In one of his most graphic paintings, the rabble-rousing Renaissance artist Caravaggio depicted his tortured face on the head of Goliath, slain and decapitated by the boy warrior David.
An Italian historian thinks that Caravaggio may have met just such a grisly end – at the hands of the Knights of St. John of Malta, the chivalric order founded during the Crusades.
Vincenzo Pacelli, a Caravaggio expert from the University of Naples, has unearthed documents from the Vatican Secret Archives and state archives in Rome that suggest the Knights ordered the artist to be assassinated in revenge for him attacking and wounding on one of their members during a brawl.
They then dumped his body in the sea at Palo, north of Rome, which would explain why there are no documents recording his death.
Until now, conventional wisdom said Caravaggio died either from an illness or lead poisoning from the oil paints he used.
The murder was “commissioned and organized” by the Knights of Malta and carried out with the complicity of the Vatican, Mr. Pacelli says in his forthcoming book, "Caravaggio – Between Art and Science."
The historian found strange discrepancies in correspondence between Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a powerful Vatican secretary of state, and Deodato Gentile, a papal ambassador, in which the painter’s place of death was cited as the island of Procida near Naples, “a place that Caravaggio had nothing to do with,” according to Pacelli.
A document written by Caravaggio’s doctor and first biographer claimed that the painter died at the age of 38 north of Rome, but the place name was later scrubbed out and replaced by the name of a town in Tuscany. Pacelli also found an account written 20 years after Caravaggio’s death in which an Italian archivist wrote that the artist had been “assassinated.”
He believes it all adds up to evidence of an assassination plot by the Knights of Malta which was then covered up.
Not all experts are convinced by the new theory. John T. Spike, a Caravaggio expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., is skeptical of the idea that the painter was murdered on the Knights' orders.
“The problem with the theory is that the Knights had ample opportunities to kill him sooner – either when he was living in Malta, or when he then went to Sicily, which is very close,” says Mr. Spike. “Why did they wait so long?”
The academic sparring will continue, but more than four centuries after his death in 1610, the true fate of Caravaggio remains an enigma.