Sword or syphilis: now we know which killed Caravaggio

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Sword or syphilis: now we know which killed Caravaggio

Temper-prone painter may have died of infected wound inflicted in a fight, scientists say

Josephine McKenna


The cause of Caravaggio’s death has baffled experts for more than 400 years but a study now suggests he may have died from an infected wound received during one of his notorious sword fights.
The tempestuous Italian painter revolutionised the art world with his “chiaroscuro” style of painting, contrasting light and shade. He died in Porto Ercole, Tuscany, in 1610, his death variously blamed on malaria, intestinal infection and lead poisoning from his paints.
There was even a theory he was murdered by the Knights of Malta in revenge for killing one of their number.
French and Italian scientists affiliated with the Mediterranean University Hospital of Marseille now believe his demise was brought about by an infection caught after his final brawl just days before he died.
For their research, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, they recovered the 17th-century skeleton, believed to be Caravaggio’s, from Porto Ercole cemetery.
Using a combination of DNA detection and protein sampling, the researchers looked for signs of syphilis, malaria or brucellosis (an infectious disease caused by bacteria), but found nothing.
After finding no sign of disease on the skeleton they believe he died of sepsis, a blood infection, though they also found high lead levels.
“Concluding data suggested that the man whose skeleton was analysed died of staphylococcus aureus sepsis,” although the researchers noted: “He was known to be careless when using lead for painting.”
Arguably the most famous painter in Rome, Caravaggio killed a man in a sword fight in 1606 and was run out of town. He spent time in Malta, Sicily and Naples and was believed to be heading back to Rome in hope of a papal pardon when he died.
– © The Daily Telegraph

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