Thug: A Life of Caravaggio in Sixty-Nine Paragraphs

May 16, 2014 | 11 20 min read

They tortured him of course.

More precisely, they carved up his face – “sfregio,” it was called, a ritual disfigurement intended to inflict permanent and visible dishonor on one who had disrespected the wrong people. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was no stranger to this code of vendetta. In his earlier Roman years, he had run with prostitutes who were known to take the occasional blade to the face of a rival. Now in Naples, towards the end of his strange and violent life, it was his turn to be branded.

With so many enemies, it was difficult to know who had carried out or ordered the hit. Was it the clan of Ranuccio Tomassoni, the Roman pimp Caravaggio had murdered in a duel in 1606, precipitating the flight and 19 months of wanderings that had led to this squalid bloodletting outside a notorious brothel? Or was it the work of Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, the Maltese Knight Caravaggio had seriously wounded in a fracas two months earlier and who just might have tracked him down through the Straits of Messina and the Gulf of Salerno? Or was it any number of other lowlifes, nobles, rivals, or patrons he might have crossed along his furious way?

Whoever it was, the assailants slipped back into the night, never to be known or apprehended. They had done their work. Nor was it any common street thug they had mutilated, perhaps partially blinded. The victim of this assault outside the Osteria del Cerriglio, where poets and artists mingled with courtesans, rentboys, and cut-throats, was the greatest painter of the age, one of the greatest of any age. He never really recovered.


You can see the damage in “The Denial of Saint Peter,” executed in Naples during his convalescence and one of his very last works. It’s still a Caravaggio — the peasant earthiness of Peter’s features, the flaring chiaroscuro, the heightened drama of sin and redemption. But the reductive simplicity of the composition, the shallow, featureless space, the coarse description of Peter’s hands — this too is Caravaggio at the end of his life. Either he couldn’t see what he was painting anymore or his hands were shaking.

He would die soon, trying desperately to get back to the place where, once, it had all gone right: Rome.

Before there was Rome there was Milan, where the adolescent boy apprenticed under a feeble imitator of Titian named Simone Peterzano. And before there was Milan there was Caravaggio, the sleepy backwater on the Lombardy plain that would ultimately give Michelangelo Merisi the name by which he is (mistakenly) known today.

Caravaggio did have one thing going for it: patronage. The local marchese, Francesco Sforza, was connected to the Pope; his bride, the marchesa Costanza Colonna Sforza, was the daughter of the military commander who had triumphed over the heathen “Turks” at the Battle of Lepanto. And Fermo Merisi, the father of Michelangelo, had the good fortune to work for them.

Nominally, Fermo was their house architect. In fact, he was more like a majordomo, but what matters to history is the alliance formed between the marchesa and her majordomo’s intriguing son, who somehow touched her maternal heartstrings. Given his penchant for wildly destructive behavior in later life, Caravaggio would need friends in high places. The marchesa, at crucial times, would be that friend.

Despite this useful connection, the lowborn Merisi children would have to make their way in the world, especially after Fermo was carried off by the plague while still a young father. In three years (1576-1578), it carried off about a fifth of the city of Milan along with him. Such was life in early modern Europe.


Caravaggio knew a lot about plague. It spared his mother, who died of other circumstances in 1589, but took his father, his grandfather, his grandmother, and an uncle. The late, sepulchral “Resurrection of Lazarus” clearly draws on memories of the ravages he would have seen as a boy. So much for the lofty idealism Peterzano would have tried (unsuccessfully) to instill into his recalcitrant apprentice.

After mother Lucia’s death, the children were cared for by relatives and the Colonnas. They had a small inheritance to help them stake their place in the world. Sister Caterina married well and had six children. Brother Giovan Battista became a priest. The eldest, Michelangelo, rose from his humble origins (according to Karel van Mander, a Dutch artist who knew him) “through his industry and by tackling and accepting everything with farsightedness and courage, as some people do who refuse to be held down through timidity or through lack of courage.”

Years later, when Caravaggio had established himself in Rome and Giovan Battista came calling, the flourishing artist denied knowing him. “Brother,” Giovan Battista said, “I’ve come such a long way to see you, and now that I’ve seen you I’ve had what I wanted. May God grant that you do well.” He did do well. And he never saw his brother again. Was Giovan Battista being insufferably holy or Caravaggio being willfully perverse? Or was it a bit of both? Life imitates art. Maybe that’s why, years later, Caravaggio painted “The Denial of Saint Peter.” He had lived it.

