The Killing of Ranuccio Jommasoni, May 1606

If you listen to the ringing martial music of Monteverdi’s Combat Between Tancredi and Clorinda, you may catch a faint echo of the secret approval Caravaggio’s contemporaries felt for men who fought duels. It is not surprising that Monteverdi found inspiration for his warlike “dramatic dialogue” in a battle scene from the Gerusalemme Liberata for, although Tasso was the reverse of a duelist, he was famous for realistic descriptions of single combat. Montaigne, in his essay “Cowardize, the Mother of Crueltie,” also recognized Tasso’s gift for describing a fight to the death, quoting a stanza in which the poet explained just what it felt like to fence for one’s life with a mixture of rage and fear. Every literate man and woman in Rome read Tasso. Even if they admired the duelists, they can have had no illusions about the lethal, often vicious nature of dueling. The Roman authorities had no illusions either. They regarded duels as an unmitigated nuisance, and, if caught, survivors went to the scaffold.

An avviso of 31 May 1606, reports the event that ruined Caravaggio’s life and very nearly ended it, after his refusal to pay Ranuccio Tommasoni a bet of ten scudi, lost over a game of tennis. Until recently, all we knew about Tommasoni was that he came from Terni and was “a young manwith very good manners” in Baglione’s opinion. Caravaggio sounded like a savage bully picking a fight with a callow teenager. But from recently discovered evidence, the reverse was true. Ranuccio, who called himself “Captain Tommasoni,” was a swaggering thug whose brother, Giovan Francesco, was caporione, or nominal captain, of the Campo Marzio district (rione) and therefore its local gang boss. Giovan Francesco and his two brothers appear to have terrorized the Campo Marzio by night. Only the year before, the three, unlawfully “armed with sword, dagger and pistol,” had led the Campo Marzio “guard” against the sbirri, disputing the arrest of some criminals who were probably under their protection. In the ensuing brawl, several men had been wounded and at least one killed.

On the evening of Sunday, 29 May, Caravaggio and some friends were passing Tommasoni’s house in Via della Scrofa when Tommasoni suddenly emerged with his cronies, challenging him to fight. During the ensuing combat, says the avviso, “the painter was wounded and Captain Petronio came to his rescue. Ranuccio’s brother, a captain too, was on the other side with several more friends, so that as many as a dozen took part. Finally, Tommasoni lost his balance and fell over, a sword thrust leaving him dead on the ground.”

Mancini’s version is that “Caravaggio killed his enemy, helped by Onorio Longhi,” while Baglione reports that “after Caravaggio had wounded him in the thigh, Ranuccio fell down, and he killed him as he lay on the ground.” Bellori, clearly less well informed, states that “during a game of tennis with a young man who was a friend, they began hitting each other with their rackets and then drew their swords, so that he killed the youth, but was himself wounded.” Sandrart, still more imaginative, believes the duel had its origins in Caravaggio’s quarrel with the Cavaliere d’Arpino.

Another account, only recently discovered and dated 3 June 1606, confirms the story in the avvisi, together with the details given by Mancini and Baglione. “Because of some game near the Grand Duke’s palace, a quarrel broke out between a son of the late Colonel Lucantonio [Tommasoni] da Terni and the celebrated painter, Michelangelo da Caravaggio, in which Tommasoni fell dead from a thrust delivered when he had fallen to the ground. His brother Gio. Francesco and Captain Petronio, a Bolognese friend of Caravaggio, joined in the affray, during which the said Gio. Francesco mortally wounded Captain Petronio and Caravaggio in the head, after which he and Caravaggio fled, and Petronio was put in prison, where he remains under guard.”

