My brother and I went down to Leicester last week to look at the Richard III’s new tomb. It’s now fairly well accepted that DNA from descendants of his sister proved the remains discovered in a nearby car park were those of Richard III.
When we went down earlier
in the year and joined the 3-hour queue to view the coffin, it got me thinking
of other remains of famous people whose identity has been proven or disproven
by DNA. One of the most important cases occurred 5 years ago when the remains
of the artist Caravaggio were confirmed through DNA testing. However, the news
was received with scepticism.
Not much detail was known
about Caravaggio’s death. It was one of art’s great mysteries. Various theories
have circulated. Malaria was a favoured cause, though other historians
suggested he may have had syphilis, or was killed by the Knight of Malta (as
described here). Whatever the cause, the actual date of his death in 1610 and
his final resting place were uncertain.
According to one of the
world’s leading experts on Caravaggio, Prof. Maurizio Marini (1942-2011), the
artist arrived in Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast in July 1610 in pursuit of a
ship containing his belongings and paintings. He had been temporarily
imprisoned by mistake when he disembarked at Palo and the ship sailed on to
Porto Ercole without him. Prof. Marini believed that Caravaggio walked the 50
miles from Palo to Porto Ercole.
Caravaggio was a notorious
brawler. In October 1609 he was involved in a fight in Naples and was injured,
probably a knife wound. News circulated that he had actually been killed. By
July 1610 he was well enough to embark on his voyage. His unexpected delay in
prison meant that he had to walk in the scorching heat of an exceptionally hot
summer to retrieve his belongings. One of the more probable causes of his death
could have been an infection in his wound (another theory claims he could have
died from sunstroke).
Prof. Marini believed that
the artist sought treatment for the infected wound at the hospital of Santa
Maria Austiatrice. Unfortunately the infection spread and he died there, and
this has since been supported by a recently discovered document. Caravaggio was
buried in one of Porto Ercole’s cemeteries – but no-one knows which one.
And that is only the start
of the problem. In 1956 the local council built a road through one of the
cemeteries and the remains of many people buried there were transferred to the
crypt of a local church. Can we really be sure that Caravaggio’s remains were
one of those transferred to the crypt?
Undeterred by this, the
National Committee for the Protection of Historic and Cultural Heritage in
Italy thought the crypt WAS the right place to look. This National Committee
has done excellent work in preserving Italy’s heritage over the years, and has
been involved in investigating the remains of other well-known Italians like
Dante Alighieri and the queer Italian philosopher Count Pico della Mirandola.
The President of the
National Committee, Silvanus Vinceti, gathered together an army of experts in
anthropology, DNA testing, archaeology, forensic pathology and art history to
search through the bones in the crypt for those that COULD have belonged to
Cynics say that it was
just a publicity stunt to coincide with the 400th anniversary of
Caravaggio’s death. Perhaps it was, it doesn’t really matter. One supposedly
respected art gallery director in New York even joked that the whole thing was
nothing more than a revival of the medieval quest for holy relics for followers
to worship. What are his galleries full of but relics from artists which he and
other people “worship” in the name of art? (If only the art matters, remove all
the artist’s names). But there are some genuine concerns about the identification
of Caravaggio’s remains.
First, we have to believe,
as I said before, that Caravaggio’s bones are among those placed in the crypt.
Second, the searchers have to be sure that the bones are from the right
historical period. This was done by carbon dating, a process which (as was seen
in the erroneous carbon dating, due to contamination, given to the Shroud of
Turin in the 1980s) can be unreliable. Third, they had to select bones that
could have come from a male of Caravaggio’s age – he was 38 when he died.
Once a small selection of
bones was made their DNA was tested. One thing that showed up quite
significantly in the traces of some bones was a high level of lead. It is known
that a lot of paint used by artists at the time of Caravaggio contained large
amounts of lead. A lot of artists may have developed lead poisoning because of
it, and Caravaggio wasn’t the only artist around at the time. Mr. Vinceti of
the National Committee believed this was proof the bones belonging to Caravaggio
because the poisoning would have produced the sort of violent personality
traits exhibited by him. But other people handled large amounts of lead at this
time. Tuscany had many lead mines and the ruling Medici family employed arms
manufacturers to make guns and projectiles in lead. Artists can’t have been the
only victims of lead poisoning to be buried in Porto Ercole.
The DNA was likely to
prove identity if modern matches could be found. The DNA from the selected crypt
bones would have shown the presence of a Y chromosome, which is only present in
males and can only be inherited through an unbroken male line of descent.
Caravaggio had no children, and his only close relatives were descendants of
his sister died out in the 1700s. The only possible matches could come from
male line descendants from his earlier ancestors. Were any of them still alive?
Researchers looked for
living males in Italy with the same surname as Caravaggio, Merisi. I don’t know
that much about the genealogical mobility of Italy, but I do know from research
into my own family that having the same surname doesn’t prove a male line of
descent. My Scupham grandfather’s DNA comes through an illegitimate female
line, his ultimate paternal surname is Smith not Scupham. However, the DNA
gathered from some 3 dozen or more Merisi men from central Italy did show some
significant similarity to that from the bones from the crypt, but the experts
could only admit to an 85% match. That was enough for Silvanus Vinceti and the
National Committee to announce that, added to the other evidence, the bones
gathered from the Porto Ercole crypt WERE those of Caravaggio. So strong is their
conviction that a new memorial park dedicated to Caravaggio was opened a year
ago where his remains were reinterred.
Personally, I’m not
totally convinced and would prefer better evidence was found. I don’t question
the scientific methods, only the interpretation. But I’ll give them the benefit
of the doubt for now. In a way I hope there won’t be any more evidence because
the main thing that has made Caravaggio such an appealing artist is his
personality, his life story and the mystery surrounding his final days. His
remarkable paintings would still create admiration around the world, but it is
his life and death that made him worthy of being the subject of films and
So, let’s keep some of the
mystery, and keep pondering on the possibility that his remains are still to be
discovered and that somewhere in Porto Ercole there is still the Crypt of