By the time of that fraternal rebuff (witnessed by his protector, Cardinal Del Monte), Caravaggio’s truculence was a long enforced habit. Little is known of his apprenticeship in Milan, but his early years in Rome were hungry and hardscrabble. He had arrived in 1592, a young man on the make like thousands of others. Hopefuls from all over Italy and beyond were flocking to Rome to cash in on the visual propaganda blitz known as the Counter Reformation. Caravaggio would surpass them all, but in the beginning there was only penury, rejection, and hackwork.

The hackwork — mostly copying small devotional pictures — was supervised by a miserly house steward, who lodged him but barely fed him. (“Monsignor Salad,” Caravaggio called him, after the starvation rations he received.) Caravaggio’s lot improved when he joined the workshop of the renowned Giuseppi Cesari, who assigned him still life details and other piecework on the many commissions that came his way. Caravaggio must have seen that he was already better than the gentlemanly Cesari would ever be, but for now he had somewhat steadier work and a foot halfway in the door.

Self-Portrait as Bacchus.

But all this hustling took a toll. Around this time, Caravaggio painted for himself a “Self Portrait as Bacchus,” which shows the hunger and ill health that would have been his daily lot. Never had a Greek god looked more sickly. The ash colored lips, the swollen left eye, the filthy thumbnail, even the moldy grapes that Caravaggio as Bacchus holds in his right hand: there would have been thousands of desperate hustlers and street people in the city, and some of them would have looked just like this.


If Counter Reformation Rome was Hollywood on the Tiber for artists and architects, Caravaggio was about to be “discovered” by the Eternal City’s equivalent to a powerful casting agent. It happened in 1595 when Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, the Medici’s smoothly adroit fixer in Rome, spotted Caravaggio’s “Cardsharps” in a second hand dealer’s shop near the Piazza Navona. Del Monte had the money and the taste to acquire pretty much whatever he wanted, and what he wanted was not just the painting. He wanted the painter.

So Caravaggio moved into Del Monte’s Palazzo Madama on Piazza de San Luigi and joined his circle of artists, scientists, musicians, connoisseurs, and very expensive courtesans. He brought with him as an assistant Mario Minniti, the meltingly beautiful teenage boy who had posed for him in the picture that had caught Del Monte’s eye. Like his newly acquired painter, the cardinal, it would seem, liked boys too.


At any rate, Del Monte commissioned one or two of the outrageously provocative canvases of overripe male adolescents that Caravaggio produced in the next several years. Mario Minniti was subsequently replaced as Caravaggio’s boy model and studio assistant by Francesco “Cecco” Boneri, the naked, splay-legged figure posing as a laughingly corrupt Cupid in “Omnia vincit Amor.” It was of this painting than an English traveler, picking up on rumors still current, wrote in 1650, “Twas the body & face of his owne boy or servant that laid with him.”

If Caravaggio is Exhibit A in the queer studies wing of art history departments, the loving attentiveness he lavished on the earthly beauty of his Madonnas and female saints somewhat complicates that claim. That all these Madonnas and saints were well-known prostitutes who worked with him regularly implies a level of intimacy beyond the professional. Of course Caravaggio slept with his models. Whether they were male or female didn’t much matter to him.

Judith Beheading Holofernes

One such prostitute was Fillide Melandroni, as beautiful as she was violently temperamental (the Roman police, or sbirri, were all too familiar with her outbursts) and the model for the serenely majestic “Saint Catherine” and the holy assassin Judith in “Judith and Holofernes.” Like Mario Minniti, she remained loyal to the wayward genius she had known for a few years in Rome and will reappear at the end of this story.

Caravaggio stayed at Del Monte’s Palazzo Madama for the next six years, doing some of his very greatest work under the cardinal’s protection — in fact, becoming a star, the kind of artist who changed the rules and attracted schools of imitators. Artemesia Gentileschi (who would have known him from her girlhood as a friend of her painter father’s) would have been inconceivable without Caravaggio, and Rembrandt wouldn’t have been quite the Rembrandt we know.

