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Caravaggio was not a murderer: The response to an article in Burlington Magazine
Nolli's Map of Rome, 1748, with the Pantheon at the south end, the Piazza dell' Ortaccio (now Piazza Monte d'Oro) at the top, which was the centre of the courtesans's ghetto: Palazzo Firenze is in the centre, flanked by the Vicolo di Pallacorda on the left, and the Vicolo S. Biagio (now Vicolo del Divino Amore) where Caravaggio was living in 1605/1606., to the right of it.

by Clovis Whitfield


LONDON.- While Caravaggio in a recent article in the Burlington Magazine was described as a ‘murderer’, there are circumstances in the story that give the lie to this interpretation. He certainly had an exceptional personality, perhaps especially because he saw the world differently.

Although Caravaggio was involved probably more than once in disturbances that led to death, it is perhaps unfair to characterise him as a murderer, as Keith Sciberras describes him in his article 'Caravaggio 'obbediente' in the June Burlington Magazine. The brawl that occurred on the 28th May 1606 was evidently an affray that involved several people (as many as eight), in which Caravaggio and his friend/second Petronio Troppa (formerly Capitano di Castello) were injured, both almost fatally. One of the eyewitnesses said that it started with a slap on the face, another that Tomassoni provoked the painter 'a far seco questione', and this followed an incident at a game of tennis a couple of days before. The presence of Ranuccio's brothers-in-law (also banished as a result of the incident) introduces an element of honour to the affray. Van Mander reported (from earlier than the famous encounter in the Vicolo di Pallacorda) that Caravaggio went from one ball game to the next, very ready to duel and get into brawls, but we know from other third party accounts that he was very difficult to befriend, a cervello stravagantissimo who did not get on well with other people, and sought out the company of people who were by nature 'brigosi' (or 'trouble') as Baglione tells us. Mario Minniti found him too torbido and contentioso (troubled and difficult) to be with, and according to his biographer Susinno got married in order to get away from his friend. Since we can see that one of his principal claims to fame was that he saw things differently from other people, we should not be surprised that he found it difficult to get on with them and that he needed 'protection' by people like Prospero Orsi, Onorio Longhi, and then powerful patrons like Del Monte and the Mattei. In any case the Tomassoni brawl was with more than one of these huomini brigosi, with a less than perfect reputation in the neighbourhood. Such a fatality would not have been regarded as an omicidio colposo or murder, but could well have been seen as an omicidio casuale, which did not necessarily result in sanction, so his eventual pardon was quite realistic, despite the bando capitale that was published against him (a month after the event). Another detailed account of the affray, one that is not featured in Macioce's excellent compilation of the documents relating to Caravaggio (as Francesco Tresoldi wrote online in 2009 as comment to gialli.it.lomicidio-di-ranucci o-tommasoni) is that of Francesco Maria Vialardi, who apparently reported on 3 June 1606 to Maffeo Barberini,

“…ho inteso dire che il detto Michaelangelo in sulle 16 hore se ne passò quel giorno da casa del medesimo Ranutio, con comitiva, et il detto Ranutio, vedutolo si armò di dosso , et lo andò affrontare cacciando mano da solo, a solo. Restando ferito il pittore, in suo aiuto uscì un tal Petronio Troppa gia Capitano di Castello, et dall’altra il Capitan Gio Francesco fratello di esso Ranutio. Finalmente il Ranutio inciampò dov’hebbe a cadere, nel qual tempo, colto di stoccata da Michelangelo, cascò in terra morto, sendo il Petronio restato malamente ferito dal Capitan Gio Francesco…”

(‘I heard that the said Michelangelo around 4.00 o’clock visited the house of this Ranutio, who on seeing him got armed and went for him, one to one. The painter was wounded, and one Petronio Troppa formerly Captain at the Castle went to his assistance, as did on the other side Captain Giovanni Francesco, Ranuccio’s brother. Then Ranuccio tripped and fell, at which point, struck with a blow by Caravaggio, fell down dead, and Peronio was badly injured by Captain Giovanni Francesco…’)

