By Martina Bollini

Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio probably died on this day in 1610, aged 38.18 July is taken as the date of his death on the basis of what a poet friend of the artist later reported, but the dramatic circumstances under which the event occurred have been shrouded in mystery ever since.

Four years earlier, in 1606, Caravaggio had killed Ranuccio Tommasoni during a brawl in Rome. Pope Paul V Borghese sentenced him to death, and consequently the painter fled the city. In the following years, Caravaggio was in Naples, Malta, and Sicily. In 1609, back again in Naples, he was attacked in the street by unknown assailants a few days after his arrival. Hoping to obtain pardon for the Tommasoni murder, Caravaggio eventually left for Rome, in 1610. He carried with him three paintings, meant to be gifts for the powerful cardinal Scipione Borghese, the pope’s nephew. But Caravaggio never reached the city. Existing theories held that he died of malaria in the Tuscan coastal town of Porto Ercole; that he was poisoned by lead paint; that he was murdered in a fight, or by one of his many enemies (possibly, the Knights of Malta).

It has been fairly noted that Caravaggio most likely died in Lazio, where the painter was recorded landing. Caravaggio could then have reached Porto Ercole from there by feet, despite the long distance. But in the Tuscan city no proof of his death, nor of his funeral, remain: an oddity, considering the artist’s fame at that point. In addition to this, Giulio Mancini, Caravaggio’s doctor and first biographer, claimed that the painter had died near Civitavecchia: an existing document handwrittend by Mancini proves that the place name was later scrubbed out and replaced by Porto Ercole.

Reference: John Gash. “Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. .

Further reading: Caravaggio by Catherine Puglisi (2000); Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane  by andrew Graham-Dixon (2011)

The Raising of Lazarus, 1608-09, oil on canvas, Museo Regionale, Messina

Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence, 1609, oil on canvas, formerly in Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Palermo

David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, oil on canvas, Rome, Galleria Borghese

The Denial of St Peter, c. 1610, oil on canvas, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Martyrdom of St Ursula, 1610, oil on canvas, Naples, Collezione Intesa San Paolo

St John the Baptist, 1610, oil on canvas, Rome, Galleria Borghese

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