Caravaggio murder theory: just a ploy to make money?

It may sound like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but a new theory by University of Naples historian Vincenzo Pacelli suggests that famed Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio was assassinated by the Knights of St John.

Caravaggio's chiaroscuro masterpiece The Beheading of St John The Baptist is housed at St John's Cathedral in Valletta
Caravaggio's chiaroscuro masterpiece The Beheading of St John The Baptist is housed at St John's Cathedral in Valletta

Though the whole truth behind the Renaissance artist’s death remains a mystery, the most popular theory is that the artist had died of fever at Porto Ercole in Tuscany in 1610, a year after sustaining severe injuries from a bar brawl in Naples.

But Pacelli presents another intriguing take on the hard-brawling master of chiaroscuro’s demise at age 38.

For his forthcoming book – Caravaggio: Between Art and Science – Pacelli has reportedly unearthed documents from the Vatican Secret Archives that suggest the painter – born Michelangelo Merisi in 1571, Milan – may in fact have been assassinated by the Knights of Malta.

According to Pacelli, Caravaggio – who came to Malta to avoid capture from the Roman authorities after he allegedly murdered a youth in a bar brawl – was the victim of a ‘State-sponsored association’ because he allegedly attacked a high-ranking knight.

After his arrival to Malta in 1607, Caravaggio was made a member of the Order of the Knights of St John, only to be expelled and imprisoned in Fort St Angelo by the same order in 1608, for allegedly wounding a knight.

He was eventually released – though even details on this remain sketchy – and he escaped to Sicily, then Naples.

‘It was commissioned and organised by the Knights of Malta, with the tacit assent of the Roman Curia,’ Pacelli writes of the painter’s alleged assassination, implying that the Vatican was directly – though secretly – involved in this conspiracy.

Though the erratic Caravaggio often found himself caught up in several brawls throughout his brief but successful artistic career, the particular incident at the centre of Pacelli’s thesis concerns an attack in Naples in 1609 which left the artist disfigured.

To corroborate his claims, Pacelli has homed in on a number of historical documents which suggest that the facts about Caravaggio’s death may have been tampered with by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Of particular note is the correspondence between Vatican secretary of State Cardinal Scipione Borghese and papal nuncio Deodato Gentile, in which Caravaggio’s place of death is located on the island of Procida – in the vicinity of Napes – which does not seem to be associated with Caravaggio in any way. 

More intriguingly still, a document by Caravaggio’s doctor (and his first biographer) Giulio Mancini claims that the painter had died in Civitavecchia. But according to Pacelli, Mancini appears to have scrubbed out the name of the Roman province, instead replacing it with Porto Ercole.

But Pacelli’s controversial theory has not gone uncontested. Fr Marius Zerafa, former director of museums and author of the Caravaggio Diaries, remains sceptical of Pacelli’s claims.

“While it is true that we don’t know much about Caravaggio’s death, let’s see the documents themselves before we decide,” Zerafa told MaltaToday, while warning against a tendency to fall for “dramatic” theories when it comes to Caravaggio’s life.

“These theories don’t excite me all that much. I think it’s just a ploy to make a little money, to be honest. We should just concentrate on the paintings,” Zerafa added.

Meanwhile, Dr John T. Spike of the College of William and Mary in Virginia said that the Knights would have had ample opportunities to dispose of Caravaggio sooner, had they wanted to.

Caravaggio remains a tourist attraction for Malta, owing to the fact that two of his paintings – The Beheading of St John the Baptist, and St Jerome – can be found at St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. The two paintings are particularly significant for the history of art as they represent Caravaggio’s pioneering technique of ‘chiaroscuro’ – where the play of light and shadow is manipulated by the artist for dramatic effect. 

when one places the social lifestyle of the knights orders and the church reign into its context, the facts stated by Pacelli are relativly plausible. it is a fact that great artists are idolised once they are dead and not during their life.