—Caravaggio, “The Lute Player” (1600)
The painting is on an extended loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from a private collection.
Two pictures (one in The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, and the other in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) of almost the same dimensions depict a boy with soft facial features and unusually thick brown hair, pouting lips, a half-open mouth and a pensive expression beneath sharply-drawn broad eyebrows. His white shirt is open at the front, revealing the artist’s intention to paint a nude. This figure has the same dimensions in both pictures, which suggests that Caravaggio traced one on to oil-paper. In this case only one picture was completed from a fresh study of a model.
A sort of ribbon woven into the figure’s hair emphasizes its almost androgynous features. The same applies – in the New York version – to a broad yoke which divides his shirt under his chest like a woman’s dress. This is undoubtedly why Bellori saw this as a female lute-player, although recently it has been suggested that the model was a castrato. Light falls from a high window above left, creating a narrow triangle of brightness in the upper right-hand corner. That said, the brightly illuminated figure stands out boldly against the shadowy background.
The strongly foreshortened lute with its bent key-board demonstrates Caravaggio’s virtuoso handling of perspective. Tactile elements project towards the viewer more successfully than in the New York Concert. As in the Uffizi Bacchus, the artist places a broad table-top in front of the figure – in the St. Petersburg version it is made of marble, and in the New York version covered with an oriental carpet.
The objects in the picture include an open book of music lying on another which bears the inscription “Bassus” in Gothic script, whilst the body of a violin serves to hold the book open at the right page. In both versions Caravaggio has painted the scores of older compositions clearly enough for us to read them. The music in question is the base voice-part of a popular collection, the “libro primo” of Jacques Arcadelt, which contains other compositions as well as works by this composer. Although the artist has cut off one row of notes, he has reproduced the initial notes so exactly that in the St. Petersburg example we can recognize the Roman printer, Valerio Dorica, whereas in the second version we can see that the book was published in Venice by Antonio Gardane.
In the St. Petersburg version, the violin bow lies across the strings and the open book of music – a prominent object for the observation of light and shade. In the New York version it is handled in a much less interesting way. Placed underneath the violin scroll, the bow can scarcely be distinguished from the brownish pattern of the carpet. In this version, a stout recorder and a triangular keyboard instrument are the other objects we see. The X-ray picture shows that they were painted over a still-life. The bird-cage motif in the left-hand corner (barely visible on the photo) shows what unusual motifs Caravaggio liked to select – motifs similar to those preferred by Caravaggesque painters in the Netherlands.
The St. Petersburg version, on the other hand, plays with the motifs of Caravaggio’s other early arrangements of still-life and individual figures. Pieces of fruit lie on the marble slab, extremely brightly colored and brilliantly painted. A crystal vase contains a bunch of flowers, which would have made even Jan Bruegel the Elder jealous. The colors are applied uninhibitedly with a loaded brush – with a richness and precision we do not see elsewhere in Caravaggio’s work.