Caravaggio’s “La Buona Ventura” (The Fortune Teller):
A masterpiece from the "Musei Capitolini", Rome

( Musei Capitolini, Rome)

In what can only be described as a great delight for New York art viewers, The Italian Cultural Institute of New York  recently secured a temporary loan of one of the masterpiece of Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio,  La Buona Ventura ( The Fortune Teller) from the Museu Capitolini, Rome

A major figure of the Baroque  Period, Michaelangelo Merisi, known as Carvaggio ( 1573- 1610) after the northern Italian town he came from, developed a unique style that had enormous impactt hroughout Europe. His outspoken disdain for the classical  masters drew harsh criticism  from many painters, one of whom denounced him as the “ anti- Christ of painting”  Giovanni Pietro Bellori, the most influential  critic of the period and an admirer of Carraci, felt that Caravaggio’s refusal to emulate the models of his predecessors threaten the entire classical tradtion of Italian painting that has reached its zenith in Raphael’s work.  Despite the criticism and the  various problems of Carravaggio tumulous life Carravaggio received many commissions, both public and private. His infleunce on later artists, as much outside  Italy as within, was immense.

Caravaggio innovative artistry is recognized as the bridge between the Mannerist style typified by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Agnolo Bronzino, and Titian of the High Renaissance and the Baroque splendor of Rubens and Rembrandt. His paintings and persona have entered popular culture, his portrait and two of his works were featured on the old 100,000 lire banknote of Italy, and a movie has been made of his life.

In his art Caravaggio infused a naturalism into both religion and the classics, reducing them to human dramas played out in the environments of his  time. His unidealized figures selected from the fields and the streets were, however, effective precisely because of the Italian public familiarity with such figures. The eloquence and humanity with which he imbued his paintings impressed many. Caravvaggio often used compositonal nuances which were intended to bring viewers into  into the scene’s space as if they were participating in them. This sense of inclusion is often augmented by a low horizon line and actual light to compel the viewers’s interest and involvment in the event.

His paintings are typified by a dramatic manipulation of light (chiaroscuro); reliance on human models, many with multiple appearances in his paintings; by a blatant homoerotic content; direct painting without preliminary drawings, a non-sentimental approach to religious art, and an degree of "photorealism" that extends to portraiture, various objects including musical instruments, scores, and  vegetation.

Caravaggio has left few personal records by his own hand but the interpretations of his paintings by generations of art historians, combined with recently unearthed archival information, provides a rich history of the man and his time. They include analysis of the paintings including style and technique, psychological insights into the artist and subjects in the case of portraits, historical analysis of the period based on patrons, and an analysis of the paintings’ meaning through the choice of subject matter and symbolism. 

Caravaggio's starkly realistic depictions of real characters painted from life, often using peasants and prostitutes as his models, was regarded as revolutionary.  In the case of his religious works because of the models used in his work a number of his paintings appeared to be vulgar in nature, many of his finished works were rejected as unsuitable for their intended locations.

 In direct contrast to the careful preparations of contemporary Italian paintings of the time he painted, without drawings, directly onto the canvas. His style must be viewed as a reaction to mannerism. It offered new and promising path for the future that lead to in the direction of naturalism. Caravaggio’s naturalism was closely related to the region where he was born and earlier on trained as an artist. Trained In Lombardy he was exposed to a realism characteristic of Lombard art of the fourteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century, which was distinguished by   attention to direct observation of nature.
Francine Prose has observed that Caravaggio was a creature of his era—a painter who simultaneously disregarded and redefined the conventions of his age, who borrowed from antiquity and from the masters who proceeded him while stubbornly insisting that he had no interest in the past or anything but nature, the street life of his neighbors, and the harsh realities around him.  Caravaggio’s was a prematurely a modern artist who was obliged to wait for the world to become modern as he was. Unlike so many of his contemporaries and later artists, such as Poussin, Caravaggio never tries to make us imagine that the figures we are seeing are biblical or mythological. Instead he reminds us that we are looking at models, theatrically lit and posed for long periods of time, often in considerable discomfort, so that the artist could portray a single moment.

Caravaggio did not invent the idea of direct observation from nature, Leonardo da Vinci sketchbooks are full of drawings women and men that he artist made after spending hours following his subjects through the streets of the city.   However, the practice had almost been abandoned among Caravaggio’s contemporaries, who were far more involved in imitating Michelangelo and Raphael than rethinking the relation between everyday reality and artistic representation.

Caravaggio was possibly the most revolutionary artist of his day not following the conventional rules of painting and lighting that had directed other artists for centuries before.  His controversial paintings went against the idealized human and religious experience seen in paintings by other artists and instead focused on more naturalistic painting. 

Many of his predecessors did not paint from real life objects.  Caravaggio revolted against this way of painting and took his real life subjects from the streets, the lower classes of society, and painted them realistically. 
 Though he received much criticism for it, Caravaggio painted Biblical characters as ordinary people.   He wanted to paint from nature and depicted these heroes as everyday people though this outraged some who felt that enough reverence was not given to these figures in his painting. 

He typically used oil on canvas and painted half-length figures and still lives.  He used light and dark lighting effects, called chiaroscuro, in his painting. The lighting effects give emphasis to the shapes and features as well as humanity.   Scholars have proposed that the bold contrasts between light and dark in order to illuminate the focal point in his paintings almost seems to replicate the chaos of his own life.   Even though chiaroscuro and naturalistic paintings had been done before, Caravaggio’s intense effects played a significant role in altering Mannerism through the many future artists who followed his style. . 


