Was Caravaggio a Murderer?

was caravaggio a murderer


Baroque master painter Caravaggio had a tumultuous life filled with the same kind of drama, fear and danger that emanates from his stark and theatrical paintings. Rumors surrounding his arrogant recklessness, drunken antics, fights, promiscuity and illegal activity have survived throughout the centuries, giving him a reputation as one of the most notorious and infamous artists in the entire history of art. One of the most scandalous stories from Caravaggio’s life is his accusation of murder. But is this particular rumor actually true, or is it all hearsay? We take a look at the evidence to find out more. 

Caravaggio Was a Violent Man

caravaggio drawing portrait ottavi leoni
Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavi Leoni, 1621-25, in the Biblioteca Marucellianavia, Florence, via The National Gallery, London

According to numerous written accounts, Caravaggio was easily angered and frequently engaged in bar fights and street brawls. Before he supposedly carried out the murder, he had already found himself on the wrong side of the law over numerous misdemeanors. Sometimes this was for relatively minor infractions, including roaming the streets with an unlicensed sword or swearing at a policeman. Other times he was arrested for serious crimes that included cutting a hole in the ceiling of his rented home to let in more light, and for fighting with guards and waiters. He also regularly engaged in duels with his many rivals, which resulted in several court trials and criminal charges. The same violent outbursts became a recurring feature of his art, which was filled with heightened chiaroscuro and tenebrism.

Caravaggio Murdered a Man During a Violent Duel

caravaggio judith beheading holofernes
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, 1599

While the exact details of the murder remain a subject of debate, historical evidence reveals that Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, a Roman pimp with a shady background, during a particularly nasty fight. The exact reason for their brawl remains unknown – some think it was to settle a gambling debt – but written accounts describe how they engaged in a tennis match which quickly turned into a violent duel, leading Caravaggio to kill Tomassoni. Caravaggio was subsequently found guilty of the crime and issued a death warrant from the Italian court.

Caravaggio Spent Four Years in Exile

Boy Bitten by a Lizard by Caravaggio 1593-4
Boy Bitten by a Lizard, by Caravaggio, 1593-4

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In order to escape punishment, Caravaggio fled Rome and became nomadic for the next four years. He initially ran to Naples where he hid in the homes of his rich clientele including the Colonnas and the Sforzas. Later he made his way to Malta, where the independent sovereignty meant he could live free from being tried for his crime. Surprisingly he was able to continue receiving commissions and working prolifically throughout this period of great uncertainty, and he even painted some of his best-known works of art.

Such was his popularity, Caravaggio received the offer of a knighthood in Malta from the Grand Master of the Knights of Saint John, an award which may well have removed the death warrant over his head. But sadly, Caravaggio blew his chances of redemption by assaulting a knight and landing himself in prison in Malta. 

He Lived His Final Days in Fear

Medusa Caravaggio 1597 Uffizi Gallery Florence
Medusa, Caravaggio, 1597, image courtesy of Uffizi Gallery, Florence

After managing to escape, Caravaggio spent the final years of his life in Sicily, where he lived in constant fear of being caught for murder. Such was his desperation, he tried to arrange a pardon from the Catholic church by sending his finest paintings to people of influence who he knew had close connections to the Pope. But the plan never came to fruition. It wasn’t just the law that Caravaggio had to avoid – he also had many enemies from earlier brawls and fights, four of whom hunted him down and attacked him in Sicily, causing permanent facial disfigurement.

While the circumstances surrounding Caravaggio’s death remain somewhat ambiguous, recent evidence suggests he died of a badly infected wound contracted during a street fight. Despite the terrible nature of his life, and death, Caravaggio’s reputation as an outstanding painter has lived on for centuries, influencing thousands of artists that followed.


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