Sunday, September 12, 2010


painted by Ottavio Leoni, c. 1621 A.C.

Despite a tumultuous and anguished life, early Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (a.k.a. Caravaggio) revolutionized his art form to encompass an arresting sense of realism and a dramatic entangling of light and shadows. This intense man of the flesh was capable of putting viewers into a profound spiritual state by carving out pockets of inner enlightenment in the darkness. The Italian artist, born just outside Milan in 1571, worked extensively in Rome, Naples and on the island of Malta. He left a sumptuous and controversial legacy - one that swirled together sexual crises, a penchant for self-destruction, the desire to cast ordinary people as saints, the violence that led to real-life murder, escape, treachery on a near-geopolitical level, and death at the young age of 38.
(Lucia Mauro at
Little is known about Caravaggio (Francesco Boneri). In his guide to contemporary artists written for fellow-collectors in about 1620, Considerazioni sulla Pittura, Giulio Mancini mentions a 'Francesco detto Cecco del Caravaggio' as one of the great master's more noteworthy followers. A 'Cecco' is recorded among French artists working with Agostino Tassi at Bagnaia in 1613-15, and hence the artist has been thought to be of French origin, while other scholars have detected a Spanish influence, but in 2001 the scholar Gianni Papi identified this Cecco del Caravaggio as the Lombard artist Francesco Boneri (or Buoneri), and this now seems to be generally although not universally accepted.
An identification has also been made, (notably by the journalist Peter Robb in his 1998 biography of Caravaggio, M-The Man Who Became Caravaggio), between Francesco Boneri/Cecco del Caravaggio and the boy who models for a number of paintings done by Caravaggio in the period 1600/1606, including the famous Amor Vincit and the John the Baptist in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. The identification is based on the statements found in early authors that the model for Amor Vincit was a boy named Cecco who was also Caravaggio's servant and possibly pupil. As attractive as this idea is, it remains unproven.
Caravaggio left Cesari in January 1594, determined to make his own way. His fortunes were at their lowest ebb, yet it was now that he forged some extremely important friendships, with the painter Prospero Orsi, the architect Onorio Longhi, and the sixteen year old Sicilian artist Mario Minniti. Orsi, established in the profession, introduced him to influential collectors; Longhi, more balefully, introduced him to the world of Roman street-brawls; and Minniti served as a model and, years later, would be instrumental in helping Caravaggio to important commissions in Sicily. The Fortune Teller, his first composition with more than one figure, shows Mario being cheated by a gypsy girl. The theme was quite new for Rome, and proved immensely influential over the next century and beyond. This, however, was in the future: at the time, Caravaggio sold it for practically nothing. The Cardsharps - showing another unsophisticated boy falling the victim of card cheats - is even more psychologically complex, and perhaps Caravaggio's first true masterpiece. Like the Fortune Teller it was immensely popular, and over 50 copies survive. More importantly, it attracted the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, one of the leading connoisseurs in Rome. For Del Monte and his wealthy art-loving circle Caravaggio executed a number of intimate chamber-pieces - The Musicians, The Lute Player, a tipsy Bacchus, an allegorical but realistic Boy Bitten by a Lizard - featuring Minniti and other adolescent models. The homoerotic ambience of Caravaggio's treatment of these works has been the centre of dispute amongst scholars and biographers since it was first raised in the later half of the 20th century, the critic Robert Hughes memorably described Caravaggio's boys as "overripe, peachy bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream,"

The Flute Player
Oil on canvas
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Web Gallery of Art at

