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Caravaggio’s Patron – And His Fingerprints

by Jerome Weeks 24 Oct 2011 6:30 AM

The Kimbell’s Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome documents how influential the 16th century master once was – despite his short, violent life. But there’s another story here, the story of a young artist finding a patron and leaving his mark – literally.


The Gypsy Fortune Teller (c. 1595) is one of the canvases originally owned by Caravaggio’s first patron, Cardinal Francisco del Monte. The current Kimbell exhibition is a rare reunion of three del Monte-owned, early Caravaggios.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is the 16th-century Italian master who’s as famous for his short, violent life as his dark, violent paintings. The Kimbell is the only American museum to host Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome. The exhibition shows how profoundly influential the painter was — for a time, at least, until a sunnier, more optimistic Baroque took over. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports there’s another story here.

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Caravaggio came to Rome around 1592 in his early twenties, a small-town, Northern provincial. At the time, he was more or less a freelance jobber, painting whatever would sell in the marketplace. The chief way to get ahead — to get the kind of altarpiece commissions that truly paid — was to go to the Art Capitol of Europe and find a wealthy patron. In fact, two of Caravaggio’s earliest works in Rome – The Cardsharps, owned by the Kimbell, and The Fortune Teller (above), owned by the Capitoline in Rome – weren’t made for any patron.

They were made to get a patron.

Kimbell curator Nancy Edwards: “In some ways, The Cardsharps was Caravaggio’s calling card.”

The Cardsharps (below) is rightly famous because, among other things, it’s a virtuoso display of painting technique. It shows off the young artist’s abilities in capturing silk, lace, velvet, feathers, even a Persian rug. Caravaggio also repeats a still-life trick he pulled in his earlier Basket of Fruit. The backgammon board on the lower left — it’s been pushed aside by the cardplayers until it angles over the edge of the table toward the viewer. It subtly heightens the realism and immediacy of the scene; it’s as if it sticks out of the painting into our space. We and the cardgame are in the same room. 

What’s more, as Edwards writes in the exhibition catalog, Caravaggio stages the painting like a scene from a commedia. It’s dramatic, comic, caught at just the moment when the cards are getting switched. We might think of it as a movie still. And one that happens to be a perfectly Texan scene: Two cheats are swindling a dupe in an early form of poker known as primero.

It’s also the overall attitude that’s quintessentially Caravaggiste. In his biography of the artist, John T. Spike calls The Cardsharps and The Fortune Teller “comedies of deceivers,” yet the two works point forward to the painter’s more serious tableaux in such works as the Calling of St. Matthew or the Betrayal of Jesus. There’s a clear-headedness here, a matter-of-factness about behavior and motivation. Put another way, there’s a lack of conventional, finger-wagging moralizing and more of a non-judgmental appreciation of what’s happening on an individual, human level.

Scenes of low-life knavery were already a genre when Caravaggio painted his hustlers, but the genre originated with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. They were warnings. It’s certainly possible to take The Cardsharps as just such a cautionary tale about what happens in Vegas. And many viewers have probably done so. But the mark here, the young aristocrat, is just a little too pretty for our unadulterated sympathy. He’s too naive, too complacent, too oblivious. He’s a rich, good-looking stiff.

Most of all, it’s clear we’re meant to delight in the scam. Yes, these two scoundrels are doing a bad, bad thing (they’re dressed as bravi — out-of-work mercenaries who filled Rome, ready for anything, scavenging for what they could). But putting one over this guy looks like, well, fun. In fact, that’s where all the painting’s energy and drama reside: We follow their eyes, the silken stripes, their expressions and, especially, their guilty hands.

Not surprisingly, Caravaggio’s calling card worked. Cardinal Francisco del Monte (left) bought both paintings. The two works became tremendously popular and frequently copied – as the Kimbell exhibition proves. And the cardinal began giving the young painter commissions. Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome includes a very rare reunion of three paintings, all of them once owned by Caravaggio’s first patron.

Edwards: “Cardinal del Monte was a great patron of the arts. He wasn’t as wealthy as the other clerics, but he was well-connected, and so through him Caravaggio would have gained other patrons.”

Scholars don’t know much for certain about Caravaggio, but he’s popular today partly because he was sexy, scandalous, violent and dead at an early age: the James Dean of Italian masters. Or perhaps, to be a little more chronologically sensible, he’s the Italian paint-and-canvas equivalent of playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was almost his contemporary and who was also sexy, scandalous, violent, dead at an early age — and also probably gay.

