Caravaggio: His Art, Death, and Teeth
Updated: Apr 22
Caravaggio’s life was as dramatic as his art. He was equally known in Rome as an artistic innovator and trouble maker. Arrogant and aggressive, he was a partier and hung with a tough crowd. In 1606 he was involved in a murder of a rival in Rome. Caravaggio fled and lived his last four years on the run, in southern Italy and Malta, still getting into fights and scrapes with the law. He died trying in vain to return to Rome in 1610. Until recently, his death was a mystery. With DNA and technology, we now know. But before we get to his teeth, we need to understand why his art is so significant.
Caravaggio’s Early Years: A Rough Beginning
Caravaggio’s father was a stonecutter for the wealthy Sforza and Colonna families. Caravaggio was born in Milan in 1571 (just seven years after Michelangelo died) and his father’s connections brought prestige and opportunity for the family. All that vanished when Caravaggio was six. His father, grandfather and uncle all died on the same day, probably of the plague. The family was thrust into poverty with five children followed by his mother’s death when he was nineteen.
Caravaggio was well acquainted with poverty from personal experience as well as seeing the many destitute in large cities. Large portions of the Roman population were poor. Impoverished people would die in the streets. Many were uncared for and relied on what benevolence existed. This may account for his representations of the poor in his art. Caravaggio gained street smarts early on in life while at the same time showing signs of violent behavior. As a young man he was involved with a murder in Milan and spent most of his inheritance on legal fees related to the charges. Safe to say he was a loner.
Although Caravaggio never managed nor wanted a large workshop with students, he had many international followers. Innovative aspects of his work remain very engaging today as he is considered an artist that bridges the late Renaissance to modernity. His original interpretations of common subject matters, use of light and dark to shape composition and underscore immediacy of the moment, along with his shocking naturalism, influenced many European artists including Rembrandt, Rubens, and Velazquez.
Painting Young Men for the Cardinal
Caravaggio moved from Milan to Rome about 1592-3, in his early twenties, and with few connections and no mentors. He apprenticed in a few shops without advancement until an art dealer helped establish Caravaggio as an independent artist selling his work in shops and on the street, which was a new concept at the time. The art dealer was well connected and Caravaggio was introduced to wealthy Roman families. Still, he had difficulty selling his work which consisted mostly of secular figures, young men posing with fruit or wine, men playing cards or fortune tellers. Private art collections were also a relatively new concept and Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte was an avid collector who noticed the upcoming talent. By 1600 Caravaggio’s work had gained traction and since had no studio assistants, his paintings began to be copied by others. At first flattered, then angered, Caravaggio grew to deride his copyists.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Galleria Borghese, Rome,1593-94. Caravaggio never worked in fresco. All his known paintings are oil on canvas. The figure suggestively has his head tilted back as his garment slips off his shoulder.
Cardinal Del Monte took him under his wing, living in his palace and encouraging him to paint secular subjects such as young men in pseudo Greco-Roman poses or attire. The cardinal was the Roman host with the most giving banquets with distinguished guests and sophisticated entertainment. Having a residential “house” artist was an indication of privilege. Del Monte was a skilled diplomat and negotiator representing French and Florentine interests in Rome.
Caravaggio was introduced to the Roman elite and gained artistic status. On the streets, Caravaggio frequently brawled and was involved in criminal cases. He hung with a hard-hitting crowd despite or in spite of the elite social connections through the cardinal.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Musicians, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. 1594-5. Caravaggio never painted a nude female, but many sexual suggestive young men.
The Musicians is an early oil painting completed about 1595. A group of four young males leisurely gather with some instruments in toga-like clothing. The instruments and music are contemporary and may reflect Del Monte’s interest in presenting musical performances for guests. The male youths in Caravaggio’s paintings are undoubtedly homoerotic. Although there has been speculation about the cardinal’s and Caravaggio’s sexual inclinations, viewers should not infer that this is a “gay” painting. Seventeenth century viewers would probably understand the painting as some type of allegory of music and love, immediately connecting the pseudo-Roman-like dress with Rome’s rich mythological visual history. By today’s standards a subject as this seems out of place for a cardinal patron. But not so in Caravaggio’s time.
