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More Caravaggio CSI: Did Lead Paints Make Him Mad as a Hatter?

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We dig deep into the life of Caravaggio in our forthcoming “Art + Travel: Step into The Lives of Five Famous Painters”. We follow where he worked, where he lived, where he reveled, and where his work can be found amid the chapels and monuments of Rome. As cultural guides, it’s no problem. But as to what killed the legendary artist or what nasty substances might have made him so famously fond of drink and fight, well, that’s something we’ll leave for forensic anthropologists.

As we’ve told you before, teams of scientists from universities at Pisa, Ravenna, and Bologna have been sorting through the bones stored in a massive, ancient ossuary underneath a small church in Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast long believed to be the final resting place of Caravaggio. Already, the group has isolated nine sets of bones that match the artist in statue and age and is preparing to check these remains against existing genetic samples of his family line. If they do find a match, scientists at Ercole have stated that they’ll subject the bones for both malaria and lead poisoning. Either, it’s reasoned, could answer for his early death and ingestion of lead-based paint, which, in the words of a team leader, “accentuates traits like aggressive and nervous behavior, which Caravaggio displayed during his life.” Such theories have already been applied to the unbalanced lives of Goya and Van Gogh, though nothing has ever been proved conclusively. At the rate this excavation is going, however, we may soon know if Caravaggio’s reputation as a boozer and brawler is due to nibbling on his brush tip or whether he was simply a good, old-fashioned maniac.
 
While you wait for this mystery to unravel, pick up our “Art + Travel Europe: Step into the Lives of Five Famous Painters”, a scientifically tested tour of the lives of Caravaggio, Goya, Van Gogh, and others and the cities they called home.
 
“Caravaggio’s Madness ‘Caused by Lead Poisoning’” (Telegraph UK)
 
Above: “Medusa”, Caravaggio, 1598, courtesy of The Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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