The life of Michelangelo Merisi, known to us as Caravaggio, was short and intense, characterized by bouts of brawling, time in jail, banishment, and homicide.

 Over the course of several centuries Caravaggio biography has been subject to revision and reinterpretaton, which mny of information provided by his early biographerd have been expanded into more detail facts by later biographers. Caravagggio’s life has become one of myth- the sinner- saint, street tough, the martyr, the killer, and finally the genius.  Caravggio  rather chose  to have his paintings express his artistic superiority,  rarely  do we hear  him speak with the exception for the testimony that he gave at his trial for libel in 1603.  Caravaggio  wrote nothing about himself, particualrly nothing about his childhood, and  his adult life appears to have included no one who had known him as a boy. Caravggio had little interest in writing, unlike , Leonardo da Vinci , who composed treaties on subjects ranging from art to medicine and warfare. No letters from Caravaggio survive,nor  a sngle drawing or preparatory sketch by Caravaggio has ever been discovered.   We must therefore depend on his early biographers such as Giovanni Bellori, Giulio Mancini, Karel vanMander, Joachim von Sandart, and Franceco Susinno to formulate a biography of the artist. Still there remain  portracted, undocumented periods in his short life as well a direct chronology of his place and date of birth.

One unconested fact however has emerged, that he was not, as once believed, poor and uneducated,. In fact his family was relatively properous. They owned land near Milan, in the village of Caravaggio, where they belonged to the new middle class. His father Fermo Merisi, worked prinicipally in Milan as a chief mason, builder, archiect and majordom for Francesco Sforza, the Marchese di Cravaggio, whose wife Constanza, was a memebr of the famed Colonna family.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, revolutionary naturalist painter, was born in Caravaggio near Milan, the son of a mason, in 1571 He was born in Milan on 29 September 1571 with the birth name Michelangelo Merisi. His father, Fermo Merisi, was a notary of the hill town of Caravaggio some 40 kilometers east of Milan. The family moved to the town in 1576, probably to avoid the plague sweeping the city.

Caravaggio  is beleived to have received at least minimal formal education., which at that time would have included Greek and Latin classics. Decades later, his work would display a lifelong  understanding of religious training. 
He showed his talent early and at the age of sixteen, after a brief apprenticeship in Milan. After the death of his father in 1577 and his mother in 1584 the young artist was apprenticed to the Milanese painter Simone Peterzano. Peterzano was a pupil of Titian and his young apprenticeship would have introduced him to the works of the great artists. He was also exposed to the work of   Giorgione, possibly on a visit to Venice.  During the 1590s period Caravaggio’s technical ability improves remarkably in the studio of Simone Peterzano. Eventually the young artist leaves for Rome, where he will study with d'Arpino in Rome.

Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1592, somewhat penniless with little or no prospects.   Still, Rome during this period was the cultural and artistic capital of Italy, if not the world, and art was flourishing.  It was also in midst of a transformation. The dome of Saint Peter’s, then the largest building in the world, had just been completed, and the construction of the great basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore and San Giovanni in Laterno symbolized the triumph of Christianity. The port of Ripetta on the Tiber opened up the city to the world. Sixtus V had called on all the artists of the peninsula –architects, painters, sculptors, engravers, and goldsmiths to come to Rome.

In 1527, Rome had been entirely destroyed, looted and razed by the army of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Churches and palaces were burned to ashes; citizens were tortured into surrendering their wealth.   More than 45,000 Romans, including artists had abandoned the city which promptly lapsed into ruin and decay. Only in the last decades of the sixteenth century had the city begun to rebuild largely under the direction of Pope Sixtus V, who launched an ambitious program of urban revitalization building monuments, and reorganizing neighborhoods.    Slowly the rich- aristocrats, bankers, financiers, church officials- were actively  establishing  new standards of ostentation and display, cultivating a taste for luxury and ornamentation that expressed itself in  jewels, clothes, carriages, and the decoration of their palaces. Under the reign of Clement VIII, who had been chosen Pope earlier in the same year in which Caravaggio arrived in Rome, the Roman cardinals became avid art collectors and patrons.

Thus new in Rome and without means for lodgings, Caravaggio found work as a painter. However, his entry into the higher echelons of Roman social and cultural life was not an easy transition, often penniless and dependent on the hospitality of strangers, he moved frequently from cheap inns to spare rooms in the homes of acquaintances of his father’s former employer end of his uncle, a church official.

He secured work from the very successful painter Giuseppe Cesari, who was Pope Clement VIII's favorite artist. Cesari secured such a large amount of commissions that he often employed helpers to finish the details on his paintings and so the streetwise Caravaggio   became a painter of flowers and fruit. Scholars have sought to identify the brushwork of the young Caravaggio in paintings of this period, but it seems likely that the he also painted some works completely for his own explorations in this period, which undoubtedly ran counter to the prevailing fashion, and would not have been sold.

Caravaggio soon realized that young artists in late 16th century were in danger of not only being bound to servile imitation of the Old Masters but of losing their idealism and technical expertise in favor of a shallow, superficial manner.
Remarkably, Caravaggio destiny was saved by the intervention of Pandulfo Pucci, the younger brother of the Cardinal Pucci. Fascinated by the Caravaggio’s talent he offered him board and lodging in return or copying religious paintings.  Caravaggio would now have time to spare, painting whatever and wished and imagined.

During the period 1592-98 Caravaggio's work was precise in contour, brightly colored, and sculpturesque in form, like the Mannerists, but with an added social and moral consciousness. By 1600 when he had completed his first public commission the St. Matthew paintings for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, he had established himself as an opponent of both classicism and intellectual Mannerism. 