The paintings now attributed to “Cecco del Caravaggio” form a highly individualistic group of mostly genre scenes. They all show close interest in low-life but are painted with a delicacy and sensitivity which is quite unlike most other Caravaggesque work. There is still discussion about the precise definition of the artist’s output and modern scholarship has made many different and sometimes conflicting attempts to prove who the artist was.
Christopher Wright writes: The identity of “Cecco del Caravaggio” has become one of the most controversial and ultimately unresolved questions of recent research into the Baroque. Asmall group of pictures exist, ostensibly but not certainly by the same hand. Benedict Nicolson, The International Caravaggesque Movement, Oxford, 1979, p. 42, listed some sixteen works but did not include the Flute Player in Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, which has always been associated with a similar work in the Wellington Museum, Apsley House. Nicolson assumed that the “Francesco, detto Cecco del Caravaggio”described by Mancini c. 1629 was an artist of Spanish origin, working in Rome in the second decade of the 17th century. On stylistic grounds this hypothesis would fit, although Nicolson also noted the influence of Louis Finson, a Flemish artist working in the south of France. There is still dispute from other scholars as to whether the Ashmolean Flute Player should be included. The contradictory current thinking by GianniPappi, Cecco del Caravaggio, Soncino, 2001, is that the Cecco group, a slightly different assembly of pictures to those used byNicolson, are by Francesco Boneri. Pappi comes to terms with the Spanish influence by attributing some “Ceccos” to Pedro Nunez del Valle.
The guitar player has a distinctively lined face and this is an especial feature of Cecco’s work, found in almost all his male models. Another similarity is the handling of white cloth, in this case the cravat, which also appears throughout his work. Other distinctive characteristics are the use of still life elements in the composition, introduced to show skill. A final comparison is the particular way which the hands are drawn and lit.
This haunting picture has overtones of the early work of Velasquez in his Seville period and it was to this great master that the painting was formally attributed. The scholarly suggestions that “Cecco” may well turn out to be Spanish now seem to make sense given the strong realism and powerful brushwork which seem so Spanish in themselves. The flute player (above) in the background seems especially Spanish. Anumber of Spanish academics believe the painting to be Neapolitan. Cecilia Grilli suggested Rombouts. The flute player has the timeless quality of Giorgione or Titian seen through Terbrugghen-like eyes; this eclectic painting still defies an attribution and it may continue to do so.

Muchacho con instrumentos musicales
The Musical Instrument Maker
National Gallery of Athens

The mystery surrounding Cecco's identitiy and origins may never be explained, but perhaps the mystery of his splendid painting in the National Gallery of Athens need not remain impenetrable. At first glance nothing more than a genre scene with vague moralistic connotations, upon closer study by Studio Veritas, the painting in the National Gallery revealed itself to be far more intriguing.
The iconography of the painting has perplexed all scholars. It has been called The Musical Instrument Maker (above), which is odd as there are no tools to indicate that the young man is at work on the making of instruments, neither does his appearance suggest the profession. Salerno entitles a less appealing version that exists in the Wellington Museum London, The Conjuror, referring to the apparent depiction in that painting of an illusionist's trick with a small object disappearing from the hand and appearing in the mouth.
This major compositional variance from the Athens painting is one of several, the comparison of which would constitute a separate study. It should be noted however, that such modifications suggest Cecco intended the two paintings to have related, but individual meanings. In the catalogue entry of the 1971 Cleveland exhibition Caravaggio and his Followers, Richard Spear called the London canvas simply A Musician and does not successfully decipher the iconography.
It is apparent to Studio Veritas, that both the London picture and the Athens painting were meant as allegories. The pose is static and permeated with psychological tension. In the Athens painting, the boy's furrowed brow and troubled eyes are in conflict to the lighthearted act of singing he appears to be engaged in. Rather than singing, perhaps he is advertising his services as an entertainer, or protesting against a too meager reward?
He does not hold the tambourine aloft in a casual gesture, as a practiced musician would. The boy balances it upright between his fingertips, as if it were a trophy. Traditionally, the tambourine is an attribute of Vice personified and herein lies the key to the overall allegorical intention.
The still-life accessories are carefully arranged in the immediate foreground to arrest the spectator's gaze. We must therefore question their significance further than ordinary objects. The violin has no bow and was not meant to be played by our protagonist, unlike the string instruments which appear in Cecco's Musical Angel or his Flute Player. In the portrayal of Virtue and Vice, musical instruments are most often associated with the latter. Here, the violin is a reference to the link between music and immorality, a concept typified by Erato the Muse of love poetry frequently depicted with a tambourine.
The curious cylindrical object in the centre is a traveller's mirror protected by its wooden lid, the lip of which we see reflected. The tilted mirror rests on both a leather pouch and on a round wooden container, lined with blue paper of the type that commonly held sugared sweets and which echoes the form of the mirror. The leather pouch in turn rests on a leather bound book. It is possible the objects on the table do not belong to him; the chair he sits in, is not his own. The scrolls of parchment, the book, the violin, the flask and what seems to be a type of telescope surely belong to a more educated man, the boy's unseen patron. What need of a fine travelling mirror would a young scoundrel have? Has he taken a coin from the gentleman's purse in exchange for a song and in doing so upset the lid of the mirror?
(Raichel Le Goff, copyrights Studio Veritas 1991 at

Woman with a Dove, 1610
Museo del Prado

Famous (and notorious) while he lived, Caravaggio was forgotten almost immediately after his death and it was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. Despite this, his influence on the new Baroque style that eventually emerged from the ruins of Mannerism was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the "Caravaggisti" or "Caravagesques", as well as Tenebrists or "Tenebrosi" ("shadowists"). Andre Berne-Joffroy, Paul Valéry's secretary, said of him: "What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting."

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