At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Caravaggio and a death in Campo Marzio

Hot-tempered artist killed man in Rome in row over a woman


Caravaggio was a brilliant painter but had a reputation for violence
Caravaggio was a brilliant painter but had
a reputation for drunken violence
The brilliant late Renaissance artist Caravaggio committed the murder that would cause him to spend the remainder of his life on the run on this day in 1606.

Renowned for his fiery temperament and history of violent acts as well as for the extraordinary qualities of his paintings, Caravaggio is said to have killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, described in some history books as a ‘wealthy scoundrel’, in the Campo Marzio district of central Rome, not far from the Piazza Monte D'Oro.

The incident led to Caravaggio being condemned to death by order of the incumbent pope, Paul V, and then fleeing the city, first to Naples, eventually landing in Malta.

It was thought that the two had a row over a game of tennis, which was gaining popularity in Italy at the time, and that the dispute escalated into a brawl, which was not unusual for Caravaggio. The story was that Tomassoni wounded the painter in some way, at which Caravaggio drew a sword and lashed out at his rival, inflicting a gash in the thigh from which he bled to death.

This was accepted by historians as a plausible story for almost 400 years until evidence emerged to challenge the theory in 2002, when papers unearthed in a search of Vatican and Rome state archives suggested a different explanation.

According to the English art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, who revealed the findings in a BBC television documentary, Caravaggio killed Tomassoni in a botched attempt to castrate him.

Caravaggio among the narrow crowded streets of the Campo Marzio district
Caravaggio among the narrow crowded
streets of the Campo Marzio district
The evidence had been turned up by Monsignor Sandro Corradini, an Italian art historian with a particular interest in Caravaggio, who found a surgeon’s report written on the day of Tomassoni’s death.

Maurizio Marini, another historian, told Graham-Dixon in the documentary that the surgeon’s report described a fatal wound to Tomassini’s femoral artery and surmised that Caravaggio was probably trying to castrate him.

Such barbaric acts were relatively common in Rome at the time, part of a ‘code of honour’ that dictated that if a man was insulted by another man he would cut his face, but that if a man’s woman was insulted then the man delivering the insult could expect a different part of his anatomy to be under threat.

The woman at the heart of their row was said to be Fillide Melandroni, who had allegedly succumbed to Caravaggio’s charms after he was asked to paint her for an Italian nobleman. It is thought that she was a prostitute and that Tomassino was her pimp.

It is little wonder, after he had been found guilty of murder, that Caravaggio was not keen to hang around. The sentence was beheading. Worse still, from the artist’s point of view, the sentence allowed for any member of the public, on spotting Caravaggio, to carry out the sentence themselves, on the spot.

In the event, Caravaggio escaped, yet died only four years later in mysterious circumstances. Official records said that he fell victim to a fever at Porta Ercole, on the Tuscan coast, but no records exist of a funeral or a burial and it is suspected that he himself may have been murdered, either by relatives of Tomassino or representatives of the ancient order of the Knights of Malta, avenging the maiming of one of their members in another brawl involving the painter, in Malta.

Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath. painted shortly before he died in 1610
Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath.
painted shortly before he died in 1610
Shortly before he died, while lying low in Naples with the intention of returning to Rome to seek clemency, he completed his David with the Head of Goliath, in which the severed head of the giant bears his own facial features, while David is given an expression of compassion for his victim.

Born Michelangelo Merisi in Milan in 1571, Caravaggio became known by the name of the town, in the province of Bergamo, where his family settled after leaving Milan to escape an outbreak of plague.

His work became famous for his realistic observation of the physical and emotional state of human beings and for his dramatic use of light and shade, known as chiaroscuro, which gave his paintings an almost three-dimensional quality. This was a formative influence for the baroque school of painting.

Some of his major works, such as The Calling of St Matthew, The Crucifixion of St Peter and Deposition, can be found in churches in Rome, but his work is also well represented in the Uffizi gallery in Florence.

The Sanctuary of the Madonna in Caravaggio
The Sanctuary of the Madonna in Caravaggio
Travel tip:

In addition to its connection with the artist, another attraction of the town of Caravaggio is the Sanctuary of the Madonna di Caravaggio, which was built in the 16th century on the spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a local peasant woman.  The Sanctuary was later rebuilt and completed in the 18th century and is now visited by pilgrims from all over the world.  The town did have a theatre named after Caravaggio that was held in high regard but it was destroyed during the Second World War.

The Piazza del Popolo is among the highlights of Campo Marzio
The Piazza del Popolo is among the highlights of Campo Marzio
Travel tip:

Campo Marzio is Rome’s 4th rione - district - situated in the centre of Rome, comprising an area that includes Piazza di Spagna and the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti - otherwise known as the Spanish Steps - and Piazza del Popolo, as well as the fashion district with the Via dei Condotti at its centre, overlooked by the Pincian Hill.  During the Middle Ages it was the most densely populated quarter of the city. It is bordered by the Tiber, the Quirinal hill in the north and the Capitoline Hill.

More reading:

The mysterious death of Caravaggio

Also on this day:

1987: The birth of Leandro Jayarajah, former member of the Italy national cricket team

1999: Da Vinci's The Last Supper goes back on display after 20-year restoration

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