 During this period his signature approach would emerge. Caravaggio chose his models from the common people and set them in ordinary surroundings, yet managed to lose neither poetry nor deep spiritual feeling. His use of chiaroscuro - the contrast of light and dark to create atmosphere, drama, and emotion - was revolutionary. His light is unreal, comes from outside the painting, and creates deep relief and dark shadow. The resulting paintings are as exciting in their effect upon the senses as on the intellect.

In his Roman paintings, the poor are center sources for his oeuvre; He lived with them and understood them.  In his choice of models he worked his way up from the demi-monde of the world of the honest laborer and the pious devoted poor. Caravaggio's art, strangely enough, was not popular with ordinary people who saw in it a lack of reverence.

Still it would become highly appreciated by artists of his time and has become recognized through the centuries for its profoundly religious nature as well as for the new techniques that had changed the art of painting.  His dramatic manipulation of light, belief in working with human models, and his non-sentimental approach to religious art inspired many artists to come in the Baroque school of art

Though Caravaggio received many commissions for religious paintings during his short life, he led a wild and bohemian existence. In 1606, after killing a man in a fight, he fled to Naples. Unfortunately, he was soon in trouble again, and so was forced to flee to Malta where, in October of 1608, Caravaggio was again arrested and, escaping from a Maltese jail, went to Syracuse in Sicily. While in Sicily he painted several monumental canvases, including the Burial of Saint Lucy (1608) Santa Lucia, Syracuse) and the Raising of Lazarus (1609) (Museo Nazionale, Messina). These were multi-figured compositions of great drama achieved through dark tonalities and selective use of lighting. These works were among Caravaggio's last, for the artist died on the beach of Port Ercole, Tuscany on July 18, 1610, of a fever contracted after a mistaken arrest.

Artistic Influences on Caravaggio

The early works that are attributed to Caravaggio show that Caravaggio had studied many Lombard and Venetian masters during his time in Milan, including Moretto, Moroni, Savaldo, Giorgione, Lotto, and Titan

Simone Peterzano

Simone Peterzano was a pupil of Titan while in Venice.  His debut work San Mauizio al Monastero Maggiore in 1573, shows an influence from Veronese and Tintoretto.  Some of his better known works are the frescoes he painted in the charterhouse of Garegnano.  However, Peterzano is best known for being the master of Caravaggio.

According to the terms of Michelangelo Merisi’s contract with Simone Peterzano, the thirteen- year- old apprentice agreed to live with the painter for four years, to work and pay a fee of twenty gold scudi.  In return Peterzano agreed to instruct his pupil in the necessary skills of drawing, perspective, anatomy, fresco painting, and the trans- formation of pigment into paints so that by the end of the apprenticeship he would be able to make his living as a painter.  Caravaggio’s years while working with Peterzano are somewhat a mystery.  There are no works that have been definitively attributed to that time. .
After the end of the apprenticeship in 1588 Caravaggio’s mother died, and for a brief period, he moved between Milan and Caravaggio, settling, sorting out, and rapidly spending what remained of his inheritance.

Giuseppe Cesari

Giuseppe Cesari, also known as Cavaliere d’Arpino, was an Italian Mannerist painter.  Born in Rome he was eventually apprenticed to Niccolo Pomarancio.  Cesari’s work was popular and he was patronized in Rome by both Sixtus V and Pope Clement VIII.  He completed a number of important commissions including mosaics for St. Peter’s dome, frescoes for the Churches of Santa Prassede and San Luigi dei Francesi and in the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano.
In addition to his religious frescos, Cesari created stylish canvases , that have been described as “ quasi-erotic “ treatments of mythological themes such as Perseus rescuing a nude,  posed Andromeda from the jaws of a predatory monster.. 

His only direct followers were his sons, Muzio and Bernardino.  However, one of his most notable pupils was Caravaggio who worked in his studio around 1593 – 1594.  Caravaggio primarily painted decorative representations of flowers and fruit while under Cesari.  Still Cesari remained one of the leading Idealist painters of his time rather than the Naturalists of whom Caravaggio became the leading artist. 

The Fortune Teller:

Early in his career, Caravaggio was drawn to portray cardsharps, and thieves, criminals at work, pretty- boy musicians, and his Roman neighbor dressed up in costumes and attitudes of noble and saints.

The Fortune Teller, (ca.1594, The Louvre,Paris, Fr.)

The Fortune Teller is one of two known genre pieces done by Caravaggio early period in the year 1594, the other being  Cardsharps . The Fortune Teller and The Cardsharps, (also called the Card Players) were two of the most copied and reinterpreted in the seventeenth and afterwards. The two paintings are the first affirmation of the revolutionary language that Caravaggio professed in Rome in the year after working with Cavalier d’ Arpino.

These are the first of his paintings with protagonists, in the Venetian format, with three- quarter profiles, that Caravaggio often returned. There was a further novelty here; humor. Not only was la maniera ousted but here were street or theatre scenes, are presented in which characters wearing malicious or perverse expressions are depicted. Both The Fortune Teller and

The Cardsharp convey a sense of a con that been witnessed in action, observed, from nature and then choreographed and rearranged to enhance its dramatic appeal.  Both works contain visual references that Caravaggio’s contemporaries would have recognized as direct allusions to familiar scenes from the theater and from the commedia dell’ arte.
In both works Caravaggio’s moral sympathies are unclear. Both his victims and victimizers arouse levels of sympathy and disapproval. Stylistically, both paintings reveal a young artist discovering something new- the sheer delight of fabrics, textures, and meticulously rendering in two dimensions the plumes in the feathered caps.

