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Tuscany CSI: Modern Detectives Investigate Caravaggio’s Mysterious Death

caravaggio-012901In the summer of 1610, the 39-year-old painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was on the run, sleeping with his hand on his sword. He had risen from selling his art on the streets of Rome to the heights of national fame. Now, he was traveling through Tuscany, hoping the law didn’t pick up on his trail before he reached Rome, where a Papal pardon for murder waited for him. But sometime in mid-July, the trail went cold and Caravaggio, the man more than anyone else responsible for the rise of the Baroque school disappeared from history.

Reports and rumors burbled out of seaside town of Porto Ercole, near Grosseto: He had been found dead on a local beach, he had died of fever in a hospital, he had been murdered, he had been buried in a church graveyard, there was no body found. Caravaggio, a man as famous during his life for his crimson exploits as much as his paintings, became the Jimmy Hoffa of his era and then, as quickly as he had risen in Roman society, disappeared from Italy’s national consciousness for three hundred years.
Now anthropologists in Tuscany are shifting through an ossuary underneath the ancient church in that same seaside town in an effort to find the remains of Caravaggio, more famous in our time than he ever was in life, and determine once and for all his cause of death. It’s a longshot—the crypt beneath the church holds hundreds of years of bones from the church cemetery (all had been disinterred in the 1950s) and there’s no concrete proof that Caravaggio’s are among them. Nonetheless, this historical CSI team is running every likely fossil through existing DNA evidence, hoping that a match will allow them to check for poisons or other ailments. The process could take months, but for the solution to a 400-year-old mystery, the world can be patient just a little longer.
To follow the trail yourself, pre-order a copy of “Art + Travel Europe: Step into the Lives of Five Famous Painters” and tour Rome in the footsteps of the man who mastered chiaroscuro and then disappeared into the shadows.
“Caravaggio Mystery Solved?” [Reuters]  
Image: Caravaggio, “David Victorious Over Goliath” (c. 1599), on display at the Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain.

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