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Caravaggio, Law, and Crimes in the Baroque Era

The Baroque period was not necessarily tranquil for artists. Not only were they restless with inspiration, but many fell foul of the law. Caravaggio was perhaps the most infamous "bad boy" artist of his time, but looking at a number of Caravaggio’s crimes and placing them in the context of early Baroque-Renaissance law, it is important to demonstrate the variety of legal doctrine at work in society at that time as well as the blurred question of which law held jurisdiction to better understand Caravaggio’s behavior. This article explores Caravaggio's notorious behaviors within the legal complexities of the early Baroque society, demonstrating that while his actions were indeed serious, they were perhaps not as outrageous as they might initially appear.

Governance in Renaissance Italy often confused the average citizen. It even ironically seemed to reflect the character of the artistic revolution itself: distributed, multifarious and with differing results. Leading Italian towns had governors and citizen-fed councils, the guilds provided regulatory oversight of industry and Christian bishops established courts to adjudicate morality and marriage.

Villages had judges appointed by feudal lords, who also hired estate agents to rule over subjects. State magistrates occasionally visited smaller towns for notable cases, but often faced different statutory laws village to village (Cohen, 2001).

Figure 1: "David with the Head of Goliath" (Caravaggio, 1610).

Add to this stew of legislation the unforgotten ancient Roman codes, medieval commentaries, not to mention the precedents set by case law stretching back centuries. The reach of legislation seemed to know no bounds, and governing councils issued laws on such seemingly nongovernmental concerns as the clothing to be worn in public by certain communities (the usual suspects: Jews and prostitutes) and the use of profanity. Yet these laws were by no means guaranteed to reach the ears of every citizen, decrees were nailed to church doors and read in the village square by town criers.

The Catholic Church, it should be noted, had its own administrative structure, a full-blown legal system known as Canon Law. Canon Law was how the church dealt with the public life of its lay community; it did not judge spiritual matters but rather it guided and regulated conduct and action among believers. Spiritual matters were clarified by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which itself clarified biblical pronouncements and so within the Catholic Church there were multiple sources of authority that the inhabitants of Italy were subject to (Coriden, 1991).

During the Renaissance period, the distinction and application of Canon Law versus secular law became increasingly prominent, reflecting the period's evolving legal, social and religious landscapes. Canon Law continued to be the legal system administered by the Church, governing all aspects of ecclesiastical life. This included matters such as ecclesiastical appointments, as well as moral and doctrinal issues within the Christian community. Canon Law was primarily derived from religious texts, decrees of Church councils and the edicts of popes. Its jurisdiction was mainly over clergy and matters of faith, but given the Church's powerful influence, it extended its reach into aspects of daily life for the laity, especially in predominantly Catholic regions.

Secular Law, in contrast, was the body of law developed and enforced by the state or secular rulers. During the Renaissance, the consolidation of state power and the emergence of nation-states saw an expansion and codification of secular laws. These laws regulated civil matters such as property rights, criminal justice and contractual relationships among citizens and was characterized by a growing emphasis on Roman law, particularly the rediscovery and application of Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis, which influenced the development of legal systems in many emerging European states.

In summary, during the Renaissance, Canon Law and Secular Law represented distinct yet sometimes overlapping systems of governance, one rooted in the Church and its religious authority, and the other in the emerging nation-state and its secular authority, each reflecting the complex interplay between religion and politics that characterized the period.

Caravaggio’s Criminal Record Provides an Interesting Window into the Legal Context of Public Life in the 1600s

In this historical period marked by great confusion and continual interferences of the church in law, Caravaggio stood out for having, when possible, taken advantage of this power of the church to escape certain convictions.

The first crime of note happened on the streets of Rome sometime in 1603. Caravaggio was arrested for producing a brochure slandering Gian Baglione, a fellow Italian artist. Caravaggio denies authorship, but is jailed when the courts side with Baglione. The French Ambassador intervenes and Caravaggio is subsequently released, pending another hearing. The ambassador supposedly steps in on Caravaggio’s behalf because the artist is painting part of the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi (Shoham, 2002).

Additionally, embassies could override local police jurisdictions. This point is notable for explaining how a French Ambassador could intervene in the case of Caravaggio’s slander of Gian Baglione.