 The Cardsharps (ca. 1594; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

With The Fortune Teller and The Cardsharp Caravaggio elevated the representation of the world of the street life of his time to the level of that which at that time was recognized as the highest moral and intellectual level of painting, that was defined as being about history, that which in representing historical, noble or religious actions, evoked examples of virtue and beauty.  That these were two paintings in which  the life of the street was  portrayed and translated with absolute  fidelity to the real and which open the Roman aristocracy to him must be viewed somewhat  ironic.

 More importantly to place such humble an individual used as actual models of the subjects and figure of the gypsy   in upper class costumes was daring gesture. For during the period of their creation in 1592 in which Clement VIII Aldorbrandini was elected Pope a violent reactionary movement had decided to clean up Rome’s streets.  In the days immediately following his election, the new pope banned duels and the possession of arms, took harsh measures  against the carnival, card and dice playing , had vagabonds, beggars, delinquents , and gypsies expelled from the city, and prohibited  gatherings of even small groups of people. Prostitution was made illegal on par with homosexuality and a strict dress code was imposed which required everyone from prelates to courtesans, to wear an additional long –sleeved shirt over their clothes: black for priests and yellow for prostitutes.

Of the two early works, The Fortune Teller is believed to be the earlier of the two, and dates from the period during which the artist had recently left the workshop of the Giuseppe Cesari to make his own way selling paintings through the dealer Costantino. 

The Fortune Teller painting can thus be considered a precise illustration of Caravaggio’s aesthetic. He proposed that the subject matter of painting should not be drawn from ancient or modern history and that it must be not be celebrative or commemorative loaded with moral lesson.   Caravaggio’s outlook would become increasingly accepted and influence every artistic genre in Europe. Even his religious paintings became essential to the aesthetic and cultural climate of cities such as Rome, Naples, Messina, and Syracuse.

Radiography has revealed that The Fortune Teller was painted on a used canvas, the many pentimenti itself testify to the fact that there was no preliminary drawing. There are two copies of this painting, both authentic, painted at a distance of several years; one in the Louvre and the other in the Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome. (which technical analysis confirmed as an autograph work).  As individualized works they must be seen as two different variations on a theme not copies.

 Facts concerning the creation of the work varied.  Some historians have stated that The Paris version dated by art historians around 1593-4 and was commissioned by Monsignor Petrignani with whom Caravaggio had found “the comfort of a room”. A few years after its completion, Giulio Mancini, one of Caravaggio’s biographers maintained that “Of this school I do not think that I have seen a more graceful and expressive figure than the Gypsy who foretells good fortune to a young man by Caravaggio.”  

Mancini noted the painting’s enormous critical popularity. The painting was desired for purchase by Francesco Maria Del Monte. The cardinal liked the subject taken from contemporary street life and also understood the sophisticated transposition of gazes  and expressions between the young gypsy woman who is reading the hand of the knight, intent on listening to her words, while she slips off his ring.

Another report regarding its creation suggests that the 1594 Fortune Teller aroused considerable interest among younger artists and the more avant garde collectors of Rome.  During this period, Caravaggio had found a new dealer the French picture dealer Maestro Valentino, who exhibited the two paintings. According to Mancini, Caravaggio's poverty forced him to sell it for the low sum of eight scudi. It entered the collection of a wealthy banker and connoisseur, the Marchese Vincente Giustiniani, who became an important patron of the artist. The Fortune Teller and The Cardsharp both had caught the eye of Cardinal Del Monte, a generous collector and powerful figure in Roman art world, and a great fan of the commedia dell’arte.  Del Monte who lived at the Palazzo Madama was in walking distance of Valentin’s shop.  Upon being told that the Fortune Teller had been sold his attention was drawn to another painting The Cardsharps (in Italians, I Bari—“The Cheats”).

Thus Giustiniani's friend, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, purchased the companion piece, Cardsharps, in 1595, and at some point in that year Caravaggio entered the Cardinal's household.  For Del Monte, Caravaggio painted a second version of The Fortune Teller, based on the work from the Giustiniani‘s version and was commissioned by Del Monte to accompany The Cardsharps..   Earlier suggestions speculate that the Rome work may have been started by Caravaggio and completed by assistant.  However, careful study reveals the work to be an authentic work by Caravaggio.   More importantly as Keith Christiansen has noted that Caravaggio had no workshop, and his assistants were only used for grinding colors or preparing ground.  As such the Louvre and Capitolini pictures are variant compositions on the same themes, not replicas.    The Rome Version is cited in Del Monte inventory of 1627 and in his sale the following year, when it passed to Cardinal Pio and in due course to Pope Benedict XIV.

The Louvre version is listed in the 1620 inventory of Alessandro Vittrice’s painting inventory of  Giulio Mancini. Years later a member from the same family would commission  Caravaggio to paint The Deposition ( now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana)  it passed to the Doria Pamphilij family who gifted it to Louis XIV duding  Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s trip to Paris. Bernini was present at the opening of the case that held the painting when damage was caused to The Fortune Teller from water seeping in, compromising some aspects of the painting.

