism.


From Painter To Killer: Crossing A Terrible Line

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Medusa by Caravaggio, 1597, via the Uffizi Galleries, Florence


Caravaggio’s violent temper and his penchant for drinking and fighting had resulted in numerous troubles with the law over the years, but his antisocial behavior would almost cost him his life in 1606. In a contest that could only end with the death of one of the contestants, the artist engaged in a duel with swords with Ranuccio Tomassoni, a possible pimp or gangster of some sort. Caravaggio was purported to be quite the swordsman, and proved it in this duel, dealing a horrific blow to Tomassoni’s groin that caused him to bleed to death.


Caravaggio did not escape the duel unscathed; he suffered a significant sword cut across his head. The wound he received in the swordfight was the least of his worries, though. The duel had been an illegal one, and furthermore he was not licensed to carry a sword. In the eyes of the law, he had committed murder, and the punishment for this crime – pronounced by the Pope himself – was death. Caravaggio did not wait around for the law to come knocking; the very night he killed Tomassoni he fled Rome. As it would turn out, he would never again set foot in the city he loved so much.


A Knight of Malta: An Honor Tragically Short-Lived

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The Crucifixion of St Peter by Caravaggio, 1601, in the Cerasi Chapel, Rome, via Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Caravaggio spent some time in Naples in southern Italy. Powerful friends of his in Rome were working behind the scenes to get a commutation or even a pardon for his death sentence so that he could return. However, whatever progress they were making was not moving along fast enough for the artist. Instead, he had a plan of his own to get a pardon from Pope Paul V himself. It was such an outlandish and unrealistic idea that only the mind of a mad genius could have come up with it: he would become a Knight of Malta.


The Knights of Malta, formerly known as the Knights Hospitaller, were a Catholic military order founded in the 11th century, and were a powerful, highly disciplined group of warriors. Rules in the order were strictly upheld, and the knights lived by a code of honor that forbade indulging in drinking, whoring, gambling, petty fighting and all the other vices Caravaggio enjoyed. He shouldn’t have stood even a vague chance of being accepted into the order, but his reputation as a master painter preceded him. Many high-ranking knights commissioned him to paint their portraits, and soon enough, and against all odds, he was accepted into the order and inducted as a Knight of Malta. While in Malta, he would produce The Beheading of St John the Baptist (1608), widely considered one of his greatest masterpieces.


If he could have persevered in Malta, kept his head down and proved himself to be a virtuous fellow instead of a thuggish brawler, perhaps Caravaggio’s life would have turned out differently. As it was, though, his temper got the better of his common sense yet again. He argued with a higher-ranking knight and shot him with a pistol, seriously wounding him. He was thrown in a dungeon to await his fate. Brawling with a fellow knight of the order was a grievous crime, and after leaving Caravaggio to rot in the dungeon for a few weeks, he was stripped of his knighthood, expelled from the order and exiled from Malta.


The End Of Caravaggio’s Life: A 400-Year-Old Mystery

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Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy by Caravaggio, 1606, in a Private Collection


After Malta, he went to Sicily for a time. There he continued to paint, and the works he produced there were dark in both tone and subject matter. In addition, his behavior was becoming increasingly disturbed and erratic. He carried a weapon on him wherever he went, convinced mysterious enemies were stalking him. He even slept in his clothes and boots every night, clutching a dagger. In 1609 he left Sicily and headed to Naples, slowly inching his way back toward Rome, where he still hoped to receive a pardon for the murder he had committed.


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The Martyrdom of St Matthew by Caravaggio, 1600, in Contarelli Chapel, Rome, via Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


In Naples, though, further misfortune was to befall him. One evening, mere weeks after his arrival, four men ambushed Caravaggio in Osteria del Cerriglio. They held him down and slashed up his face with a dagger, leaving him horribly disfigured. Nobody knows who the men were or who sent them, but it was almost certainly a revenge attack of some sort. The most likely hand to have been guiding the thugs was that of Roero, the Knight of Malta Caravaggio had shot.


From here on, the story gets murkier. Historians today have yet to unanimously agree on exactly how Caravaggio died, and what caused his untimely demise. He lived for at least another six months to a year after the attack, but the exact time and manner of his death were unrecorded, as was the location of his remains. Various theories propose that he died from malaria or syphilis, or that he was murdered by one of his many enemies. Other historians believe that sepsis from the wounds he sustained in the attack in Osteria del Cerriglio caused his untimely demise. For close to 400 years, nobody has been able to conclusively say how one of the greatest of the Old Masters died.


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David With the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, 1609, via Galleria Borghese, Rome


However, in recent years, another theory has emerged, and it is one that may explain much of Caravaggio’s violent and unpredictable behavior. In 2016 a group of scientists examined a set of bones believed to have been Caravaggio’s, exhumed from a small cemetery in Porto Ercole after a recently-unearthed document suggested that they may have been his. Researcher Silvano Vinceti, who led the team who examined the bones, believes that lead poisoning – from the very paints that defined who he was – ultimately killed Caravaggio. Long term lead poisoning, over time, can cause erratic, violent behavior as well as permanent personality changes, which, considering how the painter often acted, is a theory that certainly holds water.


Regardless of the exact manner of how he died, what historians can unanimously agree on is that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio left an indelible mark on the world of art, and forever changed the history of painting. His legacy can be best summed up in art historian André Berne-Joffroy’s words: “what begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”


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By Jonathan HemmingsMA English Literature w/ minor in HistoryJonathan is a contributing writer, a novelist and a musician who is passionate about art, history, literature and the areas in which these three subjects intersect. He has a master’s degree in English Literature, and he minored in history, art history and fine art when he earned his bachelor’s degree. He has lived and worked on three continents and has worked in a range of fields, from English teaching to selling his own art to drumming in rock bands. He is currently based in the Midlands in England.