In Rome, being a lot better than everybody else (with the sole exception of Annibale Carracci) and loudly proclaiming it to the world wasn’t necessarily a wise career move. The long knives came out.

Trouble had started as early as Milan, where Caravaggio had been a less than obedient pupil of Petrerzano. There were dark reports of his involvement in quarrels and even in a murder in that turbelent city. By the time he got to Rome he was already intimate with the sort of thieves and hustlers he depicted in his early cabinet pictures. There was nothing worked up in Caravaggio’s revolutionary realism. It was the life he lived.

It was and had been for some time a double life — on the one hand, conversing with intellectuals and cultured aristocrats in Palazzo Madama, on the other hand, swaggering around the streets with a crew of like-minded hotheads. “When he’s worked for a fortnight,” wrote his contemporary van Mander, “he goes out for a couple of months with his rapier at his side and a servant behind him, moving from one tennis court to another and always looking for fights or arguments, so he’s impossible to get on with.”

He looked the part, too, wearing the rich silks and velvets favored by the Roman bravi — except that he wore them until they were in tatters. Then he’d acquire a new suit and wear that one out too. If any of his cohorts thought his eccentricities merited comment, they probably knew enough to keep their mouths shut.


This particular hothead, with his striped taffeta and poniard, happened to be a genius. When he got the commission for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, his genius would be put to its greatest test. Caravaggio had never before attempted anything on this scale — three multi-figured, wall-sized narratives on the life of the Apostle Matthew. He struggled at first, and had to redo the smallest of the three, a depiction of an angel guiding Matthew in his writing of his Gospel. With the other two, especially “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” he changed Western art forever.

Matthew the tax collector sits in the backroom of a tavern or inn with assorted thugs, pretty boys, and hangers-on. Christ has entered with Saint Peter at right and is calling Matthew to a new life with a simple pointing of a finger. In a moment Matthew will rise, follow his Savior out of the room, and never look back. You must change your life, Rilke said. This is how it happens.

Among the throngs who flocked to the see the installation in 1599 was Giovanni Baglione, a grasping second rater who played the role of Salieri to Caravaggio’s Mozart. Baglione tried very hard to be unimpressed, which didn’t stop him from aping Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro without approaching anything like Caravaggio’s originality, humanism, subtlety, and above all profound understanding of the interpenetration of the sacred and the profane. Anyone else might have ignored the ugly backtalk that Baglione stirred up. Caravaggio wasn’t anyone else.

Like all the other painters in Rome, Caravaggio and Baglione were competing for the same commissions and the same patrons. It was bad enough to lose, as he sometimes did, to a hack like Baglione — worse still to lose to a hack who slavishly imitated him while slagging him to anyone who would listen. Caravaggio might have hit back violently. Instead, he had one of his crew compose and circulate a couple of scurrilous poems. They weren’t very subtle or even literary, but anybody who was anybody read them, or knew about them. Baglione, the poems, said, couldn’t paint for shit.

One of the few moments of levity in the otherwise terrible saga of Caravaggio’s life is the spectacle of the aggrieved Giovanni Baglione mustering all his dignity before the Governor of Rome in a libel suit he new brought against Caravaggio and his friends. Asked by the magistrates to identify the documents in question, he replied with the ingenuousness of a village idiot, “that which begins ‘Johnny Baggage’ and ends ‘an insult to painting’ and the other that begins ‘Johnny Prick’ and ends ‘otherwise he’d’ve been a fucking prick.’”

This commedia del’arte imbroglio wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t helped to establish a precedent: trouble with the authorities and a few weeks in the Governor’s prison before the whole mess was straightened out, perhaps through the intervention of Del Monte or some other art-loving patron. Nor did it allay growing suspicions in some quarters that this jumped up genius might be more trouble than he was worth.


Caravaggio was still the leading painter of the Roman avant-garde, and commissions for masterworks like the “Madonna of the Pilgrims” were still ahead. But he was living on his own now, no longer under Del Monte’s stabilizing influence, and his noisy altercations in taverns and on piazzas were starting to attract the wrong kind of attention. Worse still, he was about to see one of his greatest works, “The Death of the Virgin,” removed within weeks of its unveiling from the altar for which it had been commissioned.


