“Caravaggio’s life was even darker than his paintings.”
This is how Italian microbiologist Giuseppe Cornaglia began an account of his uphill battle to figure out what microbial pathogen may have killed the famous and violent 16th and 17th century Italian painter, who died under rather curious circumstances in 1610.
Cornaglia is part of a growing number of researchers who look into the dental pulp of skulls found in graves, in search of DNA from ancient pandemics. The field is called paleomicrobiology, and it’s been used to figure out what microbes caused the Plague of Athens, which indirectly helped Sparta topple Athens in the Peloponnesian War, and which in turn instigated the decline of classical Greece.
Paleomicrobiology has also been used to show that tuberculosis was already in the New World before Columbus showed up carrying a host of other deadly pathogens on board.
So, given that Caravaggio died under strange circumstances (more on that in a second), Cornaglia wanted to look at Caravaggio’s remains and see if he could detect the presence of a deadly pathogen in the artist’s dental pulp. Dental pulp harbors the DNA of microbes present in the person at death. The pulp tissue is covered by protective enamel so that contamination from other microbes can’t occur during the intervening centuries, before forensic researchers dig up the skeleton and crack open the tooth.
The first problem Cornaglia faced was that he didn’t know where Caravaggio’s remains could be found.
This is not entirely surprising when you learn more about the painter.
Caravaggio was an angry guy and quick to pull out his sword. During a fight in 1606, at age 35, he tried to castrate his opponent during a street brawl in Rome, Cornaglia said. The castration was successful. But it also killed Caravaggio’s foe, leaving Caravaggio with a murder charge and a life on the run.
The experience didn’t reign in Caravaggio’s predilection for violent fights. According to Cornaglia:
“The artist’s last years were spent desperately running from one city to another. After stopping by Naples, he travelled to Malta, only to get into trouble after yet another brawl. Caravaggio was imprisoned by the Knights in August 1608 and later expelled from the Order “as a foul and rotten member.”… After some time spent in Sicily, unknown assailants attempted to murder Caravaggio in Naples, succeeding in disfiguring his face… Contemporaries described the artist as a madman during this time, exhibiting increasingly strange behavior and exploding into a violent rage at the slightest provocation.”
Digression: some researchers have wondered if Caravaggio’s inherent aggression was being exacerbated by lead poisoning, as the dude actually ATE off of some of his finished and in-progress canvases, which were presumably smeared with commonly used lead oxide-containing paint.
But back to our story: It turns out that Caravaggio’s lack of charm and grace did not interfere with his artistic success.
Two of Caravaggio’s fans were Cardinal Gonzaga and a papal nephew named Scipione Borghese in Rome. They promised to help Caravaggio get a pardon for the murder charge from the pope “if the artist gave Borghese the entire stock of unsold pictures as soon as he got to Rome,” Cornaglia said.
So in July 1610, Caravaggio got on a felucca ship to Rome with a bunch of paintings. But he wasn’t feeling very well. In fact documents note that he was “suffering from the bitterest pain,” Cornaglia said, likely due to infected wounds from yet another knife fight.
“After a week, the felucca docked at Palo, a high-security fort manned by a Spanish garrison, 20 miles west of Rome. When he was ashore, the Spanish guard arrested [Caravaggio] by mistake… and held him prisoner. Although he was soon released, the felucca was no longer to be found [at the port.]”
Needless to say Caravaggio was furious, as the felucca had a belly full of paintings which could get him a murder pardon. So, still sick from the infected knife fight wounds, Caravaggio decided to follow the felucca on foot along the beach in the middle of a summer heatwave. And somewhere along the way, Cornaglia said, records note that “he was stricken by a malignant fever” and died.
Unfortunately his grave’s location was a mystery.
After much searching Cornaglia did manage to track it down by means of a faded parchment. (Random aside: At this point I should mention that Cornaglia had his standing-room-only audience literally spell-bound when he relayed the story at last month’s European Society for Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Disease conference.)
By this point, it should come as no surprise to the reader that Caravaggio got no more peace in death than he did in life: From the parchment, Cornaglia figured out that Caravaggio had likely been buried in the Porto Ercole cemetery. But in 1956 that cemetery was destroyed and replaced with a road, Cornaglia said. The human remains were then moved to a crypt in a nearby chapel, where they were mixed up together into a big pile.
Sigh. So many bones, which one was Caravaggio’s? Honestly, if I was Cornaglia, I would have just given up at this point.
Undaunted Cornaglia and a team picked out all the male bones from men in their late 30s from the mixed-up pile. Then using some blood samples from distant relatives of Caravaggio, Cornaglia narrowed things down by comparing their DNA with that of the contender skeletons: He’s now 85% sure that the remains he is currently studying are actually those of the artist.
Which brings me to the whole point of this story: What was the pathogen causing Caravaggio’s malignant fever?
Cornaglia said the work to sequence the DNA found in Caravaggio’s dental pulp is in progress. So far he’s ruled out a few contenders: Caravaggio did have a lot of lead in his system but he did not have syphilis, to the surprise of many. (Caravaggio apparently frequented prostitutes regularly and used them as models for Mary the virgin and Mary Magdalena, to the shock and horror of some.)
Caravaggio also didn’t have malaria or typhoid, the microbiologist said. Cornaglia’s current theory is that Caravaggio died of whatever microbe had infected his knife fight wounds, and that, my friends, is the DNA Cornaglia is now looking for.
This crazy saga is to be continued….