Bellocori   writing in 1672 although highly critical of Caravaggio includes   a story regarding the creation of The Fortune Teller: “Having been  shown the most famous statues of Phildias and Glycon so that he could  study them, his only response was to extend his hand toward a crowd of men, pointing out that nature had given him enough masters. And to add authority to his words he called a gypsy that happened to be passing by in the street, and bringing her to his rooms, portrayed her in the act of foreseeing the future, as the women of Egyptian descent in the painting. He made a young man with one gloved hand on his sword, the other, held out to her, and she takes it and reads it, and in these two half- figures Michele translated the truth so purely, that it confirmed what he said.”

Caravaggio's biographer Giovanni Pietro Bellori reveals that the artist picked the gypsy girl out from passers-by on the street in “nature had given him an abundance of masters.” This passage is often used to demonstrate that the classically-trained Mannerist artists of Caravaggio's day disapproved of his insistence on painting from life instead of from copies and drawings made from older masterpieces, but Bellori ends by saying: "...and in these two half-figures [Caravaggio] translated reality so purely that it came to confirm what he said." The story is probably apocryphal - Bellori was writing more than half a century after Caravaggio's death, and it doesn't appear in Mancini or in Giovanni Baglione, the two contemporary sources who had known him - but it does indicate the essence of Caravaggio's revolutionary impact on his contemporaries - beginning with The Fortune Teller - which was to replace the Renaissance theory of art as a didactic fiction with art as the representation of real life.

Stylistically, Caravaggio, divides  the composition of  The Fortune Teller into two opposing realms, male and female,  youth and age, so its straddled two irreconcilable worlds, and if  to suggest that the young man’s  ( and symbolically  Caravaggio’s ) survival depends on his instinct for negotiating the perilous chasm  between them.

A serene composition unfolds before us Caravaggio aimed to appease the audience, to make us feel safe with this serenity. Several features conspire to achieve that effect. First is the neat compositional symmetry: each model occupies roughly half of the canvas and mirrors accurately the gestures of its counterpart — the elbows, the head tilt, the angle of the eye level.

Together, the two figures form a round arch, with the plume of the young man’s head-dress marking the pinnacle.
Second is the palette: the warm golden-brown tones of the skin and of the background (mixed with soft light, and complemented by the interchange of whites, greens, reds and browns of the garments) underscore the symmetry to further soothe the audience.  As in all of his paintings, Caravaggio is able to make paint and canvas communicate exactly what he wanted to convey.

There is a clear distinction between the excessive naturalism of Caravaggio’s unselective models and naturalness of his color.  Bellori states that Caravaggio aspired only to the glory of coloring so that flesh, skin, and blood and natural surface would appear real, and to this alone he turned his eye and industry. Most of his contemporaries agree Caravaggio’s was innovative in his coloring. Caravaggio’s coloring was not a servile matching of nature, but required the artifice of art.  Through coloration Caravaggio wants us to understand human beings whose faces resemble faces we know, and who share the same human dimension and experiences.  By making the viewer inescapably aware that we are looking at flesh- and- blood, men and women, pained from nature, Caravaggio emphasizes the humanity and conditionality of the human experience.  Still, Caravaggio determination in his brushwork was to make it clear that he was painting.

And third, the prevalence of round and curving geometrical forms — gestures of the models (the elbows), their hats, the plump peach colored faces and the above mentioned arch add a half-veiled sense of languor. All of these features combined coax the viewer to lower our guards and revel without reservations in this youthful, infused with sweet naivety, scene. Indeed it may appear that a small idyll takes place before our eyes, as if it is all were a part of a dream while tthematically the work is about the duping of innocent, and the betrayal of youth by age.

Conceptually, The Fortune Teller depicts a conversation.  The painting is set at the moment in which the action is occurring.  The tragedy is not finished and the lifting of the young man ring is simply a way to suggest what will happen next.   It is thus far from a simple conversation a despite what appears it stillness, the scenes is far more dramatic. Several things are happening in the work. The painting shows a foppishly-dressed boy, having his palm read by a gypsy girl. .  Caravaggio reveals how a pointing/ uplift finger can focus our attention.  The boy looks smugly pleased as he gazes into her face; he fails to notice that she is removing his ring as she gently strokes his hand; to his ingenuous self-satisfied gaze she returns her own, quietly mocking and sly. The stillness and the simplicity of the composition and it minimal cast of two characters, who occupy a massive amounts of space portray a moment loaded with humor and drama. Caravaggio allows us to look directly into the eyes of the unassuming youth unaware that he is being robbed.

The boy is presented positioned in the center of the canvas, his grand manner wearing his elaborate costume as comfortably and all knowing.   Despite the fact that his stance  conveys authority and control, he stands as if he owns the very ground he stands, however, it counterbalanced by  the young gypsy rather unassuming manner  and not in the least intimidating  that is controlling  the  central action of the composition.

Caravaggio appears to making an allegory on the issue in which age and morality overtake youth and beauty.  While the narrative context of The Fortune Teller could easily be placed in direct parallel to the developments of the same period in theatre, in the painting Caravaggio had also undertaken a path whose origins went back to his studies of Leonardo started during his early years in Milan.  The later development of these studies would be the authentic expressions of sorrow, wrath, and fear that define the figures of some of his subsequent works. With The Fortune Teller, Caravaggio reveals his debt to a tradition that was recognizable to the eyes of his contemporaries and universally accepted that of the Venetian sixteenth century and as Francesca Marini argues Giorgione in particular. The three-quarter view of the painting and the clear and bright atmosphere of this first attempt with several figures was according to Bellori, in Giogorgione’s free manner with tempered shadows.”

