Many Caravaggio paintings have debated provenance, and that of The Cardsharps, one of Caravaggio’s best-loved and most famous paintings, is no exception.

Art historians now agree (mostly) that this oft-forged masterpiece was purchased by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who held Caravaggio in such high esteem that he invited Caravaggio to live in his house, Palazzo Madama.

Right: Caravaggio.  The Cardsharps, 1595-96.  Oil on canvas, 37 1/8″ x 51 5/8″.  Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas 

The Cardsharps juxtaposes an aristocratic but naive young man playing primero, a forerunner of poker, against two devious cardsharps. The dupe’s white lace collar and frilly cuffs under his black suit contrast sharply with the gaudy attire of the cardsharps. The older one with his raised hand signals the dupe’s cards to the younger trickster, who pulls a hidden card while turning an expectant, eager face to the youth.

Art historical documents suggest that Cardsharps is linked to The Fortune Teller (La Zingara), a work of the same size and compositional angle, and with the same moral theme — gullible youth succumbing to deceit. With The Fortune Teller, Caravaggio introduces genre painting into the Italian Renaissance. These scenes of everyday life had an implicit meaning intended to educate the spectator.

Here, the youthful gypsy girl caresses the dandy’s extended hand as she imagines his fortune. He, extravagantly attired in a feather hat and oversized dagger, is so taken by her touch that he fails to realize she has removed and pilfered his ring.

Right: Caravaggio.  The Fortune Teller, 1594-95.  Oil on canvas, 39″ x 51 1/2″.  Louvre, Paris.

Both of these Caravaggio paintings are devoid of identifiable background or specific environment, suggesting the universality of the exchange between the two stereotyped characters.

Some art historians suggest that these Caravaggio paintings may be pendants, or paired paintings designed to be hung together. This belief is not only supported by the similarity of size and compositional angle of these two famous paintings, but also by their common theme of youthful innocence lost by deceit.

Palazzo Madama, digs for Caravaggio in Rome, courtesy of Cardinal del Monte. 

Coming next: Caravaggio paintings from the Success phase, as defined by the art exhibition, of 1600 to 1606.