Italians think they have found Caravaggio’s bones

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610 A.D.), chalk portrait executed by Ottavio Leoni circa 1621.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610 A.D.), chalk portrait executed by Ottavio Leoni circa 1621.

ROME (AP) – Italian researchers believe they have found the remains of Caravaggio, but 400 years later some of the mysteries surrounding the death of the master artist may never be solved.

After a year of digging and analyzing centuries-old bones, the researchers said Wednesday they have identified a set of bones they believe to be Caravaggio’s, though they admit they can never be 100 percent certain.

They think Caravaggio may have died from sunstroke while weakened by syphilis.

The set of bones – a fragment of the frontal part of the skull, two jaw pieces, a femur and a fragment of the sacrum, or the bone at the base of the spine – were displayed in Ravenna, a northern Italian city where most of the analyses have been carried out. Kept inside a rectangular plexiglass case, the bones rested on a silk red cushion.

Caravaggio died in Porto Ercole, a beach town on the Tuscan coast, in 1610. At 39, he had been a celebrity painter and led a dissolute life of street brawls, booze and encounters with prostitutes. His last days are shrouded in mystery.

The team of scientists and historians dug up and studied bones found in Porto Ercole’s crypts, and combed through archives in search of papers documenting Caravaggio’s movements. The group conducted carbon dating, DNA tests and other analyses on the bones, until they singled out one set of fragments  “Find No. 5.”

“There can’t be the scientific certainty because when one works on ancient DNA, it is degraded,” Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist on the team, told The Associated Press. “But only in one set of bones did we find all the elements necessary for it to be Caravaggio’s – age, period in which he died, gender, height.”

The DNA comparison was conducted between the bones that had been identified and that of some possible male relatives in Caravaggio, a small town in northern Italy where the painter – whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi – was born in 1571. Caravaggio had no known children, therefore no direct descendants.

Gruppioni said they identified a genetic combination in those whose last name was Merisi or Merisio. Because the bones are old and the DNA degraded, not all genetic characteristics could be confirmed.

Still, the evidence pointed to them. They belonged to a man who died between 38 and 40 years of age and at a time around 1610. The bones also presented a high level of lead and other metals associated with painting. Sediment found on the bones was also compatible with the deeper, older layers of terrain inside the crypt _ the level where such old bones were thrown, the researchers said.

The bones belonged to a robust man. Caravaggio, at 170 centimeters (5 feet 7 inches), was tall by the standards of his time.

The cause of Caravaggio’s death has been the subject of much conjecture, some of it nourished by the adventurous existence that the artist led. Possibilities raised by scholars range from malaria to syphilis to murder at the hands of one of the many enemies Caravaggio made over the years.

The researchers believe that Caravaggio may have died from sunstroke, but Gruppioni said sunstroke leaves no trace on the bones, therefore there is no scientific certainty.

The project wrapped up just as Italy marks the 400 anniversary since Caravaggio’s death, remembering him as a revolutionary artist who changed the history of modern painting.

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AP-ES-06-16-10 1055EDT