The cause of his death has baffled experts for more than 400 years but a study now suggests Caravaggio may have died from an infected wound he received from one of his notorious sword fights.
The tempestuous Italian painter, who was born Michelangelo Merisi, revolutionized the art world with his ‘chiaroscuro’ style of painting, contrasting light and shade.
He died in the Tuscan coastal town of Porto Ercole in 1610 after fleeing Naples.
The painter’s death has been variously blamed on malaria, intestinal infection and lead poisoning from the paints he used.
There was even a theory he was murdered on the orders of the chivalric order, the Knights of Malta, as a revenge attack for killing one of their members.
Now a team of French and Italian scientists affiliated with the Mediterranean University Hospital of Marseille believe the rabble-rouser’s demise was caused by an infection from a sword injury, possibly during his final brawl just days before his death.
For their research, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, the scientists recovered a 17th century skeleton they believed to be Caravaggio’s from the Porto Ercole cemetery and analysed dental pulp taken from the molars.
Art | Forgotten masters
Using a combination of DNA detection and protein sampling, the researchers looked for signs of syphilis, malaria or brucellosis – an infectious disease caused by bacteria – but found nothing.
Instead they concluded that Caravaggio died of sepsis, a blood infection triggered by golden staph.
“Several hypotheses for Caravaggio’s death were suggested, such as brucellosis, malaria, or sepsis secondary to an infected wound that Caravaggio received during his last fight in Naples,” the researchers wrote in The Lancet.
“Concluding data suggested that the man whose skeleton was analysed died of Staphylococcus aureus sepsis.”
The multidisciplinary team, which included French biologist Professor Didier Raoult and Professor Elisabetta Cilli, an ancient DNA expert from the University of Bologna, said it had scoured the cemetery for a 17th century skeleton that matched the height of Caravaggio and was aged between 35 and 40 at the time of death.
“Nine skeletons met these criteria, of which only one was found to date back to the beginning of the 17th century according to carbon-14 testing,” the researchers said.
“Analysis of the bones of this skeleton revealed extremely high levels of lead, which was a discovery of great importance since Caravaggio was known to be careless when using lead for painting.”
Caravaggio was a notorious drunk with a reputation for violence that often overshadowed his extraordinary talent and acclaim.
He was arguably the most famous painter in Rome until he killed a man in a swordfight in 1606 and was run out of town.
He eventually ended 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 another fight in which he wounded a knight.
He was expelled by the order and then fled to first Sicily and then Naples.
Caravaggio was believed to be heading to Rome in the hope of obtaining a papal pardon for the murder he had committed when he died.
Many of his works can still be found in the Italian capital today – among the world-famous collection at the Borghese Gallery, the Museum of Rome and also hidden inside the churches in the historic neighbourhood where Caravaggio once lived.