Caravaggio and Controversy in Porto Ercole
A 400-Year-Old Mystery
The Baroque master painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) has returned to Porto Ercole, where he died four centuries ago. His remains, contained in a crystal urn, will be on display for several weeks along with a photographic exhibit of the scientific investigation that determined their identity. The bones, exhumed from an unmarked grave in 1956, had been kept in the ossuary of the Church of St. Erasmo until a year or so ago.
Caravaggio’s death is Porto Ercole’s sole claim to historic fame. I know. Every summer since 1990 my husband Bob and I have come to this picturesque port, named for the mighty Hercules but lacking any distinguished museum, church, or work of art. However, Caravaggio has been bringing fame — and controversy — to Porto Ercole for years.
Acclaimed for his dramatic compositions and bold use of chiaroscuro, the contrast of darkness and light, Caravaggio dazzled Rome with his brilliance. His personal life also oscillated between light and dark. Forever arguing and brawling, he killed a young man in a fight and had to flee Rome with a price on his head.
For years Caravaggio careened around southern Italy until he ended up in a prison in Malta. He escaped, and the fugitive, wearying of life on the run, eventually won a papal pardon. However, his plans to return to Rome with paintings for his powerful patrons went terribly wrong.
Thrown into jail in a small coastal town, Caravaggio bought his freedom with a large bribe, only to discover that the boat with his paintings and possessions had sailed north. He set out in pursuit, traveling by whatever means he could find, including by foot, in the midsummer heat. According to folklore, the desperate artist collapsed on the beach and died in Porto Ercole. The paintings disappeared.
I was swept into the lingering mystery about Caravaggio’s final days through my friend Ludovica Sebregondi, a distinguished art historian at the University of Florence. A few years ago, as a special privilege, the pastor of the church of St. Erasmo allowed Ludovica to bring the official parish record book to our rented villa for a careful examination.
We gathered around her as she opened the stained cover of the oversized ledger, which dates back to 1590. Ludovica turned the tattered pages slowly until she came to an envelope containing a torn piece of paper. As she read the bold black script out loud in Italian, I translated the words into English: “Here in Porto Ercole 18 July 1609 died Michelangelo di Merisi di Caravaggio, painter, in the hospital, of an illness.”
The document raised intriguing questions. If it were genuine, the accepted historic date of the celebrated artist’s death — July 18, 1610 — might be wrong. If it were fake, who inserted the bogus certificate into the record book? When? And, most perplexingly, why? Scientific analysis has since proved the notice false, but no one knows how it made its way into the ledger.
The cause of Caravaggio’s death has been debated as much as the date. Most assumed that he died of malaria. However, the recent investigation by anthropologists, microbiologists and art historians suggest otherwise. The artist, who also suffered from syphilis, had extremely high levels of lead and mercury in his skeleton, possibly the result of his notoriously messy handling of paints.
The investigators, who say they are 85 percent certain that the bones belong to Caravaggio, contend that lead poisoning may have driven his already unstable mind over the edge in the final years of his life. Along with infected wounds and sunstroke, it also probably contributed to his death at age 39.
The return of Caravaggio to Porto Ercole has sparked yet another controversy. Should his bones be returned to his home town, the Lombardy village of Caravaggio that gave him his name? Or should they remain in Porto Ercole, where he ended his days?
I’m hoping he gets to stay in the peaceful port we think of as our home in Italy. And may he finally rest in peace!
Parts of this post originally appeared in LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language, now available in paperback.
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