(David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, by the Italian artist Caravaggio Photo: Getty Images)

On July 18, 1610, a man named Michelangelo Merisi died on the southern coast of Tuscany. Recently, a team of Italian forensic investigators made the international news by claiming to have discovered his bones. By all accounts, he died miserably – the latest, not very plausible suggestion, being that lead poisoning had something to do with it. Murder has also been suspected. The earliest accounts describe a fatal attack of impatience, causing him to pursue on foot along the scorching coast a boat that was carrying his baggage away. Whatever the cause, the deceased was the great artist better known to posterity as Caravaggio. He was 38 years old.

Four hundred years later, he is, by many indications, the world’s favourite old master. Canadian researcher Philip Sohm has established that in the past 50 years, Caravaggio has overtaken that other Michelangelo – Buonarroti – as the favourite subject of art historical research. More, it seems, has been written about him in the past half century than any other artist.

This extraordinary level of attention invites the question: why? One answer lies in the sensational details of his life. Caravaggio committed at least one homicide – for which he was returning to Rome to receive pardon from the Pope when he died. He was involved in numerous brawls and made a dramatic escape from prison on the island of Malta.

But, though all this makes for a gripping biographical story, such behaviour was not that unusual for an artist of that era. The 16th-century goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini proudly relates in his autobiography the numerous assaults and murders he committed. These deeds have not, however, made Cellini the contemporary art historical hero that Caravaggio is.


Martin Gayford