A team of anthropologists hope to prove their theory by carrying out DNA tests on bones which they believe are the remains of the Renaissance artist.
Caravaggio was renowned for his hot temper, heavy drinking and violent temperament and was forced to go on the run in 1606 after killing a man in a tavern brawl, a crime for which he was condemned to death by Pope Paul V.
He died in July 1610 at the age of 39, with mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death ever since.
It has been suggested he contracted syphilis or even that he was assassinated but anthropologists from the universities of Pisa, Ravenna and Bologna are studying other theories – that he contracted malaria while travelling in Italy or that he suffered from lead poisoning.
“Lead poisoning accentuates traits like aggressive and nervous behaviour, which Caravaggio displayed during his life,” said Silvano Vinceti, the team leader.
“Painters in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries used these paints all the time and often suffered serious health problems as a result.”