Caravaggio's  Big Break

The Lute Player, 1595, oil on canvas, collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia
The Lute Player, 1595, oil on canvas, collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

One of the finest paintings at the State Hermitage Museum happens to be The Lute Player (1595) by Michelangelo Merissi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). In 1592, when the artist was about twenty years old, he left the Lombard area of Italy and went to Rome. There Caravaggio initially gained employment with the little-known Sicilian painter Lorenzo Carli. Caravaggio quickly moved over to Calvaliere d’Arpino’s workshop, where he was put in charge of painting flowers and fruit. It was here that Caravaggio learned the workings of a large workshop operation and the mechanics of art patronage in Rome. After a couple of years at this workshop Caravaggio started creating paintings of half-length figures to sell on the open market to prove he could do more than paint flowers and fruit. Some of these early paintings include Boy Peeling a Fruit (1593/94), Self-portrait as Bacchus (1594) and Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594). Of these paintings, Boy Peeling a Fruit is probably the oldest surviving Caravaggio painting in existence today. Though there are several copies of this painting, John T. Spike identified the likely original in a auction in London in 1996; its present location is in the British Royal Collection. In 2014 it was put on display in the Cumberland Gallery in Hampton Court Palace. Caravaggio’s early figurative paintings introduced the Roman public to a new genre that quickly began to attract collectors. The Flute Player is one of the first of these promotional paintings. 

The Cardsharps (1595/96), oil on canvas
The Cardsharps (1595/96), oil on canvas

In 1595 Caravaggio got his “big break” when Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte (1549-1627) took notice of the artist’s work and purchased The Cardsharps (1595). The Cardinal lived at the Palazzo Madama as the diplomatic representative of Ferdinando I de’ Medici (1549-1609), who was the Grand Duke of Tuscany. As the representative of a key figure in the Roman art world, Del Monte was not just a patron himself, but also the art agent for the Tuscan Grand Duke. After purchasing The Cardsharps Del Monte offered Caravaggio a place to live in his household. This marks a major turning point in Caravaggio’s career, giving him not only a privileged position but also the legal right to carry a sword. Del Monte continued to be his major patron but also introduced Caravaggio to other wealthy patrons that lead to important commissions. It is because of his relationship with Cardinal Del Monte that Caravaggio soon became one of the most famous painters in Rome. On a darker note, the Cardinal also exercised his political influence when the artist ran into trouble with the Rome authorities. As it is well known, Caravaggio was famous for his late night drunken quarrels and brawls on the streets of Rome. Had he not been permitted to carry a sword it is possible that his final quarrel in 1606, where Caravaggio killed fellow painter Ranuccio Tomassoni forcing him to flee Rome, would have never happened. 

The Musicians, 1595, oil on canvas, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, U.S.A.
The Musicians, 1595, oil on canvas, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, U.S.A.

The creation of Caravaggio’s The Musicians (1595) and The Lute Player are directly linked to Cardinal Del Monte’s passionate interest in contemporary music of the day. The Musicians (1595) is considered to be Caravaggio’s earliest multi-figured composition. Today this painting is part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Del Monte introduced Caravaggio to all the latest theater innovations, which the artist incorporated into his paintings. The composition of The Musicians appears as if you are looking into a stage at a moment on stage before the performance begins. We look over the shoulders of these cramped figures with curiosity. The two figures in the foreground are actively involved in preparing to create music, while the second boy on the right in the background, looking directly at the viewer is a self-portrait of Caravaggio. On the far left is a winged Cupid, identified by his quiver full of arrows. His presence shows us that Caravaggio did not intend for this painting to be purely a genre scene, but instead an allegory of music. The positioning of a violin in the foreground surrounded by pages of music creates the suggestion of an invitation to the viewer to join in and perform with the group. 

The Lute Player, 1596, oil on canvas, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, U.S.A.
The Lute Player, 1596, oil on canvas, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, U.S.A.

There are two version of The Lute Player: one is at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the second one is part of a private collection that has been loaned to the Metropolitan Museum. The first version, which is at the Hermitage, is linked to the collection of Vincenzo Giustiniani. The second version at the Metropolitan has been traced back to the collection of Del Monte. It is believed that Del Monte sold the first version to Giustiniani, so Caravaggio had to paint a second version for Del Monte. The model for both versions is believed to be the castrato singer Pedro De Foix Montoya, who also lived in Del Monte’s palace during the time Caravaggio was living there. The Lute Player represents the practice of performing a madrigal with just one voice singing with the accompaniment of the lute. The score of music is visible in Caravaggio’s painting and translates to “You know that I love you, even more, that I adore you.”1 This painting depicts a sensitive, refined androgynous young man with his lips slightly parted and his chest exposed. The meaning of the score of music heightens the intensity of the visual imagery and creates an evocative feeling. It has been frequently suspected that Caravaggio and Del Monte had homoerotic leanings, however there is no conclusive evidence to this effect. Instead, one can only speculate.

Caravaggio was forgotten almost immediately after his death, and it was only in the 20th century that his influence on the Baroque style was acknowledged. He influenced many artists, two of the most famous include Rubens and Rembrandt.

1. Sebastian Schütze; Caravaggio: The Complete Works; Taschen, 2009, page 37.

About the Author
​Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She organizes annual art excursions to Russia every summer and is the editor of

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