A long-held mystery resolved. A nocturnal August brawl lands Caravaggio in prison.


This is the remarkable discovery regarding Caravaggio in Malta that Dr Keith Sciberras University of Malta has published in ‘‘Frater Michael Angelus in tumultu’: the cause of Caravaggio’s imprisonment in Malta’ The Burlington Magazine CXLV April 2002 pp. 229-232 and ‘Riflessioni su Malta al tempo del Caravaggio’ Paragone Arte Anno LII N.629 July 2002 pp3-20.  These publications of great importance for the study of the artist reveal the reason why Caravaggio suddenly lost the favour of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt and his protectors within the Order of St John and was detained in the prisons of Fort St Angelo in the summer of 1608.  He had been barely a couple of weeks earlier knighted in Malta as Knight of Obedience.  He had professed on the 14th of July 1608 exactly one year after his arrival in Malta.

This is a great event for Caravaggio research because one of the last remaining mysteries regarding the turbulent life of this great artist has been finally answered.  This had been a long-held mystery that had baffled historians and scholars from the seventeenth century.  Much had been speculated and many theories had been proposed about what could have happened to the artist in Malta.  Such theories ranged from the notification of the Tomassoni murder that he had committed in Rome to street violence homicide sodomy and other sex crimes that some scholars had considered too appalling to be recorded.  The latter has recently attracted popular attention.  What is important is that all the fancy theories regarding Caravaggio’s sex crimes have now been put to rest. 

The reason for his detainment is that the artist was involved in a violent tumult that happened in mid-August 1608 between at least seven knights.  The fight was a violent one; the front door of a house in Valletta was smashed the house broken into and at least one knight was seriously wounded.  The latter can be identified as Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero dei Conti della Vezza di Asti. The story has been laboriously pieced together through exhaustive archival research and much of what happened is now known.  There are some important implications primarily that Caravaggio seems to have been detained around late August 1608.  This means that his known work in Malta should have by then been finished.  Ironically it now seems that Caravaggio was imprisoned just before the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist of 29th August 1609 when his large painting of the Beheading of St John the Baptist for the Oratory of the Decollato had to be unveiled.

In many ways Dr Sciberras has confirmed that Baglione and Bellori were correct in that Caravaggio had fought with a cavaliere nobilissimo. The early historians however did not seem to know much details about what had actually happened.

The story of what happened to Caravaggio thereafter is somewhat of a film script.  He now appears to have spent the entire month of September 1608 or most of it detained within Fort St Angelo the old castle in the harbour of Malta.  But he very incredibly managed to escape by scaling down the fortification walls of the Fort and somehow managed to overcome the even greater hurdle of leaving the island unnoticed. The Order’s Venerable Council was informed of his dramatic escape on 6th October 1608 when the artist seems to have had already made it to Sicily.  Following a criminal case for his escape Caravaggio was finally expelled from the Order in absentia on 1st December 1608. 

As regards the August tumult Dr Sciberras revealed that four of the knights involved in the brawl were sentenced to terms in prison whilst a fellow knight was also expelled from the Order.  All these personalities are newcomers to the scene of Caravaggio in Malta.  This adds even greater interest because it now reveals an ever growing circle of knights with whom Caravaggio related.