Art History Mystery #7: How did Caravaggio Die?
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! This week’s post is, if I do say so myself, perfect for the start of the spooky season! Caravaggio is, without a doubt, one of the most famous names in western art history. His incredible use of tenebrism, combined with his combative and fiery personality, made him quite the character! However, was there something else to blame? In this edition of Art History Mystery, I’m going to explore what really was the cause of death for this contentious Baroque artist. So, to learn more, keep on reading!
Oh, and if this piques your interest, the first Art History Mystery also covered Caravaggio! Click here to read all about it!
It is no secret that Caravaggio is one of the “bad boys of the Baroque” period. (In fact, I made a video all about it, click here to watch it!) He killed a man over a tennis match, beat up a waiter for cooking artichokes wrong, and brawled frequently in the streets. I love the way that Zachary Small from Hyperallergenic put it: “A serial gambler with a penchant for prostitutes, booze, and brawls..” Although he created beautiful paintings, it is hard to excuse Caravaggio’s behavior.
For centuries, art historians knew that Caravaggio died in 1610 and were fairly certain that the cause was syphilis. This wouldn’t be out of the norm for a man known to have frequented brothels. But, some historians have wondered if that diagnosis was both true and the only cause!
About 15 years ago, scientists and art historians decided to figure out exactly what had happened to the famed artist. Silvano Vinceti discovered a document that showed that Caravaggio was buried in the tiny San Sebastiano cemetery in Porto Ercole in Tuscany. Unfortunately, the site had been filled over in 1956, so the team had to find out where the bones had been moved to in municipal records. Thankfully, they were able to find the new site and there, uncovered nine sets of remains.
But now came the problem of identifying which of the nine sets were Caravaggio’s. They were able to narrow down the group to just a few sets of bones due to knowing Caravaggio’s age when he died, around 38-40. Next, to solve exactly which set were his, the team went to the hometown and namesake of the artist: Caravaggio, located about 40 km east of Milan. They tracked down people with the same surname and whose family line could be traced back to the 17th century. Although Caravaggio (the man) did not have any direct descendants, the scientists were able to find that one set of the remains matched the DNA results by about 50-60%. As they were the only ones in the group that had any DNA in common with modern day citizens of the city, the scientists concluded that there was an 85% chance that these were the bones of Caravaggio. Radiocarbon dating helped to confirm their suspicions as it placed the bones in the current historical era.
Now that scientists established which bones were Caravaggio’s remains, it was time to get to work! One of the leading theories about Caravaggio’s behavior is that he was displaying symptoms of “painter’s colic” or, as we call it today, lead poisoning! While painting, Caravaggio worked with paints made from mercury, lead and other sulfides. In addition, he would have inhaled solvents and iron oxides. These things combined would have destroyed his brain, leading to explosive tempers and dementia.
But, did this lead to Caravaggio’s death? While examining the remains, scientists found evidence of a stab wound. This would track with Caravaggio’s violent nature. He was often picking fights with people and was chased out of several towns. In addition, there was enough dried blood left in Caravaggio’s remaining teeth to test for diseases. As it turns out, his blood showed evidence of sepsis, likely from the sword wound. But, there was no evidence of syphilis.
What killed him?
So, what exactly killed Caravaggio? Was he murdered? Did he die from sepsis from a brawl? How much did lead poisoning contribute? And finally, the biggest question: are the remains actually Caravaggio’s? These are all important questions that I’m not sure we can answer! But, it is an interesting exercise in artistic speculation! What do you think happened?