Caravaggio murder of Tomassino sees him on the run. Image shows David with the head of Goliath painted by Caravaggio, and a portrait of the artist.

On this day in history: Caravaggio commits murder

History of Italy News

On 28th May 1606, the late Renaissance artist Caravaggio committed a murder that forced him to spend the rest of his life on the run.

Caravaggio, known for his fiery temperament and violent behaviour, as well as his extraordinary paintings, killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in the Campo Marzio district of central Rome. Tomassoni, described in some history books as a ‘wealthy scoundrel,’ died not far from the Piazza Monte D’Oro.

This incident led to Caravaggio being condemned to death by Pope Paul V. He fled Rome, first to Naples and then Malta.

It was long believed the two had argued over a game of tennis, a sport gaining popularity in Italy at the time. The argument supposedly escalated into a brawl, which was not unusual for Caravaggio. The story goes that Tomassoni wounded the painter, prompting Caravaggio to draw a sword and strike Tomassoni in the thigh, causing a fatal bleed.

This version was accepted for almost 400 years until new evidence emerged in 2002. Papers found in Vatican and Rome state archives suggested a different story. According to English art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, who revealed these findings in a BBC documentary, Caravaggio killed Tomassoni in a failed attempt to castrate him.

Surgeon’s report on Tomassoni’s death

Monsignor Sandro Corradini, an Italian art historian, found a surgeon’s report written on the day of Tomassoni’s death. The report described a fatal wound to Tomassoni’s femoral artery. Historian Maurizio Marini told Graham-Dixon that Caravaggio was likely trying to castrate Tomassoni.

Such acts were common in Rome at the time as part of a ‘code of honour.’ If a man insulted another man, he might cut his face. But if a man’s woman was insulted, the offending man could expect a different part of his anatomy to be threatened. The woman at the centre of their row was said to be Fillide Melandroni, thought to be a prostitute allegedly charmed by Caravaggio, and Tomassoni her pimp.

If found guilty of murder, Caravaggio faced beheading. Caravaggio escaped but died only four years later under mysterious circumstances. In that time he was in Naples, Malta and finally Tuscany.

Official records claim he succumbed to a fever at Porta Ercole on the Tuscan coast. However, there are no records of his funeral or burial. It is suspected he may have been murdered by Tomassoni’s relatives or representatives of the Knights of Malta.

Works completed on the run

He may have been on the run from the Tomassoni’s family and the Rome authorities, but Caravaggio continued to work.

Graham-Dixon says that Caravaggio completed David with the Head of Goliath not at the end of his life as commonly believed, but in 1606. The severed head bears Caravaggio’s own features, while Cecco is David, and his expression shows compassion for his victim. The overall aim of the painting is a murderer’s plea for clemency.

Caravaggio also completed the following works, amongst others, whilst in Naples and Malta.

Saint Jerome Writing (circa 1606)

St Jerome writing - Caravaggio

Produced during his time in Malta or Naples, this work shows Saint Jerome in deep contemplation, a skull and a Bible beside him, demonstrating Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro.

The Seven Works of Mercy (1607)

Commissioned for the Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples, this complex composition depicts seven acts of mercy in one scene, showcasing Caravaggio’s ability to merge multiple narratives into a single image.

The Madonna of the Rosary (circa 1607)

Painted for a church in Naples, this work shows the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child distributing rosaries to Saint Dominic and Saint Peter Martyr.

The Flagellation (circa 1607)

Created for the Church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, this work exemplifies Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light and shadow to convey the physical and emotional intensity of Christ’s suffering.

Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page (1607-1608)

Painted during Caravaggio’s time in Malta, this portrait of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta is notable for its detailed depiction of armour and authority.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608)

Created for the Oratory of St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta, this painting is one of Caravaggio’s largest and most dramatic works, capturing the moment of the saint’s execution.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (circa 1609-1610)

Salome with the head of John the Baptist - Caravaggio

There are several versions of this theme attributed to Caravaggio during his later years. One of the notable versions was created while he was in Naples.

Caravaggio may have been a murderer, but there is no denying the talent of one of Italy’s greatest artists.

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