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The bare bones of Caravaggio's life; SCIENTISTS SOLVE MYSTERY OF ART WILDMAN'S DEATH.

Byline: NICK PISA

DRINKING, fighting and whoring his nights away, it's amazing Caravaggio found the time for any painting.

Yet for a decade his artistic genius burned brilliantly, illuminating Renaissance Italy as he created a legacy of more than 80 masterpieces now worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

But despite his fame - or infamy - there was no known cause for his sudden death in 1610, and no known last resting place.

Now those mysteries have finally been solved by academics following years of research. And it seems Caravaggio died for his art - poisoned by the lead in his paint, exacerbated by sunstroke and infected wounds. Michelangelo Merisi, or Caravaggio as he is more commonly known after his place of birth, was 39 years old when he died while on the run after killing a man. He'd earned the reputation of a 17th-century Oliver Reed - a hard drinking, hard-living hell-raiser.

Yet among art lovers he was admired as a true original, who pioneered the revolutionary Baroque painting technique known as chiaroscuro, which used dramatic contrasts of light and shadow to give an impression of depth in his pictures never seen before.

But his subject matter often betrayed his volatile mentality - with many of his works, even religious ones, featuring violent struggles, grotesque decapitations, torture and death.

One of his most famous, The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, is owned by the Queen and worth more than pounds 50million. Caravaggio burst on to the Rome art scene in 1600 but it was his roguish style which really made his name.

Dutchman Floris Claes Van Dijk wrote in 1604: "After a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him."

Two years later he fled Rome after killing pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni. He went to Naples then Malta, where he joined the Knights of Malta. He was expelled in 1608 following a brawl with a fellow knight. Travelling back to Italy, his last known whereabouts were Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast. Here he died, kickstarting a host of conspiracy theories about how he met his end - from syphilis, malaria and fever, to assassins sent by Pope Paul V over the artist's use of a Roman prostitute as a model for a painting of the Virgin Mary. Only this week did art historians finally crack the case, after examining hundreds of bones, documents and DNA.

In 1610 there were three cemeteries in Porto Ercole but only one, St Sebastian, would have been suitable for a man wanted for murder. Experts believe Caravaggio was buried here in an unmarked grave. In 1629 the bones of around 200 people were removed and placed in a deep pit at Porto Ercole's main graveyard where they stayed until 1956.

Then they were dug up and put in another crypt. Witnesses said a black cape with the emblem of the Knights of Malta was also recovered.

A year ago scientists exhumed the bones and began analysing them to try to find Caravaggio.

Geologist Antonio Moretti did the dirty work. He says: "We had to follow every lead, like detectives."

Professor Giorgio Gruppioni, who led the investigation, says: "We were looking for the bones of a robust man, at least 1.7m tall. We knew from records that Caravaggio would use vast quantities of oil paint without any precaution and tests revealed high amounts of lead. Lead poisoning on its own is unlikely to kill you, but it can induce violent behaviour, a well known trait of Caravaggio."

The pounds 50,000 project focused on two pieces of jaw bone, a fragment of leg, skull and part of a spine.

Researcher Silvano Vinceti says: "We traced people with the surname Merisi and also went to Caravaggio to look for that name.

"We took DNA samples. From there we concluded that with a cautious estimate the remains are with an 85% probability those of Caravaggio."

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HOME Porto Ercole TESTS Moretti with bones FIND Geologist Antonio Moretti at artist's grave ROGUE Italian artist Caravaggio. Top right, remains CLASSIC His Boy With Basket of Fruit
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 19, 2010
Words:715
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