In his choice of models mostly from the start of his career Caravaggio he was drawn to portray thieves, cardsharps, criminals at work, pretty- boy musicians and his Roman neighbors dressed up in costumes and attitudes of saints. As Francine Prose suggest that if his art depended on observing nature, on paying close attention to the visible world, there must have been plenty of opportunity to witness the full range of illicit activity in the taverns and streets around him, and to find visually arresting faces and characters that required only a costume change for their transformation from street whores into repentant Magdalenes and virginal Madonnas resting on the flight into Egypt.

 Thus, according to  myth  Caravaggio is supposed to have recruited the first Gypsy woman who walked by and brought her back to his quarters , where he painted her in the act of telling a baby- faced young man’s fortune- and in the process covertly stealing her unwary client’s ring.   It seems unlikely that the first Gypsy woman he happened to meet would have been quite so beautifully and luxuriously dressed- in pristine white blouse and turban, cross stitched in black, as the sly, pink-cheeked, and lovely fortune-teller in his painting.  And it seems oddly convenient for the purpose of the narrative that she and her customer are both around the same age and similarly attractive, they even look vaguely alike.  It most likely Caravaggio despite on his insistence of copying directly from nature  carefully worked out details such as the way the handsomely costumed young man  has removed only one of his leather  gloves to have his palm read. Rather Caravaggio no doubt- precisely instructed   his model how she would proceed, taking her client hands in both of hers, gently and provocatively prodding the mound beneath his thumb, distracting and transfixing him – and finally tactile sleigh hand removing the ring.

The gypsy/ fortune teller is rather telling about Caravaggio’s admiration or rather compassion or even protectiveness toward the remorseless young woman. At a time when the pope and church were instituting increasing punitive measures against such individuals, Caravaggio’s portrayal of her is utterly free of moralism or moral judgment, his subject displays not the slightest trace of criminality, lewdness, hardness or vulgarity. Rather he presented her in noble dress- if foreign.
While her costume might suggest otherwise she remains otherwise a street criminal, while the youth appearance is one of hope and future ambition. They are playing out an act together, while he seems self absorbed and uncertain, she is knows exactly what’s she doing.

Caravaggio seems to express the process in painting is the central importance of the human drama, of a psychological moment, and the way in which an event can be intensified by individualizing, rather than generalizing, the players who enact it. The boy is being duped by the girl (whose traditional attire, the turban especially, gives away her gypsy origin) who slowly but surely slips a ring off of his finger. It is quite an amazing feat that occurs right in front of our eyes, yet almost impossible to spot. Same goes for the unsuspecting victim, as he is being bewitched by the girl’s gaze and charm. We too are drawn into the imaginary, but thick and powerful galvanism, balancing and quivering on the imaginary line between the two pairs of eyes. The theft is the singular most intense moment in this painting — yet it remains almost undetected, as if passing somewhere below the radar.   However, the young man extended hand with one finger somewhat pointing to the fortune teller becomes an continuation of drama, as he points to her, one finger extended, an unconscious mimicry of the  gesture is symbolic pointing at the con woman.

The sixteen year- old pink lipped curly haired smooth –skinned Sicilian Mario Minniti is here included as the central male figure in The Fortune Teller.    Over the years, Minniti served Caravaggio as servant, protector, host, guide and business agent, and as a model for several of Caravaggio's early paintings and related paintings for the Cardinal Del Monte. By several accounts Minitti was probably Caravaggio‘s roommate sharing living quarters in the Del Monte’s Palace. Other speculate during his early arrival in Rome, Caravaggio had spent some time in the atelier of a Sicilian who produced cheap art and it was there that it is believed he met Mario Minniti, the young Sicilian art with whom he lived, possibly for years and served as the model for several of the luscious dark- eyed boys in Caravaggio’s early paintings.

Minniti would later return to Sicily, marry and have children. Caravaggio would later call upon him in 1608 when he arrives in Syracuse in flight from Rome, Naples, and Malta.   Minniti would go on to become a successful and popular painter.  However, while the model Mario Minitti reoccur in many of Caravaggio’s paintings, scholars suggest that the might not have been homosexual given after his return to his native Sicily, he married and had children

Boy peeling fruit (w)
1592-93. Oil on canvas
Longhi Collection, Rome


Boy with a basket of fruit. (w)
1593-94. Oil on canvas
Galleria Borghese, Rome

1596-1597, Oilon Canvas
 Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The key to the painting power lies in naturalism in which it is painted.The subjects of The Fortune Teller as would the later Cardsharps offered something new, realistic scenes of street life, especially with this beautifully rendered attention to little details such as the removal of the ring from the young boy’s finger, or the teenage anxious glance at the gypsy woman. The psychological insight is equally striking, the two figures bound together by the common drama, yet each with his own unique play within the larger play - for if the innocent is being duped,  while the fortune-teller fools the boy, we are being fooled by both actors — by the overall image.  Caravaggio’s greatest achievement in this genre scene (painted early in his career) was to force the audience to disregard the fact of larceny even after its discovery — and possibly view it as symbolic representation of the relationship between men and women.  Scholars have also pointed out the how the painting has reinforced erotic ambivalence that had clouded Caravaggio’s reputation, at least until the l970s.  Whenever a male and female appear together in Caravaggio’s secular paintings, as in the case of The Fortune Teller or in Judith and Holoferness, for example, the implications of their connections are unfortunate, even dire, the man is being cheated or killed.

