Caravaggio’s First Roman Period 1592-1599
This Genre scene was painted during Caravaggio’s First Roman Period (1592-1599). It is one of his first paintings to catch the attention of an important patron, Cardinal DelMonte.
Fortune Teller is a Genre scene for a special group of people: those who were familiar with gypsies who told fortunes. Paired with this painting is often Caravaggio’s Cardsharps – another Genre scene, specific to a world of gambling, con, and deception. This is a bit telling of Caravaggio’s personality and company (Prose 36).
Regardless of what is happening in the painting, one cannot dismiss how incredibly naturalistic this piece is. One can almost feel the textures of the figures’ clothing. There are no visible brushstrokes. This was an early sign of Caravaggio’s signature excruciating realism. Even though the setting of this painting is nondescript, the figures appear to actually inhabit their space.
Although Caravaggio never lost his way with naturalism, the bright background is something only seen in his early pieces. Later, his palette becomes much darker, light more narrow and beaming, and backgrounds almost non-existent.
This medium sized mythological painting is an example of Caravaggio’s allegories, concealed within the mythological, non-Christian subject. Presented is a single figure composition of Bacchus, the god of wine, seemingly from the waist, up. It is characteristic of his early Roman style with its bright colors, sfumato, and naturalistic still life. However Genre-like this painting seems, it is evident of Carvaggio’s knowledge of classical tradition (Wittkower 19).
The size of this painting is important to note not only because of its portability by the artist, but for its economy. Caravaggio was able to quickly produce more paintings of single figures than multiple figure compositions. This accelerated his likelihood of gaining attention and respect as an artist.
We begin to see in Carvaggio’s work, in Bacchus, an element of the Baroque that John Rupert Martin calls “co-extensive.” The carafe of wine in the lower left corner, while an example of Caravaggio’s excruciating attention to detail, serves as an invitation for us to enter the picture. This device is subtler than Bacchus’s extended arm, offering out a fresh glass of wine. Bacchus’s gaze meets the viewer’s eyes, a personal invitation to enjoy the pleasures of life.
Although a beautiful secular scene, this painting served a religious purpose, too. One of Caravaggio’s first patrons was Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. Caravaggio painted this while living with him. Although there is evidence of the cardinal’s homosexual interests and activities (Prose 41), a less risqué argument on the portrait’s importance to such a religious figure is its allegorical symbolism of Jesus Christ. Bacchus possesses the body of Christ and offers up His blood.
The hidden religious meaning in Bacchus is not the only undertone. One criticism of Caravaggio is that he did not use enough classical or antique art as inspiration. Giovanni Pietro Bellori, perhaps Caravaggio’s number one critic, claimed that Caravaggio had a certain resentment for Classical work (Martin 261). Bacchus is an “adaptation” of classical works, according to Martin. He suggests Bacchus resembles Antinoüs, a beloved friend of Emperor Hadrian.
Boy Bitten by a Lizard
Caravaggio c. 1594.
Fondazione Roberto Longhi, Florence & National Gallery, London.
Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard appears to be the result of his study of the human face and expressions that so many Early Baroque artists were doing at this time. It also shows his earlier interest in impermanence in its still life aspects (i.e. flowers and fruit on the table), while foreshadowing his later interest in showing the height of the action.
This piece is in a sense typical of Caravaggio’s early work. He presents us with a young boy, a frequent subject in his oeuvre. The boy’s exposed shoulder is seen in many other paintings by Caravaggio from this time. Prior to the biting incident, this boy was probably daintily reclining at this table, eating his fruit, and attempting to seduce the viewer. However, a lizard – also a sexual reference that stands for the male reproductive organ – has bitten the boy and catches him off guard (Prose 50-51).
Francine Prose argues in Eminent Lives that instead of conveying manliness in this particular painting of a young boy, the rose behind his ear and his reaction to a small bite on the finger is more feminine than anything. He is also hamming it up for the viewer by looking down at us, rather than at his hand or the lizard (51). Is he looking for sympathy when he would not typically receive it for such a display of squeamishness? She also believes that perhaps this painting is a study for a figure in a later painting, Martyrdom of St. Matthew, in which a young onlooker reacts to a terrifying event.
Martin, John R. Baroque. New York: Harper & Row. 1977.
Prose, Francine. Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. New York: Harper Collins. 2005.
Wittkower, Rudolf. Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750: Vol. I, Early Baroque. Yale University Press. 1958.