Against that street-brawling, bad-boy image, historians and biographers like Spike and Catherine Puglisi have emphasized that Caravaggio was a cultivated artist. We know next to nothing about his education, although when he died, his belongings included a small library of books, a relative rarity at the time. Which is why Del Monte — a learned, Renaissance humanist — is key here. He was a connoisseur of literature, music, alchemy and science (he was a churchman who supported Galileo’s ventures). Classical references and images of lenses and mirrors now crop up in Caravaggio’s paintings (the kind of optics Galileo was working with).

Edwards: “We don’t think of Caravaggio as a real intellectual artist, but he seems to have taken advantage of the circles of Cardinal del Monte.”

The third del Monte painting in the Kimbell exhibition is The Musicians, with four boys crowded together, tuning their instruments (one possibly pretending to be Cupid, another one a self-portrait of the artist). They have sheet music for madrigals, which typically celebrate love — hence, the Cupid, and hence, perhaps, the tears in the eyes of the central figure, the lute player (who re-appears in the obviously related del Monte painting, The Lute Player in St. Petersburg).

The subject certainly reflects Del Monte’s interest in pushing the Church’s renewed emphasis on music, although these are more romantic and less religious tunes being played. Speaking of which, The Musicians is one of Caravaggio’s more homoerotic displays of young, pouty-lipped flesh. The argument has been made that rather than reflecting Caravaggio’s own inclinations, the painting reflects del Monte’s — the painter was giving his patron what he wanted. No one knows for certain; nonetheless, chest-baring beef, effeminate or manly, continues to appear frequently in the painter’s works well after he left del Monte’s household. And as far as I can tell, although Caravaggio infamously befriended prostitutes (whom he used as models), none of his paintings includes a single female nude.

The trio of del Monte paintings are also marked by a style different from Caravaggio’s later, grimmer scenes, all those death-obsessed depictions of Biblical torture, beheadings and crucifixions (The Sacrifice of Isaac, above, from 1603). Visually, one way Caravaggio got that darker tone — his celebrated, highly dramatic chiaroscuro — was by switching to a deep brown base coat, what’s called a ‘ground.’ Previously, he’d used an older style of ground. It lent his first paintings their brighter, crisper look.

That brighter ground helped prove that the Kimbell’s Cardsharps is, in fact, a Caravaggio. In 1987, the painting was rediscovered after being ‘lost’ for 96 years (a Swiss family had had it in their collection). But the Metropolitan Museum in New York declined to buy it; the Met’s experts deemed it a copy. Only an old photograph showed how The Cardsharps once looked. The painting certainly resembled the one in the photo, but that only lent credence to the skeptics: Of course. The photo is what this painting was copied from.

The ‘lost’ Caravaggio was a tremendous opportunity for the Kimbell — if it could be proved that the painting was authentic.

Claire Barry is the Kimbell’s director of conservation. In 1987, she’d been there only two years when she and a team of experts at the Met ran tests on The Cardsharps, including x-rays. But Barry found something blocked the x-rays.

Barry: “I had to use an exposure of over eight minutes to get any kind of image, and that was because this painting is painted on a lead-white ground. And that’s exactly the kind of ground it should be because Caravaggio was still painting on lead-based grounds.”

Somewhere along in its history, the painting also had an “addition” put along the top, a strip of canvas added to enlarge the painting in order to fit a frame. Such an “addition,” Barry says, is not uncommon in older paintings. Part of the cleaning process at the Met involved removing the addition — and the Met’s conservators uncovered the remnants of a wax seal on the original canvas. It had been found on two other paintings at the Capitoline — it was the seal of Cardinal del Monte. That clinched the authenticity of The Cardsharps.

But there’s one more piece of evidence — hiding in plain view.

Barry: “When we examined the painting under the microscope, we could see that the pattern of flowers in that grey silk vest that’s worn by the cheat had been blotted by the artist using his fingers. You could see very clearly his fingerprints.”

Only one other painting in Italy is believed to have Caravaggio’s prints, The Adoration of the Shepherds in Messina. Barry hopes some day to have forensic experts compare the two sets.

Of course, the Kimbell’s new exhibition is designed to show how influential Caravaggio was on some 30 other artists assembled here  — Italian, French, even Flemish.

In effect, all of the paintings in this show have Caravaggio’s fingerprints.