The second crime occurs in a vicinity of Saint Ambrose Church, Via del Corso in Rome, 1605. Caravaggio is stopped by Captain Pino of the Capitoline Police for carrying a sword and a dagger in public. Captain Pino requests to see Caravaggio’s permit. The artist admits he doesn’t have one. Pino arrests and imprisons Caravaggio. The police later confirm with Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, Rome’s governor, that the cardinal had personally instructed the police to permit Caravaggio to carry weapons, in this case the artist is released without charge.

Seventeenth-century Rome was governed in large part by the Roman Catholic Church. Rome’s de facto governor during much of Caravaggio’s life in Rome was Cardinal Del Monte, who had gotten Caravaggio freed from prison due to his status as Rome’s ruler. Del Monte had purchased Caravaggio’s painting The Cardsharps in the late 1500s and had introduced the young artist to the menagerie of young musicians and painters in his mansion.

Figure 2: "The Cardsharps" (Caravaggio, 1594).

Given the church’s legal jurisdiction of moral matters, this raises the question of whether Cardinal Del Monte had overstepped his bounds in admonishing police that he had personally authorized Caravaggio to carry a sword and dagger in public. Was this a moral question, or one of public safety properly administered by secular authorities?

Even if the question was not essentially moral, the influence of the church often extended, in practical terms if not legal ones, beyond morality and as such might have sanctioned the cardinal’s intervention. The power of the church in the time of Caravaggio was considerable. Not only did an Italian inquisition exist, but the church had become intertwined with the Italian state itself; in the mid-1400s, the papacy adopted a position of cooperation with the state from that point forward, the church evolves to resemble, in some capacity, a state, while the state becomes more involved in religious affairs. Church influence also extended into the secular justice system, including but not limited to spiritual issues and at the same time, secular leadership was involved in the decision-making of the Roman curia.

The crime that changed Caravaggio's life the most concerns an unidentified tennis court in Rome in 1606 with Ranuccio Tomassoni. Ranuccio Tomassoni da Terni was not at all the "young man of much politeness" described by Giovanni Baglione; he was a neighborhood bully with a gambling habit and a large ring of prostitutes on whom he made money and whom he considered his property.

The last of the sons of the longtime captain Lucantonio Tomassoni, who had always served in the papal militia and was a devoted subject of the Farnese family. Ranuccio was the only one of the family who had never handled weapons for a living, but he raged funnily through the streets of Campo Marzio, strong from the position of "caporione" held by his older brother Giovan Francesco. The latter, however, like his father, had embarked on a military career in command of several garrisons, even fighting in the Hungarian War. His last venture had featured him in 1598 when Clement VIII's army had brought the Duchy of Ferrara back under the control of the Papal States.

Back in Rome, along with a horde of ungovernable veterans who were running around turbulent and quarrelsome in the streets of the Urbe, without the papal "bans" being able to curb their intemperance, Giovan Francesco must have represented, for his younger brother, a kind of "superhero." His duties of territorial police with judicial delegations as a caporione certainly allowed the Tomassoni brothers and their kindred to carry out their action squad's raids on the streets of Campo Marzio, with a certain freedom and with their shoulders abundantly covered.

Caravaggio and several friends meet Ranuccio Tomassoni and others at a tennis court to settle a dispute over a gambling debt. However, an argument ensues and the opponents assault each other with their rackets so they agree to a duel that evening in Campo Marzio, where Caravaggio badly wounds Tomassoni in the thigh and kills him with his sword. Caravaggio is also wounded, and flees to Naples. (Shoham, 2002)

Caravaggio and Canonic Law

While duels were a legendary tradition, they were not legalized in Rome at the time, hence Caravaggio’s flight, which in itself was not unusual due to the difficulty of the government to enforce its myriad rulings; the accused regularly skipped their court appearances, forcing the courts to announce bans in absentia (Dean & Low, 1994).

During his escape to elude the trial, Caravaggio fled to Malta invited by the Knights of the Maltese Order of St. John and there became a Knight of the Maltese Order of St. John. While enjoying the patronage and commissions of the Knights, Caravaggio insults one of the Knights and suddenly was jailed, he escapes and flees to Sicily, obviously is stripped of his knighthood and is then pursued by the organization.

