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Ottavio Leoni, “A portrait of the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio” (ca. 1621) (Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence, via Wikimedia Commons)

The truth was hidden in his teeth.

A serial gambler with a penchant for prostitutes, booze, and brawls, art historians have largely agreed for the last four centuries that Caravaggio died of syphilis in 1610. However, new research conducted by a team of seven French and Italian scientists at the IHU Méditerranée Infection Institute of Marseille and published in one of the world’s leading peer-reviewed medical journals, The Lancethas concluded that the irascible artist ultimately succumbed to an infected sword wound.

The killer, in this case, was staphylococcus. Researchers were able to detect the bacteria through microbes extracted from the remaining blood vessels within the Baroque artist’s teeth.

Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi in 1571 near Milan. Having already gained substantial acclaim as a painter by his early twenties, he was the toast of Rome before fleeing the eternal city in 1606 after killing another man in a street fight. He then traveled through southern Italy as an exile and fugitive, wandering through places like Malta and Sicily.

But finding Caravaggio’s skeleton was the first challenge for this team of scientists to overcome. Tracking his body to a cemetery in Porte Ercole (where the artist died after fleeing Naples) researchers screened remains for a male of 1.65 meters (~5 feet and 5 inches) in height between the ages of 35 and 40. Nine were found in total, but only one dated from the seventeenth century, according to a carbon 14 test. One of the study’s authors, Michel Drancourt, confirmed with the newspaper El Paíthat genetic comparisons with other inhabitants of Porte Ercole bearing the surname Caravaggio verified the match.

Particularly helpful in confirming the match was a strong presence of lead in the skeleton’s bones. Caravaggio was known to be careless when using lead for painting, and some scholars have even speculated that he died of poisoning from the substance despite contemporary reports that the painter died of a fever.

Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have also appeared on WNYC. They tweet and instagram...

2 replies on “New Research Finds that Caravaggio Died of Sepsis, Not Syphilis”

  1. Interesting findings.A totally peripheral issue, but The
    Lancet is not a journal of infectious diseases; rather, it is a general
    medical journal, one of the world’s most prestigious.

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