DNA tests could solve mystery of Caravaggio's death

ROME (Reuters Life!) -The mystery surrounding the death of Baroque master Caravaggio may soon be resolved thanks to new DNA tests -- as long as the right body can be found.

A gallery attendant poses for photographers as he stands next to the "The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew" painting by Caravaggio (L), during a photocall for the forthcoming "The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection" exhibition at The Queens Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland November 12, 2008. REUTERS/David Moir

What caused the death of the painter in 1610 and the whereabouts of his corpse have always been unclear.

But a team of Italian anthropologists believe that what is left of Caravaggio’s body may be hidden among dozens of bodies buried in a crypt in Tuscany, thanks to recent historical clues.

The team -- armed with a CAT scan and kits for carbon dating -- plan to study the painter’s exhumed remains to discover how he died.

“If we are lucky enough to find Caravaggio’s skull, we will also be able to do a reconstruction of his face, just as we did in 2007 for Dante Alighieri,” Silvano Vinceti, head of the National Committee for Cultural Heritage, told Reuters.

The only images of the artist available until now have been self-portraits.

Scholars have put forward many theories about Caravaggio’s death. The most popular are that the painter was assassinated for religious reasons or collapsed with malaria on a deserted Tuscan beach.

However, in 2001 an Italian researcher claimed to have found the painter’s death certificate, which allegedly proved that he died in hospital.

“This historical document shows Caravaggio did not die alone on the beach but after three days in hospital, which means the body must have been buried in the San Sebastiano cemetery,” said Vinceti, referring to a Tuscan town near the city of Grosseto.

But in 1956, bodies buried at the tiny San Sebastiano graveyard were moved to a nearby town, Porto Ercole, and scholars hope that the remains of Caravaggio will be among them.

The team -- from the departments of Anthropology and Cultural Heritage Conservation at the universities of Ravenna and Bologna -- will have to examine the bones of between 30 and 40 people, selecting those that belong to young men who died at the beginning of the 17th century.

“We will check the DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of possible matches against that of the painter’s male descendents,” Professor Giorgio Gruppioni, who will head the team, told Reuters.

“Sadly Caravaggio died childless,” said Gruppioni, “but his siblings had children whose relatives are still living in the northern Italian town that carries his name.”

Caravaggio, who pioneered the Baroque painting technique of contrasting light and dark known as chiaroscuro, is famed for his wild life. Legend has it that he was on his way to Rome to seek pardon for killing a man in a brawl when he died.

Editing by Paul Casciato