Caravaggio: Facts and Fiction

Museum of the Order of St John Tom Foakes, Head of Heritage

ALT="painting by Caravaggio of three men at a table, two playing cards while the third secretly signals to his accomplice, who is hiding cards behind his back"

Image courtesy of Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust


Both the painter, Caravaggio, and his painting of The Cardsharps, on display at the Museum of the Order of St John, are controversial.

Caravaggio led a short and dramatic life that was filled with triumph and tragedy.  The few undisputed works by his hand that survive show that while his talent has secured his reputation in art history, his nomadic life and the difficulty in making definitive attributions, mean that his body of work is still questioned.

However, these doubts and ambiguities make both the artist and his work more interesting, and the Museum of the Order of St John is glad to be an arena for such debate.

To begin with the definitive facts: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian artist who lived from 1571-1610, dying of a fever at the age of 39.  He grew up in Northern Italy, possibly in Caravaggio, hence his name, or maybe Milan, although little is known of his early life and childhood.  By the age of 13, he was apprenticed to the studio of the artist, Simone Peterzano, which was based in Milan and he was therefore living in the city by 1584.

Peterzano’s dramatic Mannerist style is echoed in the work of Caravaggio, although Caravaggio’s pared down scenes have an immediacy and modernity that is not apparent in Peterzano’s formal compositions.

When comparing two relatively similar works by the two artists – “The Deposition of Christ”, by Simone Peterzano, painted in 1584 for the Church of San Fedele, in Milan; and “The Entombment of Christ”, which was painted by Caravaggio in 1604, for the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, Rome, the differences become more obviously apparent.

The relative brightness and colour palette of Peterzano’s work follows on from earlier northern Italian and Venetian painting although this is unsurprising as he was apprenticed in the studio of the Venetian painter, Titian.   Caravaggio, in contrast, creates a work of far greater drama, taking a very similar composition, but re-interpreting with contemporary figures and real emotions.

Both works were intended as altarpieces, so the perspective of the viewer is important in understanding the compositions.   The dramatic light and shade for which Caravaggio is famous, enables the strong diagonal of the composition to have even more of an impact.   Mary of Clopas in the top right raises her hands to heaven, Mary Magdalene looks towards Christ’s face, drawing the viewers eye back down, as does St John the Evangelist on the left. When standing in front of the painting, the tomb slab and the feet of Nicodemus would be roughly at eye level – the viewer is effectively standing in the tomb with Christ being lowered towards them.

So, back to Caravaggio and his training.   In 1592, aged 21, Caravaggio arrived in Rome, where he continued his artistic apprenticeship in the studio of Cavaliere d’Arpino, who was a favoured artist of Pope Clement VIII.  The huge wealth of the Catholic Church, and the desire to glorify god through artistic and architectural commissions, meant that artists could potentially do very well through the patronage of Popes and Cardinals.   Religious and mythological subject matter was considered the highest form of artistic output and consequently merited higher fees. Those with the financial ability to commission artists were really only the highest members of the church, royalty and the aristocracy.   The favour and patronage of a wealthy benefactor could make or break an artist’s reputation, and while there was a market for portraits and genre scenes, artistic success really required the backing of a wealthy patron with the ability to commission work on a grand scale.

With the patronage of a Pope, Cavaliere d’Arpino required the support of a studio in order to complete his works. It was common practice for more junior students to paint in background, drapery, clothing etc., and it was a good way to learn one’s craft, freeing up the time of the master painter to complete the most important parts – i.e. the face and hands.   Caravaggio was employed in the studio to paint flowers and fruit, which after a time evidently bored him, and so he moved on, and left d’Arpino’s employ to seek new opportunities.

In addition to Pope Clement VIII, another of d’Arpino’s patrons was Cardinal Francesco del Monte. As a self-employed artist, Caravaggio experienced limited commercial success until evidently, he must have caught the attention of del Monte in some way, possibly while still working in Cavaliere d’Arpino’s studio.  As by 1595, independent works by Cavavaggio were being purchased by del Monte to add to his growing collection.

Del Monte was a prolific collector, on his death his collection included more than 600 works, including Caravaggio’s “The Fortune Teller”, painted in 1594, and now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. And “The Lute Player”, by the same artist, painted in 1596.  Three versions of this painting exist, one in the Wildenstein collection in Paris, one in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, and one now in private hands after being sold from the Duke of Beaufort’s collection at Badminton House, following its discovery and reattribution in 2007.

Interestingly, there are also several versions of “The Fortune Teller”.   Caravaggio was known to have reproduced the same composition, and it is therefore possible for the same painting to exist in several versions, all of which may be considered authenticated and definitive works by the hand of the artist.   This is something to bear in mind when considering the version of “The Cardsharps” now on display at the Museum of the Order of St John.

As mentioned previously, patronage was extremely important to an artist’s success due to a patron’s power and influence, and considerable budget to commission works.   The patronage of del Monte gave Caravaggio the opportunity to complete larger and more complex works, including the St Matthew altarpieces in the Contarelli Chapel in Rome.   In addition, he was patronised by a number of Italian aristocratic families including the Borghese and Barberini families in Rome, and the Colonna family, to whose estates he possibly fled after getting into trouble in Rome.

