Caravaggio's crimes exposed in Rome's police files

Four hundred years after his death, Caravaggio is a 21st Century superstar among old master painters. His stark, dramatically lit, super-realistic paintings strike a modern chord - but his police record is more shocking than any modern bad boy rock star's.

An exhibition of documents at Rome's State Archives throws vivid light on his tumultuous life here at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries.

Image caption Caravaggio: A killer whose patrons and friends included powerful cardinals

Caravaggio's friendships, daily life and frequent brawls - including the one which brought him a death sentence from Pope Paul V - are described in handwritten police logs, legal and court parchments all bound together in heavy tomes - and carefully preserved in this unique repository of Rome's history during the Renaissance and after.

The picture the documents paint is that of an irascible man who went about town carrying personal weapons - a sword and dagger, and even a pistol - without a written permit, boasting that he enjoyed the protection of the ecclesiastical authorities who commissioned some of his most famous works.

He had frequent brushes with the police, got into trouble for throwing a plate of cooked artichokes in the face of a waiter in a tavern, and made a hole in the ceiling of his rented studio, so that his huge paintings would fit inside. His landlady sued, so he and a friend pelted her window with stones.

Tennis court battle

All these events are documented with eyewitness accounts in this collection of yellowing parchments - difficult to decipher for the non-specialist, but rich in contemporary detail for a skilled archivist.

The documents provide a completely new account of his most serious brawl in May 1606 in which he killed a certain Ranuccio Tommassoni. This brawl - just like a modern-day clash between warring gangs - was arranged in advance by eight participants who have all now been named.

Caravaggio and his three companions, one a Captain in the Papal army, met their rivals at a pallacorda court in the Campo Marzio area, where the artist lived. (Pallacorda was a game played with a ball with a string attached - an early form of tennis, which some older Romans still remember seeing played in the streets of the capital in the mid-20th Century.)

Some biographers have suggested that there may have been an argument over a woman, but the text of the court report suggests the quarrel broke out over a gambling debt. Caravaggio killed Ranuccio and fled the city.

One of Caravaggio's own supporters was seriously injured. Taken to prison, he was subsequently put on trial, and the new evidence emerges from the report of this trial.

Early death

Caravaggio himself fled south to Malta and to Sicily where he received important new art commissions. The death sentence from Pope Paul V - whose portrait he had just painted - was imposed in absentia for this offence.

The documents also shed light upon Caravaggio's death at Porto Ercole, north of Rome in July 1610. He did not die alone on a beach after escaping from his creditors and the police, as some of his biographers say, but in a hospital bed.

Only 38 years old, he was on his way back to the city from the south in the belief that his powerful friends had secured a pardon for his offences.

The documents that record Caravaggio's life in Rome are written in a mixture of Latin legal jargon and racy Italian vernacular that any modern Roman could easily understand.

They needed careful restoration, as parts of the parchment were breaking up - the acid in the ink literally devouring the pages.

A handful of sponsors including a local bus company and the Italian Land Rover distributors helped to fund the work. The Italian Culture Ministry has slashed budgets this year as part of Italy's austerity programme and libraries and archives have been particularly badly hit.

The restored files provide the historical context for the sellout show in Rome last year, when more than three-quarters of a million visitors queued for hours in stifling summer heat to see some 50 of the mad, bad and dangerous painter's works.

"A window has been opened into the past," said Federica Galloni, head of culture for the Lazio region at the opening of the new exhibition.

All the events described in the documents occurred within walking distance of one another in a small area of the city.

Caravaggio's haunts such as the Osteria del Moro (inn of the Moor) and Osteria della Lupa (inn of the she-wolf) are long gone, and the church of St Ambrose has been subsumed in a larger, more recent church on the Via del Corso.

But the narrow streets are still there, often clogged with parked motorbikes, but still dotted with medieval buildings that Caravaggio would have known. Walking along them, after visiting the exhibition, the vivid tales of the painter's rumbustious life linger in the imagination.

Document images courtesy of Italy's State Archive, and the Ministry of Culture. The exhibition continues until 15 May. Full details on the State Archive website.

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