Who knows if Michelangelo Merisi leaving his hometown to come to Rome, seeking fortune as a painter, would have thought that the last thing he would see before his death would be the Orsini Castle, some Roman ruins and a small landing on the Latium coast.
The end of this great artist has been an unsolved mystery, and it is probably destined to remain so. Even if recent studies propose the place of his death in Palo Laziale, the doubt remains.
The Mayor of Ladispoli, Alessandro Grando, certain of the last trip of the Lombard genius, who in May 2021, wanted a bust that remembers him on the seafront of Marina di Palo, the work of the artist Sergio Bonaface, thus earning the town the honour of hosting the first sculpture portraying Caravaggio.
In the same period, to emphasize the link between Ladispoli and Michelangelo Merisi, the exhibition "Caravaggio - Ultimo Approdo" was held in town.
Many critics instead believe that he had died in Porto Ercole because his death certificate, found in the parish of Sant'Erasmo, in a book of accounts dated 1656, reads "on 18 July 1609 in the hospital of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice died Michelangelo Merisi from Caravaggio, painter, due to illness".
The first mystery is in the date, how could he have died in 1609 when other official documents attest that he had landed in Palo from a felucca in July 1610 and that he was arrested and taken to prison in the Orsini castle? Perhaps it is a simple error of temporal orientation of the transcriber, according to the hypothesis of Ferruccio Ferruzzi.
It is worth retracing the last steps of our painter to understand something more.
In 1606 he was forced to leave Rome after the killing of Ranuccio Tommasoni, with a death sentence hanging on his head. His escape lasted four years, first in Naples then in Malta, and in Sicily before returning to Naples where, thanks to the intercession of the mighty Colonna family, it seemed that his grace was about to be accepted.
And so Caravaggio embarked again on board a felucca heading from Naples to Porto Ercole, then a territory of the State of the Spanish garrisons. The painter had with him three very precious works that were in effect his safe conduct for salvation, since he intended to donate them to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, in exchange for his intercession for the attainment of grace.
A letter from the Apostolic Nuncio Gentile, today in the Vatican Archives, warned Cardinal Scipione Borghese that Caravaggio arrived on the beach, was arrested and escorted to prisons where he was held for two days and then released, but he became furious after reaching the beach under the lash of the rising sun, to see if he could recognise the vessel that carried his belongings.
Unfortunately, the reasons why he was disembarked in Palo have never been clarified, nor why he was held in prison for only two days. It is clear, however, that during his arrest the vessel disappeared with its precious cargo and, tradition has it, Caravaggio did everything to recover his works and therefore died exhausted in Porto Ercole without succeeding in his intent.
In the letter of the Apostolic Nuncio to Cardinal Colonna, a man is described who rages on the beach of Ladispoli for days and days, until "recently arrived at a place on the beach he put himself in bed with malignant fever and without human help, in a few days, he died as badly as he had lived badly ”.
A burst of news comes from Professor Vincenzo Pacelli of the University of Naples, who conducted a study with the support of documents from the State Archives and the Vatican Archives, according to which the painter did not die of disease but was murdered in Palo by emissaries of the Knights of Malta with the consent of the Roman Curia.
But if so, why are his remains in Tuscany? Probably they were moved to conceal what happened, but the place of his death now seems undoubtedly Palo.
Thanks to the documents studied by Professor Pacelli it is also clear that the three paintings, wanted by everyone and claimed by Scipione Borghese, to whom they were actually intended, by the Marchesa Costanza Colonna, by the Prior of Capua of the Knights of the Order of Malta and by Pedro Fernandez De Castro, Count of Lemos and Viceroy of Naples, did not arrive in Rome, but probably returned to Naples, to the Marchesa Colonna who distributed them.
Two of these works have been easily identified with the San Giovannino from the Borghese Gallery and with a splendid Magdalene from a private Roman collection while the third, a little more dubious, could be a lying San Giovannino found in a private collection in Munich, but confirmation is still awaited.
Returning to our shores, what would Caravaggio actually see before he died? The splendid Castello Orsini was very different from how we see it today. Probably built in the mid-15th century, above some pre-existent fortified structures of the 12th century, under the pontificate of Pope Pius II Piccolomini the castle had many owners including Francesco Orsini, Pope Alexander VI Borgia, the Popes Paul III and Sixtus V, the cardinals Flavio Orsini and Virgilio Orsini.
In 1693 Flavio and Lelio Orsini sold the property to Livio Odescalchi and his fair descendants sold it to Duke Grillo of Genoa and then repurchased it in 1780. It was damaged during the baronial struggles of the fifteenth century which saw the house implicated by Orsini and was "dirutum"(almost a ruin) when in 1509 Prospero d'Acquasparta sold it in the name of Giulio Orsini to Donna Felice Orsini della Rovere.
With the decline of the State of the Church, the coastal fortifications, including that of the stake, lost their supervisory function for the pontiff. It was thanks to Ladislao Odescalchi, his owner at the end of the nineteenth century, that the castle took on its current appearance.
An important restoration work was commissioned by Pope Leo X between 1513 and 1521, he used it as a resort for his huntings in the wood of Palo. The place, although its pleasantness, was not safe given the continuous roaming of pirates along that stretch of coast and soon the castle became one of the main strongholds of the Roman coast under the direct jurisdiction of the Lords of Bracciano.
Today the castle still belongs to the Odescalchi family and unfortunately, it’s not open to the public but it’s possible to see it in all its beauty from the famous resort La Posta Vecchia, the perfect place to escape from daily life and immerse themselves in the magic atmosphere of this corner of the Latium coast.
If you like Caravaggio do not miss Roma Experience’s tour, with the visit of four of his masterpieces, the exclusive entrance to a restoration lab, and booking a full day experience, we could proceed with a runaway from Rome, heading to Palo, Caravaggio’s last landing for an aperitivo at sunset.