A crucial figure in relation to “The Cardsharps” is Sir Denis Mahon. Sir Denis was a renowned baroque art scholar and collector.   He was born into the Mahon Guinness banking family and the financial cushion that this fortune of birth provided, meant that he was able to devote his life to the advancement of the study of Baroque art.   He was twice a Trustee of the National Gallery, and through his studies, his connections and his wealth, he was able to amass an outstanding collection of baroque paintings. Mahon’s connoisseurship was universally acknowledged, and his ability to identify previously misattributed works resulted in a number of significant re-attributions.

In the 1990s, Mahon lent his entire 57 piece art collection to various museums in the UK, the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna and the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. The loans included: 25 to the National Gallery, London; 12 to the Ashmolean, Oxford; 8 to the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; 6 to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; 5 to the Birmingham City Art Gallery and 1 to Temple Newsam House, Leeds. There are two conditions to the loans: that the museums in question never deaccession any of their works; or charge for admission. If either condition is broken, the paintings could be withdrawn from the museums.

Sir Denis died in 2011, aged 100. After his death, the trustees of the charitable trust under instruction from Mahon’s Will offered to donate the pieces to the national collections for free via The Art Fund, subject to the same conditions under which they were originally loaned.

So, why is Sir Denis Mahon important to us and our painting? “The Cardsharps” was painted by Caravaggio in 1595, and was purchased by Cardinal Francesco del Monte in the same year.   It is listed in inventories of his collection and therefore its origins are undisputed.   This painting was much copied, both at the time and in subsequent years and numerous versions of varying quality exist. By the late 19th century, while numerous copies of the original were known, the authentic version by the hand of the master had been lost. This was until 1987, when it was rediscovered by Sir Denis in a private collection in Zurich.   At this point it was sold to the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, and it was universally acknowledged as the original and definitive version of the work. Although only in reproduction, you can see the quality of the work and the finesse of the execution, particularly the feather of the young sharp’s hat, the faces and the hands.

On 29 May 1606, Caravaggio was involved in a violent brawl, in which he killed a young man in Rome named Ranuccio Tomassoni.   The dispute is purported to have arisen during a tennis match although whatever the cause, there is no doubt that Caravaggio killed Tomassoni during a sword fight, in which the artist himself was also severely wounded. Although he was by now a well-established and famous painter, Caravaggio faced a charge of murder and flight and self-imposed exile seemed the only answer.   He therefore fled south to Naples where he hoped he might be safe, possibly seeking refuge with the Colonna Family, who were also his patrons. However, only a year later, on 25 June 1607, he left Naples for Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of St John.

The reasons why Caravaggio went to Malta are unclear. It is possible that he thought that joining the Knights would bring him redemption. Certainly the heroic history of the Order would have appealed to his romantic imagination, especially the story of the Great Siege of 1565, when the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent invaded the island, only to be eventually defeated by the Knights under their Grand Master Jean de la Valette. This was the most famous military event of the age, and Caravaggio would have had the story at first hand from his first patron in Rome, Cardinal Francesco del Monte, whose relative, Pietro del Monte succeeded Valette as Grand Master in 1568. Caravaggio would have known that he didn’t have the aristocratic lineage that was normally required for admission to the Order although his artistic reputation would have had considerable positive influence. He painted St Jerome, as shown in the previous slide, for Ippolito Malaspina, a senior member of the Order and advisor to the Grand Master.

Caravaggio also painted a portrait of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, which is now in the collection of the Louvre, Paris. As a result of his artistic contributions, Caravaggio was installed as a Knight of the Order in July 1608, in front of the great altarpiece depicting the Beheading of St John the Baptist that he had presented to the Order. This picture is the only work which bears his signature, written somewhat ghoulishly in the blood which spills from the Baptist’s neck.   After an altercation with a fellow Knight, Caravaggio was imprisoned by the Order until he again escaped, fleeing to Sicily, then Naples. He died in 1610, on his way to Rome to seek a Papal pardon.

So, I hope that this explains why Caravaggio is an important figure in relation to the history of the Order, and now to “The Cardsharps”.

In 2006, a version of the Cardsharps came up for sale at Sotheby’s South Kensington, in London. South Kensington sales were generally for lesser works, with the highest profile paintings being sold at Sotheby’s Bond Street premises. The painting was being sold from a private collection, belonging to Lancelot Thwaytes, who had inherited the work from his uncle. In the sale catalogue, the work was described as “after Caravaggio”, making it explicit that, in Sotheby’s opinion, the work was not by the hand of the master. The work drew the interest of Sir Denis, who after much study, conservation and restoration, considered the work to be also by Caravaggio. In fact, his research led him to believe that this work was the first version of the composition, and that the Kimbell is a contemporary replica, also by Caravaggio.  His opinion is supported by other Caravaggio and baroque art scholars, including Mina Gregori, Maurizio Marini, Antonio Paolucci, Daniele Benati, and Thomas Schneider. However, this is not a universal view, and for all the supporters, there are also many doubters, and the fact that Sir Denis was very elderly when he made the attribution has been used as a reason to call his opinion into question.

