Caravaggio, the artist as a murderer!
The death of Ranuccio Tomassoni In May 1606 followed a disputed game of tennis.
Tomassoni was a well known pimp to the prostitutes Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni who had both modelled for the artist. It is possible that the disputed tennis match was just the flash point of a simmering rivalry between the two men. Certainly, Caravaggio was leading an aggressive, sexually active life to the full. His closeness to the prostitutes, owned by Tomassoni, and his predatory pursuit of the pimp's wife, resulted in a jealous tension that ended in Tomassoni's death at the blade of the artist's sword.
He was charged with murder!
Cast as an outlaw he fled the jurisdiction of Roman law and arrived in Naples.
The artist in Naples and Malta.
In Naples Caravaggio enjoyed the patronage of the powerful Colonna family, reviving his old connections from his days in Milan. This patronage led to a steady stream of important commissions with religious themes at their heart. The artist's restless and violent tendencies surfaced and, once again, he was on the run. After several months in Naples, he surfaced in Malta.
Malta was the home base for the Knights of St John. Their leader, Alof de Wignacourt, was so impressed at having such a famous artist as official painter to the order that he inducted the artist as a knight. Despite his success in August 1608 he was arrested and imprisoned. This followed another brawl in which a fellow knight was seriously injured. The artist was expelled from the order of the knights as a "foul and rotten member."
He fled to Sicily and renewed his friendship with Mario Minniti, the artist who had served as a model in his early works. There was no shortage of well-paid commissions. Works from this period include The Burial of St. Lucy, The Raising of Lazarus and Adoration of the Shepherds. Due to his outrageous behaviour, the artist had accrued many enemies and, in fear of his life, he returned to Naples. He again fell under the protection of the Colonna family. However, his enemies were closing in and an attempt was made on his life! It was reported, first that he was dead, and then that the famous artist had survived the attack but had received injuries disfiguring his face.
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. 1609, Oil on canvas,
Palacio Real de Madrid. (w)
Both the head of John the Baptist and the head of Goliath (opposite) are self-portraits of the artist.
David with the head of Goliath
Galleria Borghese. Rome. (w)
The artist was desperate to win back friends, presumably to take some of the considerable heat out of his life, and painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, showing his own head on a platter. He sent this work to the grand master of The Knights of St John, Alof de Wignacourt, in an attempt to win favour with his old patron. He was also keen to secure a pardon for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni and through his association with the pope's nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese and his powerful Roman friends, it would seem that the pardon was about to be granted.
Travelling by boat destined for Rome and his papal pardon Caravaggio made a stop en route at Palo. What happened next is a matter of conjecture. It may be that the artist, nursing his wounds and weak with fever, succumbed to pneumonia. He died on 18th July 1610. He was 38 years old.
His papal pardon was granted three days later.