Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Death Scene

I had a terrific trip to the coast yesterday to investigate the scene of Caravaggio's final days. The rediscovered documents at the State Archives have revealed new information about his death.  Many biographers originally reported that he died on the beach, looking out to sea, with dolphins leaping and the sun setting and mermaids weeping. A nice romantic idea.  But the real story is even better.

Caravaggio was back in Naples towards the end of his life when he received word that the Vatican was finally going to grant him a pardon for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni.  Cardinal Scipione Borghese had helped orchestrate the deal, as long as Caravaggio delivered some new paintings to him.  The centerpiece of Caravaggio's apology was his "David with the Head of Goliath," with the face of Goliath as a self-portrait.

With this painting and several others, Caravaggio enthusiastically set sail for Rome. Along the way, his boat stopped at the tiny port of Palo, between the mouth of the Tiber and Civitavecchia. There was either a case of mistaken identity or some foul play, but either way, Caravaggio was arrested at Palo and imprisoned in the fortress there. The seas were getting rough, and the boat could finally wait no longer, so it sailed on without him, taking his paintings and other possessions with it.

Caravaggio offered up a good deal of money for his release, probably all he had, but once he was free, the boat was already on its way to Port'Ercole, 100 kilometers north. He had probably contracted malaria at this point, and he was certainly dealing with mental illness, so -- delirious, exhausted, and desperate -- he set off on foot to chase the ship. Here and there, he may have been helped along by strangers -- a meal, a boat ride to the next village. He made it a good distance, but 100 kilometers is a long way for a sick man to walk, and this was in the heat of mid-July. He collapsed before reaching Port'Ercole.  They brought him to the hospital there, where he died.

Yesterday I drove to the coast with two Roman friends who helped me communicate with the troll-like lady guarding the main gate. She wouldn't let us pass.

So we drove on to the next town, ditched the car, and hiked about a half hour down the coast, walking the same stretch where Caravaggio would have started his trek.

Finally we reached the castle of Palo. Some locals told us an old princess lives there with two or three dusty servants.  A princess of what exactly, no one knows.

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