'Judith beheading Holofernes' by Caravaggio Photo: Mimmo Frassineti / Rex Features
An intriguing new theory has been put forward for the demise of the rabble-rousing Renaissance artist Caravaggio – that he was killed in cold blood on the orders of the Knights of Malta to avenge an attack on one of their members.
The chivalric order, which was formed during the Crusades, hunted down the painter because he had seriously wounded a knight during a fight, according to Vincenzo Pacelli, an Italian historian and expert on Caravaggio...
If true, it was a violent end that Caravaggio himself foretold in one of his most famous works, David with the Head of Goliath (1610), in which he painted his own face onto the severed head of the slain giant.
The "state-sponsored assassination" was carried out with the secret approval of the Vatican, Prof Pacelli claims in a forthcoming book, Caravaggio – Between Art and Science...
Prof Pacelli believes they were almost certainly assassins sent by the Knights of Malta, an order which was founded in the 11th century to protect Christians in the Holy Land and which subsequently established its headquarters on the Mediterranean island...
Prof Pacelli has also found an account written 20 years after Caravaggio's death, in which an Italian archivist, Francesco Bolvito, wrote that the artist had been "assassinated".
Caravaggio – whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi – lived a turbulent life in which violent altercations forced him to flee from one city to another.
After finding fame in Rome for his distinctive "chiaro-scuro" painting technique – the contrast of shadow and light – he suddenly had to leave the city in 1606 after he was involved in a brawl in which he killed a man.
He eventually wound up in Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, where he was made a member of the order.
But by 1608 he was in prison, most probably after becoming involved in another fight, in which he wounded a knight.
He was expelled by the Knights on the grounds that he had become "a foul and rotten member" of the order and imprisoned in a castle dungeon.
He was released under mysterious circumstances and fled to first Sicily and then Naples.
He was heading to Rome in the hope of obtaining a papal pardon for the murder he had committed when he died....