You can see “The Death of the Virgin” in the Louvre rather than on the altar of Santa Maria della Scala, where it ought to be. And you can also see why the pious Carmelites who commissioned it might have changed their minds. Some said that the beautiful and still youthful Mary that Caravaggio depicted was all too evidently “a courtesan he loved,” but that wasn’t the problem. Everyone knew that painters used prostitutes for models — who else could they get? — and everyone knew that Caravaggio’s woman at the time was the much desired courtesan Lena Antognetti. No, the problem with “The Death of the Virgin” was that this Virgin was just too emphatically, transcendentally dead.

Caravaggio’s way of dealing with Counter Reformation orthodoxy was to ignore the limp piety and enforced bigotry and to focus instead on the life experiences of humble believers. If he had to throw in an angel or two, that angel would be equipped with dingy, oversized pigeon wings. Almost all his miracles, epiphanies, and crucifixions took place in the workaday world of taverns, sparsely furnished rooms, and darkened, nondescript interiors. His more discerning collectors appreciated this stunning naturalism, but to get away with such heterodoxy, he had better be on his best behavior. And he wasn’t.

The infractions were racking up: carrying his sword without a license, insulting a police officer, assaulting (big mistake) a mid-level Vatican functionary. Impossibly touchy where his honor was concerned, he threw a plate of artichokes in the face of a waiter who had made the mistake of serving them with insufficient deference. A Roman police blotter preserves his furious words: “It seems to me, you fucking prick, that you think you’re serving some two bit crook.”

Caravaggio’s get out of jail card was his association with Del Monte, but even Del Monte could do only so much. After the bloody attack on the Vatican functionary, Caravaggio betook himself to Genoa, ostensibly to work on a commission for the Duke of Modena, but really to keep a step ahead of the law. In Genoa, relations of Costanza Colonna sheltered him until Del Monte could work out a settlement in Rome, which duly occurred later that summer. Upon his return, Caravaggio swore to the legal authorities an oath of peaceableness. Which he violated almost immediately.

This time it was a squabble with his landlady, who had locked him out and thrown out his few belongings. She issued a complaint saying that Caravaggio had come round in the middle of the night, throwing rocks and smashing her window shutters — trivial enough, except that it boded ill for the fresh start he hoped to be making.


Caravaggio’s misfortune’s were Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s main chance. Younger, richer, and, if possible, even less devout than Del Monte, he snapped up the rejected “Madonna of the Palafrenieri” for a song and had it installed in his villa on the outskirts of the city, where it can be seen to this day. Enough influential clients coveted Caravaggio’s work to pull strings for him when needed, and he would need every possible string pulled when his increasingly reckless behavior culminated in the tragedy that was waiting to happen: the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni.

It might have looked like a mindless eruption of violence over a meaningless tennis match, but trouble between Caravaggio and Tomassoni, a street tough with relatives in high places, had been brewing for some time. Very possibly they were rival pimps. Fillide Melandroni definitely worked for Tomassoni, and maybe Tomassoni felt that Caravaggio was encroaching on his territory. Keeping a small stable of prostitutes would have been a way of ensuring a steady supply of models, not to mention some free sex. All that late night roistering, armed to the gills, might have been partly a matter of business: Caravaggio was looking out for his girls.

So the killing wasn’t spontaneous at all. It was a duel. Caravaggio and Tomassoni, accompanied by their “seconds” and supporters (three to each side) met on a tennis court on the Campo Marzio on May 28, 1606. It was all over in a few moments: Tomassoni bleeding to death from a severed artery, Caravaggio with a gash in his head, and Caravaggio’s second, Captain Petronio Toppa, left almost for dead.

Caravaggio had always been proud of his swordsmanship, but the coup de grace was a flick of his blade at Tomassoni’s crotch. So much for the gentlemanly art of dueling. After the fatal blow, the duel degenerated into a murderous free for all. Tomassoni’s brother slashed Caravaggio in the head and probably would have killed him if not for the intervention of Petronio Topapa, who barely survived the wounds he incurred. Tomassoni was carried off to a surgeon’s, where he died that night. Caravaggio didn’t wait around to hear the death sentence (bando capitale) pronounced by the Pope. By the following morning he was nowhere to be found.