Caravaggio’s art looked very different from contemporary art. Boys with fruit baskets or musicians weren’t an uncommon theme but the rendition was: sensual poses, lips slightly parted, fleshy tones and making direct eye contact with the viewer. The Musicians may be an allegorical painting, but the sexual overtones give rise to other connotations as well. Caravaggio infuses his paintings with ambiguity that makes the viewer question – what is going on here? What does this mean? There’s just enough uncertainly in Caravaggio’s paintings to question the interpretation. This vagueness and openness to implication is precisely what makes Caravaggio different and modern. He suggests alternate meanings. Ultimately it is the viewer that makes meaning from his art.
First Public Commission
Caravaggio soon turned away from secular subjects and for the remainder of his career worked mostly on religious subjects. After all, that was where the prestige and money was. Cardinal Del Monte’s connections helped secure his first major public commission in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, three canvases featuring episodes from the life of St. Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, 1599-1600. (L)The Calling of St. Matthew. The church is just across the street from Cardinal Del Monte’s palace where Caravaggio lived.
(Middle) Inspiration of St. Matthew. This is Caravaggio’s second version of this subject. The first painting was rejected as the bare feet of the saint was deemed too real and undignified to represent an apostle in such a way.
(R) Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Caravaggio lived in interesting times. Galileo was a contemporary and moved in the same circles as Caravaggio’s elite patrons.
The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600) boldly and dramatically places the scene in Rome with contemporary figures. The chiaroscuro, or tenebrism, the use of light and dark to compose and direct the eye, is used to maximum effect. Christ enters the room and points to St. Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him and become an apostle. But which figure is Matthew? Is he the youth at the end of the table with his head buried counting the money or the older figure who gestures as if to himself? Perhaps only Caravaggio knew for sure. In the second picture, the Inspiration of St. Matthew, an angel encourages Matthew to write the gospel, hovering above him as a muse, as he deliberates.
The third scene of the Martyrdom of St. Matthew is a multi-figure composition presented against a dark background devoid of landscape. Matthew lies on the ground as his executioner twists Matthew’s right arm up after being stabbing while presiding at mass (the altar is visible in the background). Matthew’s arm nearly touches the martyr’s palm leaf extended by the angel. Figures around Matthew react in horror, fleeing.
Men on the left are dressed in contemporary clothing while Matthew and others look as if they reside in the early Christian time period. This is typical of Caravaggio in that he places the scene in a time-travel with some present-day characters and some from pseudo-Roman times. Caravaggio has included a self portrait in the center left (the figure farthest back). Again, Caravaggio uses a spot light effect on the main characters to render the most impressive emotions and moments.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martyrdom of St. Matthew, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, self-portrait. He painted few portraits for clients, most of which are lost.
From Saul to Paul
There is no subject matter ambiguity in Caravaggio’s next series of oil paintings in Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo. Painted after the Matthew series, the Conversion of St. Paul and Crucifixion of St. Peter leave little doubt as to what is happening. Saul is blinded by a bright light on the road to Damascus that knocks him off his horse. In search of Christians to persecute, Saul hears a voice ask “Why do you persecute me?” He lies on the ground, struck from his horse with eyes closed, arms raised upwards. One moment changed his life as he went from oppressing Christians to becoming a Christian, then using his Roman name Paul. Paul spent the remainder of his life preaching for Jesus.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Conversion of St.Paul, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, 1600-1601. Pixabay, public domain. Caravaggio’s use of light and dark was not without precedent, but he greatly heightened the practice. Leonardo da Vinci and other northern Italian artists used more somber tones, especially in the background. Caravaggio’s figures are influenced by Michelangelo.
