Despite Caravaggio's success, his life never stayed calm. He insisted on wearing a fashionably long rapier even though carrying a sword was forbidden to commoners. His life was filled with brawls over prostitutes and squabbles over artistic ability. His patron continued to defend him until he murdered Ranuccio Tommasoni. The two quarreled over the outcome of a tennis match. In a brawl involving a dozen people, Ranuccio was killed and Caravaggio wounded. He was smuggled out of town by his friends. In absentia, he was convicted of murder and the subsequent death penalty. There was a price on his head in Rome.
The talented Caravaggio headed for Naples, outside papal territory and near the Marchesa di Caravaggio, who remembered him from his Lombardy days. The Neapolitan society welcomed and treated him as a visiting celebrity rather than a fugitive. He should have stayed there.
He set off for the island of Malta, famous for its intrepid knights. This order of warrior monks defended the Mediterranean with dedication to chastity, obedience, and religious devotion. Its thought that Caravaggio hoped that acceptance into a religious order would help him achieve a pardon in Rome. He took the oath of the Knights of Malta on July 14, 1608 while standing before the altarpiece he painted during his novitiate.
For more than a year his behavior was faultless. After that, he quarreled with a prominent knight and seriously wounded him. The artist-turned-monk was thrown into a prison cell known as the "birdcage" which was a pit carved into limestone. Soon after, he escaped and fled to Sicily. He had help escaping; someone powerful had arranged to get him out of Malta. Not surprisingly, the knights expelled him from the order in a ceremony where he was described as a "foul and rotten limb."
Caravaggio moved around Sicily acting like a visiting dignitary than a man on the run. In 1609 he abruptly returned to Naples under the protection of the Marchesa di Caravaggio. Evidently the artist learned that someone, presumably the knight he wounded on Malta, was on his trail. Reports from the time describe him wearing a dagger even while sleeping.
He might have stayed safe in the marchesa's palace, but the town's taverns proved irresistible. In late October he emerged to sample their wares. He was surrounded by armed men at one popular bar where he was stabbed in the face and left for dead. The knight finally exacted his revenge for the earlier injury.
Caravaggio was hardly recognizable even after months convalescing in the marchesa's care. Yet his creative drive became stronger than ever. As soon as he was able to wield a brush, he painted David with the Head of Goliath, pictured below.
This double portrait of the artist is one of the most haunting works of his career. Emerging from velvety darkness into a shaft of light, a young David holds a gleaming sword in one hand and the severed head of the giant Goliath, mouth agape and neck dripping blood in the other. David is the young artist, full of promise and innocence; Goliath's face is the current older self with face worn from carousing and scarred from fights.
News from Rome reported that a pardon was in the works for the earlier murder he was accused of. He set out from Naples in a small ship. A storm forced the vessel to seek shelter in a small town where he was arrested because he looked like a local bandit. It took a hefty bribe to free him. Once freed, he set out in the brutal heat of summer. He fell victim to malaria or another illness and collapsed with fever and died July 18, 1610 at age thirty-eight, unaware that a full pardon had been granted in Rome.
His fame prompted artists around Europe to imitate his realism and chiaroscuro technique. Sadly, by the 19th century as tastes shifted, he was all but forgotten. In the 20th century, his reputation revived. Today, his striking realism and depth of emotion are envied and appreciated by artists worldwide even though his life resembles more a character from The Sopranos than an artistic hero.
Credit for this excerpt from her book, Secret Lives of Great Artists, Elizabeth Lunday is a journalist specialized in architecture and art. She writes the "Masterpieces" column for mental_floss magazine and lives in Fort Worth Texas.