Nevertheless, scientific testing has proven a number of factors.  Paint samples and analysis of the canvas confirm that the dating of 1595 is correct, and the pigment samples for the paint match those of the Kimbell version. There is therefore no doubt that the works are contemporary.   In addition, on x-ray, the version on display at the Museum of the Order of St John shows significant underpainting and compositional changes, particularly around the right hand of the young sharp, and the face of the old sharp. Interestingly, in this version the face of the old sharp is painted in full, behind the hat of the dupe.   Adding up all these things together, it would seem strange for the artist to be so experimental and to make such changes, if they were merely copying from another work.   Also, the original del Monte inventory, and that of Cardinal Barberini, to whom the painting was subsequently sold, indicate that the dimensions of this version more closely match the records than the Kimbell picture. It should also be borne in mind that the Kimbell version had a strip of canvas added to it across the top, which was removed during conservation, and that our version was mounted on panel, which was removed during its own recent conservation.   So over the past 400 years both versions are likely to have undergone a number of changes.

Another compelling piece of the jigsaw is the Volpato engraving. Giovanni Volpato was an Italian engraver, working in the 18th century – he reproduced the Cardsharps as an engraving, copied from the version which was then in the Barberini collection, in Rome.  In the engraving, the proportions and slightly higher perspective more closely match the St John painting, rather than the Kimbell, so the plot thickens… And this is what Mr. Thwaytes thought too.   Following the sale the painting underwent significant conservation and restoration, and when Sir Denis made public his belief that the work was in fact by Caravaggio, Mr Thwaytes was, understandably somewhat surprised – particularly as this would mean that, if proven, the painting would now have an extremely high value that was significantly more than its sale price. As a result, Mr Thwaytes began a lengthy court battle with Sotheby’s, asserting that the auction house had not carried out due diligence. The case has now concluded, ruling in Sotheby’s favour.   However, this neither proves nor disproves whether the painting is or is not a Caravaggio – only that Sotheby’s were considered to have been thorough in their research and advice.

Another twist to the story is that The Musicians, also painted by Caravaggio in 1595, and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was sold in the 1950s from the same collection as the St John Cardsharps – from Captain W G Thwaytes, Lancelot Thwaytes’s Uncle. While both paintings entered the WG Thwaytes collection from different sources, it is interesting that they both ended up in the hands of provincial antiques dealers in the early 20th century – someone somewhere evidently had an eye for a picture. And this also highlights the issue of attribution, and how attributions can change and move both backwards and forwards to lesser and greater artists. The Musicians was considered a poor copy until it was cleaned and conserved, although it is currently presented as a definitive attribution on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum.

In January 2016, another “Caravaggio” of a Boy Peeling a Fruit, came up for sale at Christie’s in New York.    Dating from 1591, this is an early work by the artist, and once again it is a painting of which there are different versions. Another version of the same image is in The Royal Collection. The Christie’s version has an impeccable provenance, having belonged to Sir Joshua Reynolds in the late 18th century. It also has a remarkable exhibition history. In 1985, it was featured in the retrospective exhibition “The Age of Caravaggio” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which then toured to the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples. In 2001, it was included in the exhibition “The Genius of Rome” at London’s Royal Academy, and Rome’s Palazzo Venezia. With an estimated sale price of $3-5 million the painting failed to find a buyer, and when looked at side by side with the Royal Collection version, it is clearly inferior.   Interestingly, a number of the scholars who argue that this is a definitive Caravaggio, argue that the St John Cardsharps is not, and the relatively low estimate, in addition to the lack of a sale, show that others have doubts about its authenticity.

Attribution is neither exact nor definitive. The Madonna of the Pinks, by Raphael, was purchased to great fanfare in 2004 by the National Gallery, from the collection of the Duke of Northumberland. For centuries, this work had been attributed to various lesser artists, and it is only in 1991, that the work was identified as a Raphael – an attribution that is now universally accepted, which is fortunate, particularly for the Duke of Northumberland, who sold it for £35 million.

And so we come back to the Cardsharps. The Kimbell version certainly has a crispness in contrast to the softness of the St John version. There are subtle differences between the two paintings, neither are exact copies.   The perspective is different, the figures in the Kimbell version are spread wider across the picture plane, and in the St John version, the backgammon board is far less defined.

The display of the painting in the galleries of the Museum of the Order of St John, means that the Museum can now tell a fascinating part of the history of the Order, with the support of a beautiful painting, and it is beneficial for the Museum to be an arena for ongoing debate.   The painting still engages and the swindling going on forms an amusing story that still has contemporary relevance. Perhaps the best course of action is to judge for yourself. The painting is on loan to the Museum on an enduring basis, so do visit the Museum to see for yourself.





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