Caravaggio Affair, Not What You Think

DATELINE:  Them Bones, Them Bones!

Gilles Caravaggio Merisi Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi went by the name of his hometown, Caravaggio, when he stormed the art world in the early 1600s. He was the James Dean/Charlie Sheen/O.J.Simpson of his age.

The Caravaggio Affair is an attempt to solve a 400-year-old mystery. They do not delve into his dubious sex life and appetite for young male models but do explain his use of prostitutes to serve as his saintly women.

Caravaggio was a literal back-stabber, and it didn’t sit when with the Viceroy of Naples or various Cardinals at the Vatican.

At the height of his fame, he was wanted for murder and had a bunch of bounty hunters coming after his head. Literally.  If he wanted a pardon, he had to give all his paintings to a high-ranking and corrupt Vatican cardinal.

So, you find a half-dozen beheading of John the Baptist paintings among his masterpieces. The notion of being headless played on his mind. “Off with his head” was not an empty slogan.

Wherever he went, trouble followed. Until he disappeared from history. No one is quite sure if he were murdered, died from some septic illness and discarded in a pauper grave.

He may have also faked his death and took off for parts unknown. However, the scientist biographers in this little film disagree. They bring together history, genetics, archaeology, and geology to literally dig up the truth.

A cavern of bones under a church renders a handful to be tested for age (about 40), male, suffering from severe lead poison (all those paintings, about 1000 times the dose you’d expect from an average person).

Those conditions presented half a dozen candidates. And tests seemed to indicate which one was the painter. It seems he was growing increasingly mad as a hatter, likely from heavy metals. He was erratic, violent, and sick, growing worse.

Forty was not the start of life in 1610. If you reached it, you were not long for the world. So it was for Caravaggio who was attacked, likely caught an infection, and while waiting for a pardon in trade for a bunch of paintings, he collapsed and died.

It’s quite a research trip and fills up an hour with fascinating detail.