Twenty-four Caravaggio paintings are brought together in an extraordinary art exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. Given that art historians unquestionably attribute only fifty works to this Italian master, this show presents a rare opportunity to examine Caravaggio paintings pooled from widespread art museums. Although tickets have long beenunavailable, the Scuderie accommodates the ticketless but patient. A three hour wait was worth it (even in rain). Bring a book, bring a drink, and find ways to amuse yourself in the formidable queue– I did by snapping furtive photos of the throngs sporting the color purple, an Italian trend that hasn’t yet crossed over.

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit. Oil on canvas, c. 1599. Approx. 12″ x 18.5″. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Milan and not in the northern Italian town of Caravaggio, as was believed until several years ago. In Milan he studied with Simone Peterzano, a former pupil of Titian, but left neither personal history nor works of art there.

By the time he arrived in Rome in 1592, Caravaggio had rejected the prevalent academic approach to painting, instead favoring the naturalism which was to define his artwork.  The typical 16th century painter trained in a workshop, drew local sculptures, copied Renaissance paintings, and analyzed works by famous painters like Raphael. Caravaggio, conversely, chose to depict the reality he saw, deriving inspiration ‘from

Caravaggio, The Musicians.  Oil on canvas, c. 1594 – 1595. 36 1/4″ x 46 5/8″.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

nature’ and from what he encountered in Rome.  This approach informed what the art exhibition labels his Youngness phase, lasting from 1592 to 1600; other Caravaggio paintings are grouped into the Success phase (1600-1606), and the Escape phase (1606-1610).

Basket of Fruit, the only known still-life by Caravaggio, is the iconic painting of this art exhibition, adorning its ticket and catalog cover, and is rendered with near photographic precision.

According to Maurizio Calvesi in the art exhibition catalog Caravaggio, this famous painting is beautiful because its “realism gives rise to a striking formal structure that can be examined along two complementary paths.” The first is Caravaggio’s masterful painting of the tiniest details; the second is perception of the painting’s

Caravaggio, The Young, Sick Bacchus.  Oil on canvas, c. 1593-1594.  26″ x 21″. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

sculptural nature, like the volume of the overall mound of fruit that is echoed in the form of each individual one. The stalks and leaves that stick up, and the alternating light and shade pull the eye into and across the picture plane.

The Musicians, one of the most adored Caravaggio paintings, is also from the Youngness phase. It was a commission from Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, the first art patron in Rome to support Caravaggio.

The three figures of The Musicians are indisputably androgynous, with, in the words of Barbara Savina in Caravaggio,

“…dreamy, languid expressions, and smooth, oval faces with chubby cheeks, framed by soft wavy hair.” 

On the far left, Cupid is absorbed with his grapes while suggesting that human passions are conveyed by love of music. The arrogant-looking boy in the center, whose red cloak dominates this Caravaggio masterpiece, is tuning a lute whose strings were erased in the past; the boy with his back to the viewer studies a piece of music whose title has been lost over the years. The direct eye contact from the third boy, who prepares to play a horn barely visible on the right, invites the viewer into this painting.  Many art history scholars contend that this maybe a self-portrait of Caravaggio (his features here recall his portrait in Young Sick Bacchus, below).

According to Savina, the androgynous youth in The Musicians may portray an actual event rather than a fondness for homosexual themes by either Caravaggio or the Cardinal. As patron of the Sistine Chapel choir, Del Monte held private concerts by castrato singers; they were known to play using the Cardinal’s collection of musical instruments while attired in the type of classical clothing that Caravaggio shows here.

Coming up next… the Caravaggio paintings Cardsharps and The Fortune Teller.