There is a physical and psychological discomfort represented in the Crucifixion of St. Peter as his near naked body is lifted to be crucified upside down. St. Peter turns to look at the altar of the Cerasi Chapel not with saintly glory but with real tentativeness and fear. His older, wrinkled face shows the signs of gravitational pull towards the ground as he is raised up. Caravaggio paints real people – note the dirty feet of the hunched over man straining to lift the cross. Looking at the Cerasi Chapel as a whole, the contrast between Caravaggio’s two paintings and the chapel decoration and altarpiece, by contemporary Annibale Carracci Assumption of the Virgin (1600-1601), provide ample evidence of Caravaggio’s norm breaking art.
Caravaggio avoids conventional images of God in the clouds with a bolt of lightning or a legion of horse-back soldiers accompanying Saul; instead he opts for simplicity. Caravaggio breaks with tradition by eliminating most usual holy symbols and unnecessary figures, instead increasing his use of dramatic light. Annibale Carracci employs typical elements of sacred art: golden light, cherubic angels, bright colors, balanced triangular composition, glory, and ideal figures. No dirty feet in sacred paintings! The busy gold and white stucco decorative motifs covering the arch and walls stand in stark contrast to Caravaggio’s paintings. It’s relatively easy to find Caravaggio paintings in Roman churches – they stand out from other paintings.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, 1600-1601. Pixabay, public domain. Caravaggio refuted the idealism of the Renaissance, preferring to paint the poor and less fortunate.
Caravaggio’s men are depicted in extreme moments of change, fear, and doubt. Unlike many previous saintly depictions, Caravaggio puts aside the heavenly magnificence, halos, and angels and focuses on raw emotion of real people. Caravaggio’s desire to represent the emotions of the human experience took precedence over the accepted approach of representing Madonnas and saints enthroned in divine splendor.
Light is not used solely as a technical achievement for dramatic and compositional ends in Caravaggio’s paintings, but signals a source of divinity, another worldliness that permeates the sacred space. His light symbolizes illumination in a broader sense and always contrasts with the dark voids in his paintings. Rarely is the source of light, such as window or candle, painted to tell us of its origin. We are left to wonder where the light comes from.
Caravaggio allows light and dark to reconceptualize pictorial space. The Renaissance presented space with perspective and balance, as in Raphael’s Madonna and child paintings with triangular compositions and landscape presented in the distance; Michelangelo with muscular larger than life figures that engulf space. Caravaggio disrupts these norms with strongly lit figures situated in dark voids. His composition is often off-center.
Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.
Caravaggio’s Police Record
By now well-known internationally, his fame did not moderate his behavior. Being thrown in prison became as normal as getting a new prestigious painting commission. As a repeat offender, he was bailed out by rich patrons, mostly cardinals with rich families. But at some point, even they questioned his behavior. His police record went something like this:
Early 1590s – Involved in a murder in Milan. Spends his inheritance on legal fees.
1598 – First arrests in Rome for fist fights, breaking windows, carrying a sword without a permit.
1600 – Sued for beating a man with a stick.
1603 – Another painter brought a libel suit against Caravaggio. The French Ambassador intervened and Caravaggio was on house arrest for a short time.
1604- Caravaggio threw a plate of artichokes at a waiter and threatened him with his sword.
Arrested after throwing a rock.
Arrested lacking a license to carry a sword. Spent some time in his home away from home, the Tordi di Nona prison.
Challenged painter Guido Reni to a duel for copying his style.
1605 – arrested and jailed three times for various crimes including weapons charges.
28 May 1606 – Caravaggio and some friends allegedly fought over a 10 scudi bet on a tennis match resulting in a head wound for Caravaggio and death for Ranuccio Tomassoni by Caravaggio’s sword. Documentation suggests that the fight was more than a bet gone bad. Tomassoni was from well-known and respected Roman family. Formerly a solider in the papal army, Tomassoni was sort of body guard for high-class courtesans and their businesses. This time Caravaggio was not throwing artichokes at a waiter. The deceased’s family had clout. The fight was most likely pre-arranged with eight participants arriving at the tennis courts – with swords.Caravaggio hid for two days while Del Monte, or other patrons, assisted in harboring him until he escaped and subsequently Pope Paul V issued a death warrant.