 In The Fortune Teller, Caravaggio gradually replace the mannerist art  of his period by a specific man, a recognizable portrait from nature, from life, a human being whose wonder and whose understandable youthful  concerns affects us more than we could have been moved by generic figure. Caravaggio had a precise and clear understanding of the critical difference between actor and bystander between protagonist and victim. He deliberately dissolves any space between the fortune teller and youth through the use of light and darkness, proportion and composition in order to direct our attention to the connection between them. Both their presence and their importance, their extraneousness, and their efforts to understand or ignore what is happening before their eyes parallel the momentary shifts and re-adjustments in our awareness of the narrative that is actually unfolding.

Their gazes are locked as the gypsy becomes the mirror image of youth, namely aged, and corrupted.   For her part, there is no reflection of remorse, or guilt. She is simply doing a job that has to be done as efficiently as possible with the least of amount of acknowledged effort. In contrast, the young man is learning, he is discovering the perils of self absorption, the follies of focusing attention on an unpredictable future. Thus, their connection is the centered, eye fixed on each other in which the point of contact is the body (hand) instead of the soul.

The two central figures occupy the entire painting and their size in relation to that of the whole makes them seem monumental. However, while they could hardly be physically closer, yet each is utterly alone.  Caravaggio to make his point emphatic, boldly insisting on true appearance, transcribed from life. He desires that we feel no compassion for the innocent, suffering victim of the occurring crime. The manner in which the gypsy caress the young man while removing  the ring without any perceptible awareness that she is touching a living  human being dos not increase our sympathy even while the actual theft  is transpiring in front of our eyes. Caravaggio has chosen to depict the moment that the gypsy is removing the ring in order to heighten its dramatic intensity.  He further highlights this dramatic moment through the masterful use of light and shadow. Caravaggio’s use of light is rather dramatic.   It would be Caravaggio’s stark contrast of light and dark that first shocked and then fascinated his contemporaries. By deploying his technical virtuosity and his ability for depicting the psychology of a drama, he has been able to pull in the viewer without compromising his vision.

By 1595 Del Monte had both The Fortune Teller and The Cardsharps and had invited Caravaggio to live in the Palazzo Madama and to become part of the household that included numerous artists and sculptors, singers and musicians. While it is possible that Caravaggio briefly exchanged his residency form the Palazzo Madama for Cardinal Maffei’s, it was Del Monte’s collection that received several canvases from this period.

Thus  during the  period which  found Caravaggio accepting lodging at the Palazzo Madama under the sponsorship of Cardinal Francesco marias del Monte who as Tthe Duke of Toscany’s ambassador to the Pope, and in  this capacity, inhabited the Villa Medici. del Monte was open to new ideas allowing Caravaggio considerable range and influence.  As the lodger at the Palazzo Madama, Caravaggio would become a prominent and controversial art, as well as powerful patron.  For the next few years, Caravaggio continued to lived in the Palazzo Madama, supported by Cardinal Del Monte, who had become the director of the artists’ guild, the Accademia di San Luca, and who introduced Caravaggio to prominent cultural figures and art collectors along with Marchase Vincenzo Giustiniani, who became one o Caravaggio’s most important patrons and supporters spread Caravaggio’s influence. Del Monte’s social circle would help Caravaggio obtain the major commissions that would transform him from a gifted artist to a great one, he would ultimately become one of the most celebrated, sought after, and highly paid painters in Rome, and including one of its most allusive and controversial.

As Giorgio Bonsati observes : Few artists have had an influence, directly or indirectly as Caravaggio. When he died on July 18, 1610 overcome by fever on the Tyrrhehenian coast at Porto Ercole he was already famous and younger artists were painting pictures in his “maniera”. Those deeply affected by his work not only drew upon the artist’s technique or the thematic propensities, but equally embraced the underlying spirit of continuous inquiry as well. Scholars have engaged in classifying , distinguishing and recognizing influences  and debate continues  between those who aim to enlarge that sphere of Caravaggio’s followers and those that which to restrict it. While some have defined Caravaggio as a corruptive influence, others have championed him as a brilliant source of inspiration arguably, without Caravaggio the three great painters of the seventeenth century- Velasquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer – would not have been the same. Velasquez saw the artist’s work first hand in Rome. Rembrandt and Vermeer saw what Caravaggio’s Dutch followers brought back to Holland. The various foreign artists who turned to Caravaggio for inspirations from a very early date spread the characteristics of his style throughout France, the Low Countries, and the Iberian Peninsula. In Italy, Caravaggio influenced all great painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

As Prose reminds us part of Caravaggio’s greatness lied in his inspiration and courage to reinvent history and tradition, to re-imagine an iconic text or moment according to his own experience, to bring the sacred down from the realm of the eternal and the ethereal into the temporal and earthy, and to exchange his contemporaries’ fantasy of how the works looked for the observable reality of his own surroundings and his own time.

For Caravaggio it was about affirming the objective meaning of new contents and new forms, of painting tied closely to real things, born of observation undivorced from reality. He speaks to us directly, without any need of translation from a distant century or foreign culture.  He affirmed the principle that, rather than abstract concepts of prefabricated philosophical conceptions, what was needed was the consciousness of reality of things as they are, investigated and explored in their relationship between place, space, and light. The basis of his revolution was his thorough knowledge of art, facts, works, schools, and discourses of the day, his as Francesca Marini reminds us, was one of a superior cultural and historic awareness. That later artists such as Gericault, Courbet and David were informed and attracted by Caravaggesque approaches attest to his legacy and importance.  Caravaggio never followed conventions. He was an uncompromising painter, always aware that something more was at stake.  While Caravaggio’s styles constantly changed throughout his career he never settles for what is familiar or expected.

