On the 403rd anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, “what if …?”

Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (detail, self portrait) (c. 1599-1600)

What if Caravaggio hadn’t died today? What if he had reached Rome – or never left?

When Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio died 403 years ago today, he had been in a self-imposed exile from Rome for about four years. He fled Rome in 1606 after he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni during a nighttime duel. For this murder, he was sentenced to death.

What did a death sentence entail in 1606 in Rome? Many factors influenced a criminal’s method of death: his family, his social standing, his wealth (or lack of it), and the nature of his crime, to name a few. The family or the criminal himself could petition for clemency. Research by Irene Fosi suggests that petitions were likely to be approved if the criminal had left Rome voluntarily and had been away for some time. If a petition was unsuccessful and the criminal was to die, the Confraternity of San Giovanni Decollato (see photo of their traditional ensemble below) would be notified. These Florentine lay brothers would visit the criminal in jail the night before his execution, pray with him and speak with him about his death. San Giovanni Decollato was crucial to the criminal’s perception and experience of his own death, shaped by this meeting and by the portable artwork that the confraternity used to comfort the condemned.

A member of San Giovanni Decollato wearing their traditional garb and holding a tavoletta and a lantern.

On the morning of a criminal’s execution, San Giovanni Decollato would walk in a slow, gloomy procession down Rome’s streets to the prison where the criminal was being held. Once they reached him, they kept a tavoletta, a framed painting about a foot square (see photo, above), in front of his face for the entire walk to the conforteria next to the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the most common site of execution. Depending on the severity of the crime, the prisoner could be executed inside the conforteria, a small enclosed courtyard, or outside, directly on the Ponte itself.  The tavoletta was held in front of the condemned’s face for the entirety of his time on the scaffold, until his death, when his head would be displayed on the Ponte and his body taken away and buried in San Giovanni Decollato’s church (if he had requested this).

Would Caravaggio have met this fate if he had stayed in Rome? History tells us that Caravaggio did, eventually, receive a papal pardon, but if he had never left Rome and was arrested, he may have spent a considerable amount of time in jail awaiting clemency. He must have known about the process of the death penalty; San Giovanni Decollato was a well-known and respected confraternity, and the conforteria was a built structure dedicated to the purpose of executions at an important location of passage. He certainly realized that the ‘best’ thing for him to do was to exile himself from Rome, if only temporarily. Caravaggio’s exile proved very fruitful for his career and his art became an international sensation.

As I once mused:

Alienated and unable to defend his art in person, Caravaggio’s powerful style was left undefended for Rome’s artists to profit from. What would Caravaggio have thought, coming back to his beloved Rome alive in the summer of 1610, seeing his style plagiarized? How would his career have progressed? Would he be welcomed as an internationally famous star, or welcomed with trepidation and uncertainty about what to do next? I wonder if he would have been emotionally prepared for his homecoming. I wonder if he would have been welcomed with a lot of pomp, or if he would be forever branded as Caravaggio who murdered someone but was pardoned four years later — an unpredictable, unbalanced genius.

Caravaggio’s death (and his life) has been mythologized over the centuries, including some conspiracy theories. It seems that no one is truly satisfied with Caravaggio’s cause of death and many are still looking for answers. Did he die of lead poisoning? Did he die simply and anticlimactically of fever? Or, in a wild twist, was he stalked, beat up, and killed by supporters of the Knights of Malta on a deserted beach?

But everything I have said here is a tragic, romantic exploration of the what ifs. And it’s all rather sad.

So, on the 403rd anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, celebrate Caravaggio through the parts of him he left behind: his art.

This post originally appeared on Tumblr.