How Did Caravaggio Die?

There are several theories surrounding the death of the notorious Baroque master Caravaggio, including lead poisoning, disease and foul play.

Jul 12, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

how did caravaggio die


Caravaggio was the great Baroque painter who pioneered bold new approaches to painting, working with extreme lighting effects and theatrical tenebrism to produce startlingly lifelike effects. Much like his art, the man himself was equally as dramatic, leading a life filled with danger, murder and terror. In a surviving description of his life from 1604, one observer wrote, “… 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 ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.”


Caravaggio might have garnered many enemies due to his reckless behavior, but how did he actually die? The answer has been the subject of mystery for centuries, because the whereabouts of his body remained unknown until relatively recently. Let’s take a closer look at the possible final days of this notorious artist whose fearsome reputation is innately bound into his art. 


Caravaggio Died at the Age of 38

Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavi Leoni, 1621-25, in the Biblioteca Marucellianavia, Florence, via The National Gallery, London


The final years of Caravaggio’s life were filled with violence and dread. In 1606, he murdered a young man in Rome during a particularly bad fight, forcing him to flee from the city. Several bad brawls followed with some of his many enemies, including one in Malta and another in Naples, which left him with a series of severe injuries. He died just one year later in Porto Ercole, although no one knows if these fights were enough to lead to his death. Records suggest he died following a bad fever while living in Tuscany, although the exact cause of his premature death still remains an unsolved mystery.


Some Think He Caught Syphilis

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


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One of the widely spread theories of Caravaggio’s cause of death is that he contracted the sexually transmitted disease syphilis, as a result of his penchant for prostitutes, and the evidence that he had a fever before he died. However, this theory has been largely unsubstantiated, as there is little solid evidence to back it up. 


He Might Have Died of Lead Poisoning

Bacchino Malato by Caravaggio, 1593 via Galleria Borghese, Rome


Historians have made a series of speculations about Caravaggio’s death over the centuries, ranging from Malaria to sunstroke. However, one of the more plausible theories released by Italian scientists in 2010 argues that he actually died of lead poisoning. They have argued that a series of bones they believe belongs to the artist reveal dangerously high levels of lead, which would have been found in the paints Caravaggio worked with. Such toxic levels would have been enough to push him to the brink of madness, and eventually kill him.


While lead poisoning wouldn’t have happened overnight, it is believed the artist’s repeated exposure to paints, and his sloppy painting regimes meant he was exposed to a high degree of the chemical. If this theory is true, it would mean it was his art that literally killed him.


Caravaggio Might Have Been Murdered

Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601-2


A new theory about Caravaggio’s death was proposed in 2012; Professor Pacelli from the University of Naples believes the artist was murdered by the Knights of Malta, because Caravaggio had once attacked one of their members. Pacelli studied a series of archived documents in order to carry out his extensive research. He argued the reason no one found Caravaggio’s body is because the knights threw his body into the sea at Palo, north of Rome.


The Most Plausible Theory: An Infected Wound

The crucifixion of Saint Peter, by Caravaggio, 1601


In 2018, a new body of research emerged from the IHU Mediterranee Infection Institute of Marseille which was published in the leading medical journal The Lancet. Researchers who studied the bones they believe belonged to Caravaggio have detected not just the lead poisoning proposed in 2010, but also bacteria staphylococcus, which suggests he had died of an infected wound, possibly contracted during a deadly brawl with one of his enemies.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.