Fugitive Killer Artist
Caravaggio fled to Naples initially under the protection of the Colonna family, the family for which his stonecutter father worked. His reputation was intact in southern Italy and his art was in demand. His influence had waned somewhat in Rome as his sacred art was considered too vulgar and taste gave way to halos, angels, and graceful Madonnas, popular with rival painter Guido Reni. He spent the next four years avoiding his death sentence. In 1607 he fled to Malta where ironically, he was made a knight, until the next year when he attacked a Knight of Justice, Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero. He would regret his actions.
Once again landing in prison, he managed to escape, most likely with assistance. Thrown out of the knight’s order, his next stop was Syracuse where again he found work and was welcomed, at least artistically. Early 1609 he was working in Messina but then moved on to Palermo, then back to Naples. He made many enemies along the way but was always well paid for his work. He lived in two worlds, always feeling threatened and paranoid yet hailed as a great artist. On 24 October 1609 Fra Roero exacted revenge on Caravaggio by seriously wounding him in the face. Face slashing was considered an honor retaliation and it was reported Caravaggio was hardly recognizable after the counter attack. He continued to work while his Roman allies pursued a papal pardon for the killer.
The pardon was virtually guaranteed in July 1610 and Caravaggio had safe passage to Rome. Yet there was another altercation where he sustained an injury that caused Caravaggio to abruptly leave Naples for Rome about 9 July 1610. But bad luck intervened. He arrived nearby Rome in Palo by ship but was mistakenly imprisoned upon landing for two days. Unfortunately, his parcels with paintings to show gratitude to the cardinals for the pardon sailed on north without him, towards Rome.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. 1609-10. Caravaggio painted his own likeness as the head of Goliath. He included himself in about five paintings, sometimes as the role of a sinner but never the victor. The inscription on David's sword reads: humility kills pride. Perhaps a reference to his death sentence? One of his last paintings, it may have been done for Cardinal Scipione Borghese as thanks for the pardon.
Released from prison and eager to find his paintings, he started out towards Porto Ercole, north of Rome, perhaps by boat and on foot, in what was marshy, mosquito infested wetlands in the blistering July heat. High hopes of being reunited with his art work, he found instead upon arrival in Porto Ercole they had been sent back to Naples. Caravaggio died a few days later after spiking a high fever 28 July 1610. He was so close to Rome, where the elite patrons were anxious to welcome him back as a great artist. He was only 38 but had lived one heck of a life.
He Died Fighting
For centuries questions and speculation were widespread about his death. Theories were proposed that he died of one or more of the following: venereal disease, dysentery, heat exhaustion alone on the shoreline, from malaria or other mosquito borne illnesses. Enter forensic science and new documentation, and we have some probable answers, thanks to his teeth.
He did not die alone. He died in a hospital in Porto Ercole and was buried in San Sebastiano cemetery. A crew of scientists searched the cemetery for a 1600s male body, 1.65m tall (5’ 5”), and approximately 35-40 years old. Nine skeletons were found but only one matched carbon-14 dating to the 1600s. Furthermore, elevated lead levels were found in his bones consistent with high levels of exposure as a professional painter.
Further DNA testing was done in Caravaggio’s hometown with descendants named Merisi or Merisio. With enough compatible markers and a unique haplotype, scientists concluded the San Sebastiano cemetery skeleton was likely Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
The skeletal dental pulp was analyzed and only one pathogen was found: Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria. In addition, a bone infection was also detected, indicative of a staph infection. They concluded that following his 9 July fight a wound became infected and caused sepsis, a blood infection, resulting in his death. It is sadly fitting, considering his street fighting and combative personality.
Drancourt, Michel, Remi Barbieri, et al. “Did Caravaggio Die of Staphylococcus aureus sepsis?” The Lancet Infectious Diseases, vol. 18, November 1, 2018, p. 1178.
Hibbard, Howard. Caravaggio. Westview Press, 1983.
Puglisi, Catherine. Caravaggio. Phaidon, 2000.
Thomas, Troy. Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity. Reaktion Books, 2016.