In 1610, Caravaggio—at his time an eminent Italian Baroque painter, most recognizable for an uncanny portrait of Medusa—died under mysterious circumstances at the peak of his infamy. Four years previous, two of his paintings were rejected by their commissioners: St. Peter’s Basilica rejected one on account of his voluptuous depiction of the Virgin Mary and morally ambiguous interpretation of Jesus, and Santa Maria della Scala rejected another, Death of the Virgin, for realism bordering on blasphemy. Caravaggio snapped; after murdering a rival artist, he traveled around the Mediterranean region for four years, exiled by his own humiliation and threat of papal vengeance. Details of the fallen artist’s last days are vague, and until very recently, Caravaggio’s death was as inexplicable as his artistic genius.
Silvano Vinceti, an Italian pop-historian and inscrutable provocateur, is dusting off the art world’s most tarnished mysteries, including the unresolved end of Caravaggio. And, armed with advanced forensic science techniques and a deft understanding of mass media, he’s not only trying to liberate history’s secrets, but also his country from cultural decline. “Italy has a hugely rich cultural tradition,” Venceti told The Telegraph’s Alastair Smart, “but in the modern era of video games, our children risk not knowing it. I simply hope to regenerate interest in history, through solving its mysteries. Luckily nowadays the scientific techniques are suddenly available to solve them.”
So what did he discover of Caravaggio? From The Telegraph’s profile:
Convinced he had discovered the painter’s remains in an obscure cemetery crypt in Porto Ercole–the coastal Tuscan town where Caravaggio reportedly died—Vinceti sent them off for lab-testing and, within a few months, carbon-dating and DNA results came back positive (with syphilis given as the cause of death).
Just in time for the 400-year-anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, Venceti had supposedly discovered the painter’s grave and cleared up the circumstances of his demise.
Not everyone thinks Venceti is as genuine or adept as he professes. “You might not remember it, but you’ll definitely have come across Vinceti’s name before,” writes Smart, “And if you take your art history seriously, you’ll have laughed at his madcap discoveries.” For all of his earnestness, Vinceti draws many (arguably good) comparisons to pulp conspiracy theorist and best-selling author Dan Brown. Another of Vinceti’s discoveries, reports Smart, is a clue to the puzzle of the Mona Lisa:
His latest findings are the letters L and V—Leonardo da Vinci’s initials—in Mona Lisa’s right eye, which he spotted after digitally magnifying the canvas. Might art’s great enigma have finally been decoded? The painting must be a self-portrait. A theory first posited... in The Da Vinci Code.
There are other scholarly gripes against the stunt historian; his detractors label him as little more than a narcissistic self-promoter, claim his conclusions are sensationalistic and his forensic examinations are hardly rigorous, and grumble that the timings of his discoveries are too convenient. Regardless, some of Venceti’s intentions are noble, and he’s got enough media-savvy to reenchant Italy with its own cultural legacy.
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