Selected Bibliography

Benedetti, Sergio, and Caravaggio: The Master Revealed, Dublin. The National Gallery of Ireland, 1993
Christiansen, Keith. "Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) (1571–1610) and his Followers". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/crvg/hd_crvg.htm (October 2003)

Consiglio Nazionale Delle Ricerche. 1982. Agrumi, Frutta e uve nella Firenze di Bartolomeo Bimbi Pittore Mediceo. Edizione Fuori Commercio, F. & B. Parretti Grafiche, Florence, Italy.
Diseuse de Bonne aventure” de Carvage: Paris, Musee National du Louvre, 1977 Catalogue redige par Jean- Pierre Cuzin,Cuzin, Jean Pierre. Paris : Éditions des Musées nationaux, 1977. 
Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985.

Gregori, Mina. 1985. Caravaggio today. p. 200-202. In: The Age of Caravaggio. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
   Hockney, David. 2001. Secret Knowledge: Discovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Viking Studio, New York

Jashemski, Wilhelmina F. 1979. The Gardens of Pompeii: Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius. Caratzas Brothers, New Rochelle, New York.
Keith Christiansen/ Denis Mahon, Caravaggio’s Second Versions, The Burlington Magazine. Vol 134, No. 1073, Aug, 1992, pp. 502-504

Langdon, Helen. Caravaggio: A Life. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998.

Lecoq, Anne-Marie. 2000. Une peiture "incorrecte" de Lorenzo Lippi. Revue de L'Ar 123:9-16.
    Morel, Phillipe. 1985. Priape à la Rensaissance. Les guirlandes de Giovanni da Udine à la FarnŽsine. Revue de L. Art 69:13-28.
    Orr, Lynn Federle, Classical Elements in the Paintings of Caravaggio, 1982, Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of California, Santa Barbara, 1982.
  Posner, Donald. 1971. Caravaggio's homo-erotic early works. The Art Quarterly. (Autumn), p. 301-355.
   Puglisi, Catherine. 1998. Caravaggio. Phaidon Press, London.
   Robb, Peter. 1998. M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, Australia.
   Seward, Desmond, Caravaggio : Passionate Life, 1998, William Morrows, NY

Some Seventeenth- Century Appraisal of Caravaggio's Coloring, Janis C. Bell , Artibus et Histoirae, Vol. 14 No. 27, 1993, Page 103-

 Spike, John T. 1982. Italian Still Life Paintings from Three Centuries. Centro Di, New York.
 Spike, John T. 2001. Caravaggio. Abbeville Press Publishers, New York.
The Fortune Teller at the Louvre, B.N. The Burllington Magazine,Vol. 119, No. 893 (Aug., 1977), p. 597
  Vasari, Georgio. 1550, 1568 (Giovanni da Undine, Painter (1494-1564). The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.) Florence.
   Venturi, Lionello, Four Steps Towards Modern Art: Girogone, Caravaggio, Manet Cezanne, NY, Columbia University Press
   Von Lates, Adrienne. 1995. Caravaggio’s peaches and academic puns. Words & Image 11(1):55-60.
   Warwick, Genevieve, Caravaggio: Realism, Rebellion, Reception, University of Delaware Press, 2006


Donald Posner's "Caravaggio's Homo-erotic Early Works," Art Quarterly 34 (1975): 301-24,

Prose, Francine. Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles. First ed. New York: Harper Collins, 2005..p 8. Print

Leonardo da, Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci/selected and edited by Irma A Richter, New York, Oxford University Press, 1980 Ibid pp. 14

Prose, Francine. Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles. First ed. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.p 16. Print. Chastel, Andre, and Beth Archer.

Sack of Rome , 1527. First ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983. Print. /Guicciardini, Luigi, and James H. Mcgregor. The Sack of Rome. First ed. New York.: Italica Press, 2008. Print

Marini, Francesca. Caravaggio. 2004 2ed. New York: Rizzoli, 2006. 76. Print.

Caravaggio ‘s Seond Versions ,Keith Christiansen, Denis Mahon The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 134, No. 1073 (Aug., 1992), pp. 502-504

Marini, Fancesca. Caravaggio. New York: Rizzoli, 2006. 94-95. Print.

Bellori, Giovanni P. Lives of the modern painters, sculptors and architects / Giovan Pietro Bellori ; translated by Alice Sedgwick Wohl ; notes by Hellmut Wohl ; introduction by Tomaso Montanari. NYC: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Some Seventeenth-Century Appraisals of Caravaggio's Coloring , Janis C. Bell. Artibus et Historiae, Vol .14 No. 27. 1993 Page p 125

Marini, Francesca. Caravaggio. 2ndnd ed. New York: Rizzoli, 2006. 36. Print. ibid

Prose, Francine. Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles. NY: Harper Collins, 2005. 24. Print.

Bonsati, Giorgio. Caravaggio. Revised ed. Florence: Scala/Riveside, 1991. 76-78. Print

Prose, Francesca. Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles. First ed. New York: Harper Collins, 2005. 66. Print.



The Exhibition-

“Caravaggio`s La Buona Ventura (The Fortune Teller): a masterpiece from the "Musei Capitolini", Rome” At the Italian Cultural Institute of New York,686 Park Avenue-New York (between 68th and 69th Street), NY 10065
From May 11 to May 15 - 2011 



Following the New York Presentation, La Buona Ventura (The Fortune Teller) will travel to the Speed Art Museum in Louisvile, Kentucky, where it goes on view from May 18 to June 5.

The painting will then go to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa where it will be included in the exhibition Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome.

This exhibition was organized by the Italian Cultural Institute of New York and the Speed Art Museum.






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