Caravaggio: The Violent Life and Crimes of an Artistic Genius

Then, in May 1606, he stabbed and killed a well-known Roman pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni. Historians have long theorised that the men got into a fight over a tennis match.

By Balthazar Malevolent

Caravaggio: The Violent Life and Crimes of an Artistic Genius

In the early 1600s Caravaggio, barely thirty years old, was Rome's most celebrated painter, creating strikingly realistic and dramatic canvases commissioned by the most powerful and influential clients. He perfected the chiaroscuro technique of using dramatic contrasts of light and shadow.

Caravaggio's personality is no less dark and dramatic than his art. One contemporary wrote that after working for a fortnight, he spent a month or two strutted around town with a smug look, accompanied by a servant and carrying a gun, so he went from one company playing ball to another, always ready to engage in a quarrel or scuffle, it was not easy to get along with him.

Caravaggio would regularly get in trouble by being caught in a street fight or carrying a weapon without permission. After learning that his landlady had sued him for making a hole in the ceiling of her room, he and his friends came to her windows to throw rocks. Some claimed that his violent temper was caused by poisoning by the fumes from the paints he was using. In the meantime, Caravaggio was able to get away with it with the support of noble patrons, until May 28, 1606, when he killed a young man named Ranuccio Tomassoni by getting into a knife fight. The details of this story are unknown; art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon suggested that Tomassoni challenged Caravaggio to a duel in response to an insult. The artist inflicted a mortal wound on his opponent and fled Rome under threat of death.

However, his clandestine situation did not stop his career. He first went to Naples, where Caravaggio produced several major works, and then sailed to Malta. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta received him with honour, but after another brawl he had to escaping again.

In 1610, after an unsuccessful attempt on Caravaggio's life, his patrons began negotiating a pardon with Pope Paul V, and he was already preparing to return to Rome. This plan was thwarted by the sudden death of the artist in unclear circumstances at the age of thirty-eight.

Despite the enormous fame that Caravaggio gained during his lifetime, his scandalous reputation meant that Annibale Carracci, his rival in the painting field, had a far greater influence on the next generation of artists. While Caravaggio was secretive and unsociable, Carracci had many apprentices. However, as news of the Master Chiaroscuro's achievements spread across Europe, his authority grew and schools of Caravaggio emerged in many countries. According to art historian Bernard Berenson, no Italian painter, with the exception of Caravaggio, has had such an impact on later artists.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio
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