Caravaggio was now a wanted man, exiled from Rome and with a price on his head. He couldn’t have escaped from the city without the discreet assistance of one or more of his patrons, most likely the Marchesa Colonna, now resident in Rome and with a network of family connections in the region. It was to a Colonna stronghold in Zagarolo, about twenty miles southeast of Rome, that Caravaggio made his way, finding refuge with the Duke Marzio Colonna. And there he did what he always did in times of stress: he painted.

Under these circumstances, the self-portrait as a decapitated Goliath that Caravaggio now painted for Scipione Borghese (who didn’t much care that his favorite painter was a murderer condemned by in absentia by Borghese’s uncle, Pope Paul V) was a harrowing Act of Contrition. The blood streaming from Goliath’s neck, the saliva pooling in his open mouth, the sightless, half open right eye: Caravaggio painted himself as the brute he knew himself at least partly to be.


If Borghese was expecting triumph, which was the way most artists treated the subject, what he got was tragedy. A slender, beautifully lit young David holds out the giant’s head in troubled contemplation. David has reason to look troubled. The model is Cecco Boneri, and he’s gazing at the ruin of his friend and protector.


Hoping to gain lost ground and win a papal pardon, Caravaggio moved on to Naples, where Marzio Colonna sheltered him and where avid patrons were already lining up. For the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia he produced one of his greatest altarpieces, “The Seven Acts of Mercy.” But he also produced work like the slackly conventional “Madonna of the Rosary,” which for the first time showed signs of compromise and even desperation. He had taken to sleeping with his clothes on and his dagger at his side. Paranoia? Maybe not.

There were interested parties working behind the scenes to smooth Caravaggio’s passage back to Rome. Del Monte, Borghese, and others wanted their man in the art capital of the world, where he belonged and where they might keep him busy creating masterpieces bound for their own collections. And in fact there were signs that the Vatican was softening. The fiction that Caravaggio had killed in self-defense offered a convenient cover for everyone. Just when the machinery seemed to be moving, however, Caravaggio chose this moment — July 1607 — to sail to the southern Mediterranean outpost of Malta. There he would create possibly his greatest painting. And throw his life away.

Why Malta? Costanza Colonna’s son was there, a former black sheep like Caravaggio himself but now a member of the island’s Venerable Council. Fabrizio Sforza Colonna would be an important contact for Caravaggio, but Malta — a garrison state controlled by the severely militaristic Order of the Knights of St. John — nevertheless seemed an odd choice for someone so resistant to authority. Maybe he thought that if he put his shoulder to the wheel and pleased the right patrons, he would be protected by and even welcomed into the fold of the most formidable brotherhood in Christendom. Incredibly, that is just what happened.

Once again, Caravaggio’s reputation preceded him. Some of the greatest grandest Knights of the Order of St. John very much wanted their portraits painted by this celebrated prodigy. The greatest, grandest of them all, Alof de Wigancourt, the Grand Master himself, was so taken with his new portraitist that he sat for him twice.

The surviving portrait of Wigancourt recalls similarly majestic state portraits by Titian, but in a touch entirely typical of Caravaggio, attention falls on the all too human pageboy standing warily at his master’s side. If the boy seems less impressed than he ought to be, Wigancourt didn’t notice. The warrior aristocrat must have felt a strange kinship with the headstrong artist. He would soon bend or break nearly every rule of the Order, going so far as to lobby the Pope personally, to get Caravaggio knighted.


In lieu of the tribute money that the generally well-born knights paid for their induction, Caravaggio would paint an altarpiece depicting the beheading of John the Baptist for the oratory of the Co-Cathedral of St. John in the capital city of Valletta. Working as always with no preparatory sketches or studio assistants to block in a background, he created in about three months the largest (10 by 15 feet) and maybe the greatest work of his career. It’s the only picture he ever signed. There, beneath the pool of the Baptist’s blood, inscribed in the same crimson, is the name by which he wanted to be remembered: “F. Michelangelo” – Brother Michelangelo.

The executioner hasn’t quite finished the job. Holding his victim prone and reaching back for the dagger that will sever the head from the neck (at this point it’s only half attached), he impassively follows the instructions of the jailer standing beside him, while Salome’s servant holds the plate that in a few more seconds will bear the weight of a human head. No one is taking any particular pleasure in this distasteful task but, well, orders are orders. About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.

