Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Crypt of Caravaggio

My brother and I went down to Leicester last week to look at the Richard III’s new tomb. It’s now fairly well accepted that DNA from descendants of his sister proved the remains discovered in a nearby car park were those of Richard III.

When we went down earlier in the year and joined the 3-hour queue to view the coffin, it got me thinking of other remains of famous people whose identity has been proven or disproven by DNA. One of the most important cases occurred 5 years ago when the remains of the artist Caravaggio were confirmed through DNA testing. However, the news was received with scepticism.

Not much detail was known about Caravaggio’s death. It was one of art’s great mysteries. Various theories have circulated. Malaria was a favoured cause, though other historians suggested he may have had syphilis, or was killed by the Knight of Malta (as described here). Whatever the cause, the actual date of his death in 1610 and his final resting place were uncertain.

According to one of the world’s leading experts on Caravaggio, Prof. Maurizio Marini (1942-2011), the artist arrived in Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast in July 1610 in pursuit of a ship containing his belongings and paintings. He had been temporarily imprisoned by mistake when he disembarked at Palo and the ship sailed on to Porto Ercole without him. Prof. Marini believed that Caravaggio walked the 50 miles from Palo to Porto Ercole.

Caravaggio was a notorious brawler. In October 1609 he was involved in a fight in Naples and was injured, probably a knife wound. News circulated that he had actually been killed. By July 1610 he was well enough to embark on his voyage. His unexpected delay in prison meant that he had to walk in the scorching heat of an exceptionally hot summer to retrieve his belongings. One of the more probable causes of his death could have been an infection in his wound (another theory claims he could have died from sunstroke).

Prof. Marini believed that the artist sought treatment for the infected wound at the hospital of Santa Maria Austiatrice. Unfortunately the infection spread and he died there, and this has since been supported by a recently discovered document. Caravaggio was buried in one of Porto Ercole’s cemeteries – but no-one knows which one.

And that is only the start of the problem. In 1956 the local council built a road through one of the cemeteries and the remains of many people buried there were transferred to the crypt of a local church. Can we really be sure that Caravaggio’s remains were one of those transferred to the crypt?

Undeterred by this, the National Committee for the Protection of Historic and Cultural Heritage in Italy thought the crypt WAS the right place to look. This National Committee has done excellent work in preserving Italy’s heritage over the years, and has been involved in investigating the remains of other well-known Italians like Dante Alighieri and the queer Italian philosopher Count Pico della Mirandola.

The President of the National Committee, Silvanus Vinceti, gathered together an army of experts in anthropology, DNA testing, archaeology, forensic pathology and art history to search through the bones in the crypt for those that COULD have belonged to Caravaggio.

Cynics say that it was just a publicity stunt to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death. Perhaps it was, it doesn’t really matter. One supposedly respected art gallery director in New York even joked that the whole thing was nothing more than a revival of the medieval quest for holy relics for followers to worship. What are his galleries full of but relics from artists which he and other people “worship” in the name of art? (If only the art matters, remove all the artist’s names). But there are some genuine concerns about the identification of Caravaggio’s remains.

First, we have to believe, as I said before, that Caravaggio’s bones are among those placed in the crypt. Second, the searchers have to be sure that the bones are from the right historical period. This was done by carbon dating, a process which (as was seen in the erroneous carbon dating, due to contamination, given to the Shroud of Turin in the 1980s) can be unreliable. Third, they had to select bones that could have come from a male of Caravaggio’s age – he was 38 when he died.

Once a small selection of bones was made their DNA was tested. One thing that showed up quite significantly in the traces of some bones was a high level of lead. It is known that a lot of paint used by artists at the time of Caravaggio contained large amounts of lead. A lot of artists may have developed lead poisoning because of it, and Caravaggio wasn’t the only artist around at the time. Mr. Vinceti of the National Committee believed this was proof the bones belonging to Caravaggio because the poisoning would have produced the sort of violent personality traits exhibited by him. But other people handled large amounts of lead at this time. Tuscany had many lead mines and the ruling Medici family employed arms manufacturers to make guns and projectiles in lead. Artists can’t have been the only victims of lead poisoning to be buried in Porto Ercole.

The DNA was likely to prove identity if modern matches could be found. The DNA from the selected crypt bones would have shown the presence of a Y chromosome, which is only present in males and can only be inherited through an unbroken male line of descent. Caravaggio had no children, and his only close relatives were descendants of his sister died out in the 1700s. The only possible matches could come from male line descendants from his earlier ancestors. Were any of them still alive?

Researchers looked for living males in Italy with the same surname as Caravaggio, Merisi. I don’t know that much about the genealogical mobility of Italy, but I do know from research into my own family that having the same surname doesn’t prove a male line of descent. My Scupham grandfather’s DNA comes through an illegitimate female line, his ultimate paternal surname is Smith not Scupham. However, the DNA gathered from some 3 dozen or more Merisi men from central Italy did show some significant similarity to that from the bones from the crypt, but the experts could only admit to an 85% match. That was enough for Silvanus Vinceti and the National Committee to announce that, added to the other evidence, the bones gathered from the Porto Ercole crypt WERE those of Caravaggio. So strong is their conviction that a new memorial park dedicated to Caravaggio was opened a year ago where his remains were reinterred.

Personally, I’m not totally convinced and would prefer better evidence was found. I don’t question the scientific methods, only the interpretation. But I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now. In a way I hope there won’t be any more evidence because the main thing that has made Caravaggio such an appealing artist is his personality, his life story and the mystery surrounding his final days. His remarkable paintings would still create admiration around the world, but it is his life and death that made him worthy of being the subject of films and biographies.

So, let’s keep some of the mystery, and keep pondering on the possibility that his remains are still to be discovered and that somewhere in Porto Ercole there is still the Crypt of Caravaggio.

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