Figure 3: "Death of the Virgin" (Caravaggio, 1605).

Churches themselves were literal criminal sanctuaries in which someone on the run from the law could evade the police within one. This fact helps explain Caravaggio’s temporarily successful flight from Rome to Malta, where the Maltese Order of Saint John was not only a sanctioned lay order of the Roman Catholic church and thus a refuge for killers on the lam, but also since the order held a position of sovereignty over of the island.

Informed that he was likely to be pardoned for the Tomassoni murder by Cardinal Gonzaga, Caravaggio leaves for Rome and during the trip he is arrested in southern Tuscany in a case of mistaken identity. He spends two days in jail, where he unluckily contracts an unknown sickness, and on his release finds all his possessions stolen and his body ill. He dies in a hospital two days later in Porto Ercole, delusional, paranoid and possibly malarial.

Was Cardinal Gonzaga beyond the ambit of his authority in pardoning Caravaggio for the Tomassoni murder? Was this not again an issue of public safety better regulated by police and the city governor than by a high-ranking member of the clergy? From a legal standpoint, the concept of immunity itself was in flux.

The pre-normative law known to the meticulous jurists of the time, consisting of endless sources to interpret, was both elegant and arbitrary, creative and inconclusive. Technically it lent itself to every solution and it regarded the very idea of immunity as a matter of interpretation. Within this context, the Cardinal was capable of pardoning Caravaggio in the knowledge that an interpretive judgment on the artist’s behalf could be easily invented (Bizzocchi, 1995). It is in this atmosphere that Caravaggio committed his crimes and there is no surprise that he may have acted with greater liberty than he might have in a strictly controlled state. He knew he had friends in high places and given the overlapping jurisdictions and frequency of bought exemptions, he must have felt fairly secure in flaunting local law. It might also be suggested that the general climate of confusion that pervaded the legal system of Baroque and Renaissance Italy led men to feel somewhat exempted from the letter of the law. Historical sources indicate that in the wake of a murder, the sympathies of the community sided with the accused, such was their contempt for the shoddy legal apparatus cobbled together by a baffling admixture of governing bodies (Burckhardt, 1904).

Figure 4: "The Seven Works of Mercy" (Caravaggio, 1607).


The potential irony of the unclear relationship between church and state, even more so of the church’s overlap into civil governance, is that Caravaggio and attentive citizen-believers all across Italy were further emboldened in their behavior by the doctrinal dictates of the church itself. Indeed Pauline and Augustinian doctrines embraced by the Catholic Church declared that grace was given by God alone.

The Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century confirmed the related doctrine that it was the church’s interpretation of scripture that was final (a central doctrinal outcome of the Counter-Reformation). This doctrine may have led individuals like Caravaggio to feel a greater sense of liberty in their conduct.

During this period, the intertwining of church and state significantly shaped societal norms and individual behavior, with this overlap profoundly impacting the life and actions of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. His life, as was addressed in this article, highlights how the Church's protective yet controlling role could both shelter and ensnare. Caravaggio leveraged the Church's patronage for his art but also grappled with its judicial reach, often seeking refuge in the Church's territories to escape secular justice. This duality reflects the broader societal dynamics of the time, where the boundaries between sacred and profane justice were blurred, illustrating the profound impact of the interwoven forces of church and state on individual destinies.

Caravaggio’s life and the legal issues that plagued it, not only provide insight into the artist’s turbulent personality, but also serve as a window into the societal norms of that era.

Bibliographical References

Armstrong, L. D., Kirshner, J. & Martines, L. (2011). The politics of law in late medieval and Renaissance Italy: essays in honour of Lauro Martines. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bizzocchi, R. “Church, Religion, and State in the early Modern Period” in The Origins of the State in Italy, 1300-1600, ed. Julius Kirshner. (1995). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burckhardt, J. (1958). The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: Harper. 

Cohen, E. S. & Cohen, T. V. (2001). Daily life in Renaissance Italy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.


Coriden, J.A. (1991). An Introduction to Canon Law. London: Burns & Oates. 

Dean, T. & Lowe, K. J. P. (1994). Crime, Society and the Law in the Renaissance Italy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shoham, S. G. (2002). ArtCrime and Madness. Portland Sussex Academic Pres.

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1 Comment

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han gu
Jun 07

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