A newly minted Knight of the Magistral Obedience, with the honors and rewards appertaining thereto (a gold chain bestowed by the Grand Master himself, not to mention a couple of slaves for his personal use), Caravaggio chose precisely this moment — August 18, 1608 — to go off the rails. It was yet another brawl — an especially ugly one — but Caravaggio wasn’t a layman anymore, and the penalties for a brawling Knight of Malta admitted of no extenuation.

Exactly what happed outside that house in Valletta is not known, but one of the six or seven disputants — very likely Caravaggio, in the light of subsequent developments — ended up firing a small pistol at a higher-ranking Knight, Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, the Conte della Vezza. Whatever brought on the quarrel — an insult to Caravaggio’s honor is not hard to imagine — a senior Knight of Justice had been shot and seriously wounded. Nobody, not even the greatest painter in the world, could be allowed to get away with that.

If Caravaggio had begun to chafe under the Spartan regulations that a knighthood entailed — no quarreling, no whoring, no leaving the island without express permission — that was as nothing compared to the straits in which he now found himself. Nine days after the shooting and a hurried investigation, Caravaggio was arrested and locked up in a dungeon in the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo. There he might have read the graffiti of despairing prisoners who had gone before him — “imprisoned forever, victim of evil triumphing over good,” reads one — and reflected on the turn of fortune that had plunged him overnight from the summit of public acclamation to this abyss of deprivation and dishonor.

Perfect timing: Caravaggio had been locked up the day before he was to attend, as part of the anniversary observances of the Baptist’s beheading, the official unveiling of his altarpiece in the Oratory of Saint John. As if that irony weren’t sufficiently crushing, three months later he was formally expelled from the Order “like a rotten and diseased limb” in a ceremony that took place, as did all such ceremonies, in the same oratory that housed his monumental canvas. Fortunately, he wasn’t around for that final humiliation. In October, in a move that seems more like a scene from a Clint Eastwood movie than an episode in art history, he had escaped from the well-nigh impregnable fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo.

That escape would have entailed breaking out of his cell, scaling the castle ramparts, rappelling down a 200-foot precipice to the sea, and swimming to safety. Which he did. Then he would have had to find a captain who could sneak him past the harbor night patrols and, once arrived at the haven of Sicily, he would have had to avoid the murderous bandits on the inland route to the port of Syracuse. Clearly, he couldn’t have got off the island without much plotting and the inside help of a corrupt official or two or perhaps a blind eye turned at the right moment by Fabrizio Sforza Colonna. By mid-October, he had arrived at Syracuse, about as safe — which is to say, not very — as he would ever be.

Caravaggio had chosen Syracuse as his destination for one compelling reason: Mario Minetti. His former companion, model, and (probably) lover had returned to his native Sicily and prospered as a respectable family man and the master of a fashionable workshop. Violent and volatile as he was, Caravaggio compelled abiding loyalty among a small band of intimates, among whom Mario was one. The younger man succored his old friend, lending him his state of the art studio and spreading the word to his rich and powerful clients. It soon became apparent that the work those rich and powerful clients wanted was Caravaggio’s, not Mario’s. Which was fine. Mario could have had no illusions about who was the greater artist, and he could afford to pass on a few commissions that Caravaggio desperately needed.

He stayed in Sicily about a year, moving restlessly from Syracuse to Messina to Palermo and keeping a step ahead of the enemies he imagined — and in fact, were — pursuing him. The altarpieces he left behind in those cities were increasingly dark and expressionistic, forfeiting detail and color, but losing nothing of tragic intensity. Local legend had him exhuming a corpse to use as a model for “The Resurrection of Lazarus” and slashing to ribbons a completed canvas that someone had dared to criticize — unlikely, but his behavior had become more erratic. Always armed and now accompanied by a big black dog he named “Corvo” (Crow), “he looked more like a swordsman than a painter,” as one early biographer wrote.

