Murderer, artist, genius and pimp… Caravaggio’s new biography sheds light on his tempestuous life

A new book on Italian renaissance hellraiser Caravaggio’s life uncovers key events in the painter’s turbulent career and suggests that the artist was sexually adventurous, worked as a pimp and may have been fathered an illegitimate child

Caravaggio, whose genius produced masterpieces like The Death of the Virgin and David Victorious over Goliath, lived a violent life before he died in July 1610, aged just 38.

Since his death 400 years ago, historians have speculated about his last years, during which Caravaggio committed murder and fled to Malta, instigating a fateful chain of events that led to his death.

And now art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon has penned “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane” which tries to unravel the mystery surrounding the artist’s life.

The biography, to be published July 1, claims Caravaggio’s murder of the notorious Roman pimp, Ranuccio Tomassoni, in 1606, was the result of a duel between the two men over the honour of Tomassoni’s wife, Lavinia.

Graham-Dixon points to recently uncovered documents in Rome’s archives which show that shortly after her husband’s death, Lavinia gave up their baby daughter for adoption, raising the possibility that Caravaggio may have actually fathered the child.

According to him, Caravaggio could have pursued a career as a pimp and had stolen a prostitute from Tomassoni, Fillide Melandroni, who became his favourite muse and appeared in several of his greatest paintings.

A report from the barber-surgeon’s where Tomassoni’s body was taken shows that during the duel, Caravaggio inflicted a fatal sword blow to his rival’s groin.

“There was a simmering enmity between the two men, and that Tomassoni chose to fight in the presence of his brother and two brothers-in-law suggests it was a matter of family honour,” The Telegraph quoted Graham-Dixon, as saying.

He added: “Caravaggio’s low blow may well have been a sexual insult implying his rival is a cuckold, so it is not unlikely that he had started something with Lavinia.”

The book also presents recently uncovered evidence about Caravaggio’s misadventures on the island of Malta, where he fled after the murder to join the Knights of Malta.

Caravaggio died in the Tuscan town of Porto Ecole, while en route from Naples to Rome where he hoped to secure a papal pardon for the murder of Tomassoni.

However, his body was never found, and scholars speculate he may have died from malaria or lead poisoning or may even have been assassinated in another revenge attack.

However, Graham-Dixon doesn’t agree with the lead poisoning theory.

He said: “Caravaggio’s hot-headed temperament could not cope with the discipline of the military Order and he appears to have been undone by his own volatility.

“The latest lead poisoning theory just doesn’t fit the facts. Caravaggio did not slowly deteriorate before his death as he would have done with lead poisoning, but was immensely physically fit, escaping from prison, running across Sicily and painting huge paintings right up until just before his death.

“I hope I have proven in the book that his behaviour was not that of an irrational mad man, as has been suggested, but of a violent man living in violent times whose tragic story is certainly the most extraordinary of any artist to have lived.”