The Lute Player
Caravaggio painted The Lute Player in 1596 in his early period, before his religious subjects. After moving to Rome from Milan, Caravaggio found work painting still lifes, figures playing games, and other images of musicians.
In Rome, he started relationships with important and influential people that were instrumental in his progression as an artist. The Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte was an important diplomatic person in seventeenth century Italy and a well-known patron of the arts. Many of Caravaggio’s commissions, including The Lute Player, were from Del Monte for his personal collection.
There are three versions of Caravaggio’s Lute Player, but all have very similar compositions. They all have a boy in the center holding a stringed instrument – the lute. The figure is the same in the paintings: an adolescent boy with dark hair, light skin, and delicate features. He is shown in the middle of playing a song with his hands plucking the strings and his mouth slightly open, singing a song about love.
On the table in front of the boy is an array of items different in each painting, but related. Each painting shows sheet music. Characteristic of Caravaggio’s attention to detail, the sheet music is identifiable to specific songs and lyrics. These songs would have been known to Del Monte who is known to have enjoyed music. In fact, some say that even the model used for the paintings was a singer from the Del Monte household that often sang in the Sistine Chapel.
In two of the paintings of The Lute Player, Caravaggio included a still life of flowers. As in other Caravaggio paintings, still lifes are included to show his talent. They are often an additional “look what I can do” element to his paintings. Matching the detail in the sheet music, Caravaggio used flowers that were all in season together. He always shows a scene plucked from a moment in time: the lute player in the middle of plucking a note, singing a lyric. The flowers are no different. If it is to be believed that scene is actually happening and we, the viewer, are witnessing it, then the flowers are part of that. It is as if they could have actually been picked recently, set in a vase, and placed on the table next to the musician.
The figure set against the dark background focuses the attention on the subject, and creates the necessary contrast needed for Caravaggio’s masterful use of strong chiaroscuro, his use of strong shadows and bright highlights.
Find out about another of Caravaggio's famous paintings The Cardsharps