Now more than ever a papal pardon was the goal, not just to remove the death sentence hanging over his head, but also to protect him from the wrath of the Knights of Malta, if they were indeed the ones pursuing him. In September, 1609, he left Sicily for Naples, bringing him one step closer to the capital and ultimate rehabilitation. Caravaggio was a known quantity in Naples, where he stayed once again in the Colonna palace at Chiaia. But neither the Colonnas nor his own wits could save him from what had been in the cards for a long time: the savage and nearly lethal attack that took place outside the Osteria del Cerriglio within a few weeks of his arrival. His enemies, finally, had caught up with him.

He never had a chance. Three men held him down while a fourth sliced his face. Afterwards, he was almost unrecognizable. They could have killed him, but they wanted him to live, bearing his scars for the rest of his life. Everyone would know what that meant.

So who were “they”? Probably not the Tomassoni clan. They definitely would have killed him if they still wanted revenge for the murder of one of their own — an eye for an eye. And probably not Wigancourt, the Maltese Grand Master whom Caravaggio had severely embarrassed with his colossal infractions — a sneak attack outside a louche brothel wasn’t his style. Most likely it was Roero, the aristocratic heavy whom Caravaggio had attacked and injured on Malta. This was how an aggrieved count and Knight of Justice dealt with a mere painter.


C remained in Naples another six months, convalescing to the extent he could and dreaming of Rome. He did manage to create one more major work, “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula.” The chiaroscuro that had once dramatically illuminated complex figurations of theme and action had now given way to a depthless and murky field of browns and reds. “And universal darkness buries all,” as a later poet once wrote.

From here on, the story gets very hazy. On July 9, 1610, Caravaggio boarded a felucca that would take him north towards Rome and the papal pardon he had reason to believe was imminent. He never got there. What went wrong is the subject of multiple conspiracy theories, some of which have a shred of plausibility. However or wherever it happened, by the beginning of August, all of Rome had heard the news: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was dead.

His enemy Giovanni Baglione wrote, “he died miserably — indeed, just as he had lived.” It pleased Baglione to think so. In his account, Caravaggio had been arrested (no reason given) upon landing at the port of Palo, 20 miles west of Rome. There, he was held in prison for two days while the felucca bearing three of his paintings — his passport back into the good graces of his patrons in Rome — sailed on without him. Upon his release he embarked on a suicidal chase along the beach in malarial weather to catch up with the ship at Porto Ercole. He died of a fever along the way.

The story doesn’t quite hold. Why would he have been arrested only to be released? And why would the paintings have been disembarked at Porto Ercole, 70 miles north of Rome? Nor was a body ever found. But it’s not hard to believe that Caravaggio had died of a fever exacerbated by the stress of losing his pictures and, more importantly, from the debilitating and improperly treated effects of his nearly fatal wounding. He didn’t die miserably. He died fighting to the last.

The poet Marzio Milesi composed some elegies for his deceased friend, which serve to remind us that if Caravaggio was a thug who hung with gangsters and sex workers, he was also a highly cultured artist no less at home in the company of poets, musicians, scientists, and learned prelates. Milesi genuinely grieved, whereas some of the other principals — Borghese, Wigancourt, and their underlings — just wanted to get their hands on the loot. In the unholy scramble that followed Caravaggio’s death, Borghese bullied and threatened his way to the largest share of the takings.

One picture that Borghese didn’t get, known as “Portrait of a Courtesan” until it went up in flames during the fighting in Berlin at the end of World War II, remained in the hands of Fillide Melandroni. She held onto this portrait of herself, at her most beautiful and bejeweled, till the end of her days.

Fillide had done quite well on the game, until venereal disease caught up with her at the age of 37 or 38. When she made out her will a few years before she died in 1618, she left most of her costly belongings to charity, but the portrait by the passionate artist she had known so intimately she bequeathed to her aristocratic lover Giulio Strozzi. It was her most cherished possession, and she wanted him to have it.


Bibliographical Note:
The flavorful translations of the historical documents in this account come from Peter Robb’s impassioned and novelistic M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. The notions that Caravaggio might have had a second career as a pimp and that the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni occurred in the course of a duel derive from the entirely persuasive account of Andrew Graham-Dixon in Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. Other estimable sources that I’ve used are Helen Langdon’s Caravaggio: A Life, Howard Hibbard’s Caravaggio, and Francine Prose’s Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. And, of course, there are always the paintings themselves.

is the author of the memoirs College and Library. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Rumpus, and Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.