A team of forensic anthropologists who have been examining bones from a Porto Ercole crypt for 6 months think they’ve located Caravaggio’s. They can’t be absolutely sure, but all tests consistently point to Caravaggio’s vital statistics so they’re comfortable enough to say there’s an 85% probability that the bones in question belonged to one Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio.
They started with documents uncovered by art historian and Caravaggio expert Maurizio Marini. Marini searched church and hospital records in Port Ercole, the last place Caravaggio is thought to have fled to in 1610 after escaping his umpteenth bloody scrap this time in Naples, where 4 knights in armor wounded him. In the records of the Church Of St Erasmus, Caravaggio was listed as having died in the parish in 1609 and been buried in the small cemetery of nearby San Sebastiano. (The Porto Ercole area of Tuscany was still using the Julian calendar at that time, hence the date discrepancy.)
The San Sebastiano cemetery had been converted into a city park in 1956 and all the bones transferred to 3 crypts in St. Erasmus cemetery, so when the anthropologists decided to look for Caravaggio’s remains, that’s where they started. They sorted through the remains of 30-40 people interred in the first of the crypts, separating out the bones that belonged to men who probably died in the 17th century.
These were then taken to a special laboratory set up for the occasion in a building that used to house the town’s elementary school.
Here they narrowed down the search further, before taking candidate remains to the anthropology department in Ravenna for a series of tests.
The first analysis used carbon-dating, to try establish exactly how old the bones were. Compatible fragments were then tested for high concentrations of lead and mercury, metals that were commonly used in paints during Caravaggio’s day. The final step was DNA testing. Samples were extracted from the bones and compared with male volunteers surnamed Merisi, believed to be descendents of Caravaggio’s brother.
Out of the 9 potential sets, set number 5 hit all the markers: they belonged to a tall man for the time (5’7″), between 38 and 40 years old, who died around 1610, with toxic levels of lead in his bones. The modern DNA samples were found to be 50-60% compatible with the bones, which is about as solid a match as could be expected seeing that the DNA in the remains has degraded over time and none of the current Merisis are direct descendants of Caravaggio who died childless.
The cause of death remains unconfirmed. National Committee for the Promotion of Historic and Cultural Heritage President and famed historical cold case investigator Silvano Vinceti thinks the wounds inflicted by the assassin knights in Naples became infected. They think he may have been weakened by lead poisoning and maybe even suffering from sunstroke, but that last of course can’t be detected via bone analysis.