The most plausible reconstruction of what took place is that Caravaggio and Tommasoni both had five seconds. Those on Ranuccio’s side included his brothers, Alessandro and Giovan Francesco, the latter being the gang boss of the Campo Marzio, with two unknown friends. On Caravaggio’s there were Onorio Longhi, Captain Petronio (otherwise known as “Antonio da Bologna”), and perhaps Aurelio Orsi. (The historian Maurizio Calvesi suggests that Mario Minniti may have been one of the others.) They fought separate combats with each other until they had disabled their opponents, then went to their comrades’ aid. After disposing of his own enemy, Longhi rushed to help Caravaggio, knocking Tommasoni’s rapier aside with his sword, or throwing a cloak over it, so that Caravaggio was able to bring Tommasoni down and give him a final thrust as he lay prostrate. Having finished with Petronio, Giovan Tommasoni ran up to avenge his brother, giving Caravaggio a thrust in the head. At that point, the sbirri appeared, and the combatants left hastily.

Ranuccio Tommasoni appears to have been the only man killed outright in the duel, although Petronio was fatally wounded and Caravaggio badly injured. It is only fair to point out that Caravaggio did not start the fight.

Everyone who had taken part fled from Rome as soon as possible. Prevented from doing so by his wound, Petronio was arrested, although no record has been discovered of his fate; he probably died in prison. Onorio Longhi succeeded in reaching his Lombard homeland, where he was later joined by his wife and children. Despite eloquent pleading that he had not killed anybody and had tried to restrain Caravaggio, Longhi’s petition to be allowed to return to Rome was not granted for several years.

It was very different for Caravaggio, who most certainly had killed somebody. Slaying Ranuccio was murder and meant the death penalty. Already well known to the sbirri, if caught he would have been immediately brought before a police magistrate, and his head would swiftly have joined those rotting on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo. Too badly wounded to escape from Rome at once, he hid in the Palazzo Giustiniani, sheltered by Vincenzo, until he regained enough strength to be able to travel. For the moment, the sbirri did not dare break into a palace with such important owners, and clearly the Giustiniani brothers were ready to protect him.

Fortunately, some very influential and powerful people were determined to see that he got away. If his patrons were distressed by his private life, irritated by his difficult temperament, and shocked by the news of the duel, they had no wish to see the end of a man who painted such wonderful pictures. Significantly, Cardinal Borghese bought the Madonna dei Palafrenieri less than three weeks after the duel, paying a hundred scudi, although he could easily have confiscated it. Nor is it beyond the bounds of possibility that the cardinal secretary discreetly warned the chief of police that he would not be overjoyed if the sbirri succeeded in making an arrest in this particular case. Apparently it was the agents of the painter’s old friend the Marchesa di Caravaggio who told him where he could find refuge after leaving the city.

He soon recovered his strength, escaping from Rome on the Wednesday after the duel. He dared not go back to his lodgings to collect money for his flight, so obviously someone supplied him with funds. Eluding the sbirri, he managed to get away safely; like William Lithgow, dodging the Inquisition three years later, he may have “leapt the walles of Rome” at midnight, since the guards at the gates would have been looking out for him. Bellori says he was followed, but, if he was, he quickly threw his pursuers off his trail. Then he disappeared.

Among the reasons for such a successful escape was the fact that the sbirri did not know where he was making for, or where he was hoping to find shelter. The countryside immediately around Rome was an uninviting choice for a hiding place, the Roman Campagna being plagued by malaria, and in any case they would have been able to track him down there through their contacts with the banditti. Their first reaction was to expect that, as a Lombard, he would head north. On 31 May, the day of his escape, the Modenese agent at Rome reported rumors that Caravaggio had fled “in the direction of Florence and may perhaps go to Modena.” In reality, he had gone to ground at a much safer haven, only a few miles away.

Five minutes of swordsmanship, probably less, had ended not only in the death of Caravaggio’s challenger but in his own ruin. Few turning points in the career of a great artist have been so dramatic. The idol of Rome’s younger artists, the favorite of cardinals, the man who had painted the pope’s portrait, had suddenly become a hunted murderer with a price on his head.

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