The Short and Violent Life of Michelangelo Caravaggio: Artist, Brawler, Murderer, Pimp / by Chris Hall

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, c 1621

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, c 1621

His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting (chiaroscuro), make it possible for painters like Rembrandt to exist. Caravaggio’s commissions for religious works featured violent struggles, grotesque decapitations, torture and death, perhaps a reflection of his own tumultuous life. 

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599

His early life was colored by the loss of his father, uncle, and grandparents from the plague, and seeing their stripped bodies piled up in cart to be taken away.  As a young man in Milan, he got into a fight with a policeman and killed him.  Fleeing justice he resettled in Rome and began painting. Caravaggio quickly burst into the Rome art scene and despite his paintings being controversial (on one occasion a painting was rejected because he used a well known prostitute to model as the Virgin Mary), he never lacked for commissions or patrons.  Yet he handled his success poorly and lived a violent life, always on the run from the law for being involved in fights and for vandalism.  Caravaggio’s police records in Rome fill several pages.  An early published account of him from 1604 describes how “after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." 

On 29 May, 1606 Carvaggio killed again, this time it was a notorious pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni.  Caravaggio stabbed Tomassoni in the groin with a fencing sword and he bled to death.  Caravaggio’s motive for the murder is unclear.  Some have suggested it was over a gambling debt, or a contested point in a tennis match, others have suggested that it was because Caravaggio stole one of Tomassoni’s prostitutes for his own stable, or had slept with his wife.  Whatever the cause, the result was that the Pope issued a death warrant for Caravaggio, a Bando Capitale, which means essentially that there was reward out, literally, for his head. 

Caravaggio fled to Malta by way of Naples, taking refuge with sympathetic patrons and continuing to paint.  In 1608, in Malta, Caravaggio was on the fast track to become a Knight of the Order of St. John.  This was not to last, however.  Only a few months later and for reasons unclear, Caravaggio battered down the door of Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, one of the Order’s most senior Knights, and shot him, leaving him seriously injured.  Caravaggio was imprisoned in the guva, a bell shaped dungeon underground, with a trap door exit in the ceiling.  After only being there a week or so, somehow Caravaggio managed to escape, first by climbing up and out of the guva, making his way out of the fortress, and then by climbing 200 feet down a sheer precipice and into the sea, where he swam for three miles and got on a boat bound for Sicily.

Caravaggio, David Holding the Head of Goliath, 1609-1610

Now with assassins on his trail from both Rome and Malta, Caravaggio began sleeping fully clothed and armed.  While he still continued to paint, his behavior became increasingly erratic and he would tear apart his canvases at only a slight word of criticism.  Caravaggio soon made his way back to Naples where an attempt on his life was made.  It is thought that it was the Knights of the Order of St. John.  Reports in Rome said that Caravaggio was dead, but he survived the attack, seriously injured and with his face disfigured, but still alive.   In the summer of 1610 Caravaggio attempted to purchase his pardon from Rome with three canvases.  Ironically, one of the canvases, David Holding the Head of Goliath (1609-1610), features a Caravaggio self portrait, as Goliath’s severed head.  On 18 July he was on his way north by boat with the paintings when he died on route under mysterious circumstances, some saying exhausted from a life on the run, worsened with lead poisoning (from his paints) and a malaria fever, others say by assassination, from someone representing either Rome or Malta.  He was 38.