PORTO ERCOLE, Italy — Mystery swirls around the death of the great Italian painter Caravaggio, who died at age 39 after a dissipated life of street brawls, brothels, and boozing.
Now, as art lovers mark the 400th anniversary of the artist's death in this beach town on the Tuscan coast, researchers are digging for answers.
Descending into a dark crypt one recent day, researcher Antonio Moretti took his shovel to a waist-high pile of centuries-old skulls and bones, the mass grave that scholars have homed in on as the likely final resting place of Michelangelo Merisi — better known as Caravaggio.
Moretti and a team of fellow scientists and academics hope to find the bones, conduct carbon and DNA testing and discover how Caravaggio died. The project has drawn a measure of skepticism since so much time has passed since the artist's death.
Caravaggio died in Porto Ercole in July 1610. For a long time, he was believed to have simply collapsed on the beach.
But the team says documents show that Caravaggio was taken to a hospital in Porto Ercole upon his arrival and died there a few days later. To this day, his remains are missing.
The researchers say he was buried in the town's San Sebastiano cemetery. His bones were dug up when the graveyard was moved in the 1950s to make space for a public park.
According to documents and witnesses, the remains were then moved into the crypt of another cemetery near the town — and that's where Moretti has been digging. "I'm the one doing the dirty work," said Moretti, shovel in hand and helmet light on head.
Moretti first removed the top layer of bones, believed to be more recent, and set them aside in plastic bags. Then he examined skulls, bones and bone fragments of men old enough to be compatible with Caravaggio's.
So far the experts have identified nine sets of bones belonging to men who died in the same period as Caravaggio and at around the same age. These remains are being transferred to laboratories in universities around Italy for analysis, including carbon dating.
Meanwhile, the hunt for compatible bones continues. "We must follow every lead, a bit like detectives," said Moretti.
Possible clues would include the presence of high levels of lead or other metals associated with paint and damage to bones. "We know that Caravaggio was hit in a leg by a horse's kick, and maybe this left a mark on the bones," said Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist at University of Bologna, who is on the team.
The group, led by historian Silvano Vinceti, has made a name for itself with a series of CSI-meets-art history projects, including a plan to dig up remains attributed to Leonardo da Vinci in a French castle and the computer-generated reconstruction of poet Dante Alighieri's face based on measurements taken on his skull.
Skeptics of such projects abound.
Maurizio Marini, a Caravaggio expert and retired art professor, said that police-like investigations in the art world are "more and more frequent and more and more useless."
He said technology, at best, can serve as support to scholarly expertise. "The best instrument is still the connoisseur's eye, which has stored millions of images."
Overlooked in the aftermath of his death, Caravaggio is revered today as a seminal figure in art history.
Italy is taking note in this anniversary year, paying tribute to a figure who revolutionized painting through dramatic use of light, unique perspective and the use of ordinary people — sometimes street thugs — in religious and mythological scenes.
An exhibit in Rome's Scuderie del Quirinale, one of the city's prime venues, has been a massive success, with 240,000 visitors since its opening on Feb. 20. The show, which runs through June, brings together some of Caravaggio's most renowned works, such as "Bacchus," ''The Cardsharps" and the two versions of "Supper at Emmaus."
If Caravaggio's legacy is established, the cause of his death is the subject of enduring conjecture.
Possible causes raised by scholars range from sudden fever to murder at the hands of one of the many enemies Caravaggio made during his tumultuous life.
Malaria is a possibility as Porto Ercole, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Rome, was plagued by mosquitoes in the 17th century. Vinceti believes syphilis a strong candidate because of the artist's well documented ties with street prostitutes.
Caravaggio had no known direct descendants. But members of the team have visited the small town of Caravaggio in northern Italy where the artist was born and taken DNA samples from possible male kin. The team says Merisi was and remains an uncommon last name, thus narrowing the search.
The experts were hoping to make the first announcement of their results by the end of April. They say they are convinced they are getting close to identifying Caravaggio's remains — but others have doubts.
"After four centuries unfortunately I think they have little chance," said Roberta Lapucci, a Caravaggio scholar and the head the restoration department at Florence's Studio Art Center International University.
Lapucci said that after four centuries there would be little of the artist's original DNA left in possible kin. Other clues, such as marks or metal levels, can point to an attribution but not prove it beyond doubt.
Still, she said, projects like this can move research forward, especially in the relatively new field of applying police techniques to art mysteries.
"Having a name like Caravaggio's involved can give it a push," she said.
Rizzo reported from Rome.