Although it has not been possible so far possible to identify the source of this letter, it is consistent with the other reports and confirms that Caravaggio was not the aggressor, that Tomassoni challenged the painter, and wounded him. Tomassoni tripped taking a step backwards, when Caravaggio's sword thrust actually reached his opponent, with fatal consequences, Ranuccio must have bled to death, his femoral artery breached, he had barely time to confess his sins before expiring. Seeing this unexpected injury Tomassoni's brother Captain Gio: Francesco then badly wounded Caravaggio and left his supporter Petronio for dead. While the cause of the encounter has always been associated with the Via di Pallacorda and the ball-game that was played there, the Vialardi letter says that the affray took place at Ranuccio's house 'da casa del medesimo Ranutio', which was actually by the Pantheon; other accounts speak of his death 'alla Scrofa'; his parish was evidently that of the Pantheon, where he was buried. The other accounts (see S. Corradini, Caravaggio, materiali per un processo Roma 1993, p. 70-72) make it abundantly clear that the artist was provoked, and he himself 'restò su la testa mortalmente ferito’ ( was mortally wounded in the head). More details of the affray were in fact published recently by Mgr. Sandro Corradini, in 'L'incidente della pallacorda: un omicidio "preterintenzionale" ? Nuova luce sulla rissa tra Caravaggio e Ranuccio Tomassoni' in Una vita per la storia dell' arte, Scritti in memoria di Maurizio Marini, ed Pietro di Loreto, Rome, 2015, p. 123-31.The characterisation of the four Tomassoni brothers as the bully boys of the neighbourhood is also quite evident from Luigi G. De Anna's book (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio e l'Ordine di Malta, ed La Rondine, University of Turku - Finland, 2011) , and a more recent article by the same author 'I fratelli Tomassoni, i veri persecutori di Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio' (Studi di storia medievale per Giovanni Cherubini, ed. D Balestracci et al., Siena 2012, v. I, p. 519-531). R. Bassani's article (L'omicidio di Ranuccio Tomassoni per mano di Michelangelo da Caravaggio', in Rivista storica del Lazio, I, 1993, n. 1, p. 87-111), and his and F. Bellini's book Caravaggio Assassino (1994) were important steps in this evaluation of the milieu in which Caravaggio found himself in the Campo Marzio, where he had recently taken up residence in the Vicolo San Biagio. This was adjacent to, if not actually within the gated ghetto of the Ortaccio, where Pius V had, in 1570, confined the courtesans, and such was their popularity that there were as many as seven thousand of them. The Piazza dell' Ortaccio was later renamed Piazza Monte d'Oro, and the ghetto had as many as seven thousand 'courtesans' in it, some in very lavish palazzi. Gio: Francesco Tomassoni had been named a year earlier capo Rione of Campo Marzio, and these authors have amply demonstrated that their gang were used to enforcing their interests. The Tomassonis, sons of a high ranking military officer from Terni, were not only able to take into custody Petronio Troppa after the affray (Giovanni Francesco actually lived in a house at the prison) but also to secure, a month later, the banishment of Caravaggio's other supporter Onorio Longhi, who did not get it lifted to return to Rome until 1611, and the bando capitale on the painter in absentia, which meant that anyone could kill him. Their authority in the rione did not stand in the way of such bullying, indeed this was the nature of their role as pimps in a quarter of Rome in which the cortigiane were confined by statute, and their connections ensured that not only would Caravaggio be subject to a capital sentence, (by default as he like all the participants, including Giovanni Francesco Tomassoni, had made themselves scarce), but also that he would never again have a tranquil existence. Daniele Balduzzi, in the exhibition catalogue Una Vita dal Vero, Archivio di Stato, Rome, 2011, revealed that Troppa had been recruited, as a professional soldier, to back up Caravaggio, and that there was another soldier present, a one-eyed veteran also from Bologna called Corporal Paolo Aldati,. The event evidently took place on a holiday (the anniversary of the accession of Paul V) and in a space that was out of public view, so this was evidently a settling of scores, and the judge who reviewed the evidence did not believe that the ball-game was the reason for the affray. The Scrofa was an inn that Caravaggio frequented: there was a fountain there with a sculpture of a sow (scrofa) from which the street took its name.

Mgr Sandro Corradini uncovered documents showing that Ranuccio's widow Lavinia Giugoli abandoned their three-year old daughter Plautilla to the care of one Cesare Pontoni, a lawyer friend of Ranuccio's from Camerino, who had always shown 'no little love and benevolence' towards the child, while the mother was considering (eight days after her husband's death) getting married again (she was apparently planning to move to Florence). Her brothers Ignazio and Federico had also participated in the affray, and were banished at the same time as Caravaggio (17th July 1606), so it does look as though the honour of Ranuccio's young wife could have prompted the affray as much as a difference over a ball-game. Was the lawyer from Camerino the father of the young child, or even Caravaggio? The event was in any case the end of the painter's career in Rome; his frequent companion Onorio Longhi (son of the architect Martino Longhi) had to leave town, although his dealer Prospero Orsi was conspicuous by his absence on this occasion.





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