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Confirmation on Caravaggio's remains

Carbon dating, DNA confirm artist's resting place and bones

16 June, 19:01
Confirmation on Caravaggio's remains (ANSA) - Ravenna, June 16 - A team of medical anthropologists have cleared up 400-year-old mystery surrounding Caravaggio's final resting place, identifying his grave and even his bones. The investigation, launched six months ago, has concluded that the painter was indeed buried in Porto Ercole, bringing centuries of speculation to an end. "We can confirm we have found the mortal remains of Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio," the anthropology professor heading the team, Giorgio Gruppioni, told a conference on Wednesday. "Even cautious estimates indicate to an 85% probability that these are his remains".

In the four centuries since his death, numerous theories have been advanced about Caravaggio's resting place.

Advances in technology have now allowed scientists to confirm that of the eight theories accepted as possible, that of art historian and Caravaggio expert Professor Maurizio Marini is the correct one. According to Marini, Caravaggio landed in Porto Ercole after fleeing Naples by boat with a serious wound. Already ill when he set down in the Tuscan port, his health deteriorated further when he contracted typhoid after eating contaminated food.

Marini believes Caravaggio was taken in by the Santa Maria Ausiliatrice hospital where he died in 1610 and was buried in the Church Of St Erasmus.

The art historian based his conclusions on records found in the church, which listed Caravaggio as having died in the parish in 1609.

Caravaggio's official year of death is 1610 but Marini attributed the difference in dates to the fact the Gregorian calendar had not yet been introduced to this part of Tuscany.

The record also confirmed that Caravaggio was buried in the small San Sebastiano cemetery. This closed in 1956 and all the remains were transferred to the St Erasmus cemetery. Anthropologists, accompanied by a cave expert, started their investigation in one of the cemetery's three crypts, home to around 30-40 sets of bones last December. They first sorted through the remains and separated out those belonging to young men that appeared to have 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.

In the next stage, experts used the remains to generate an image of what one of Italy's greatest artists may have looked like alive. Currently, the only existing images of Caravaggio are based on self-portraits, as there are no known paintings of him by third parties.

The team, coordinated by the National Committee for the Promotion of Historic and Cultural Heritage, had a second site lined up if the St Erasmus cemetery failed to produce results. But they got lucky first time, said Committee President Silvano Vinceti.

"The anthropological research and scientific technological advances ensure that the results are as credible and solid as eye witness accounts of the day," he said "The bones we are showing you today are without doubt those of Caravaggio".

photo: research team at work in the first phase of investigations.

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