Raichel' s Art History - Lectures and articles with the art historian Dr. Raichel Le Goff

A Question of Iconography

Cecco del Caravaggio

First identified by Dr. Raichel Le Goff for the

Athens Pinakotheke

Cecco del Caravagio

The Boy with the Carnation: An Allegory
of Vice
Oil on canvas 117cm x 98cm

                  Who was Cecco del Caravaggio? Luigi Salerno when writing in 1960 suggests that he was a Frenchman as it is recorded that he worked with "other Frenchmen" under Agostino Tassi in the Villa Lante at Bagnaia.1.

The Caravaggio expert Richard Spear writing in 1972 comes to the conclusion that he must have been Spanish and draws a parallel between Cecco's style and that of the Spaniard, Maino.2.It has even been suggested he was Flemish. More recently, Gianni Pappi has given him Italian origins and the name Francesco Boneri after convincing research into contemporary sources.3.

What we do know, is that this artist working in Italy during the first half of seventeenth century, was so captivated by the paintings of the great Lombard master Michelangelo Merisis called Caravaggio (1571-1610) and so successfully emulated his style, that he either adopted the surname himself or became known by his contemporaries as 'del Caravaggio'.

The mystery surrounding Cecco's identitiy and origins may never be explained, but perhaps the mystery of his splendid painting in the National Gallery of Athens need not remain impenetrable. At first glance nothing more than a genre scene with vague moralistic connotations, upon closer study by Studio Veritas, the painting in the National Gallery revealed itself to be far more intriguing.

The iconography of the painting has perplexed all scholars. It has been called The Musical Instrument Maker,4. which is odd as there are no tools to indicate that the young man is at work on the making of instruments, neither does his appearance suggest the profession.Salerno entitles a less appealing version that exists in the Wellington Museum London, The Conjuror, referring to the apparent depiction in that painting of an illusionist's trick with a small object disappearing from the hand and appearing in the mouth.5.

This major compositional variance from the Athens painting is one of several, the comparison of which would constitute a separate study. It should be noted however, that such modifications suggest Cecco intended the two paintings to have related, but individual meanings. In the catalogue entry of the 1971 Cleveland exhibition Caravaggio and his Followers, Richard Spear called the London canvas simply A Musician and does not successfully decipher the iconography.

It is apparent to Studio Veritas, that both the London picture and the Athens painting were meant as allegories. The pose is static and permeated with psychological tension. In the Athens painting, the boy's furrowed brow and troubled eyes are in conflict to the lighthearted act of singing he appears to be engaged in. Rather than singing, perhaps he is advertising
his services as an entertainer, or protesting against a too meagre reward?  He does not hold the tambourine aloft in a casual gesture, as a practised musician would. The boy balances it upright between his fingertips, as if it were a trophy. Traditionally, the tambourine is an attribute of Vice personified and herein lies the key to the overall allegorical intention.

In Baroque painting, the theme of Hercules and Omphale may show Hercules holding the tambourine. Corrupted by his life as slave and lover of the Queen of Lydia he grew effeminate and dressed as a woman thus becoming the personification of Vice. Analogous to this, Cecco's prettily dressed boy, with tendrils of hair curling on his beardless face and his plump red lips parted, is somewhat androgynous in appearance.

The still-life accessories are carefully arranged in the immediate foreground to arrest the spectator's gaze. We must therefore question their significance further than ordinary objects. The violin has no bow and was not meant to be played by our protagonist, unlike the string instruments which appear in Cecco's Musical Angel

or his Flute Player.6. In the portrayal of Virtue and Vice, musical instruments are most often associated with the latter. Here, the violin is a reference to the link between music and immorality, a concept typified by Erato the Muse of love poetry frequently depicted with a tambourine.

The curious cylindrical object in the centre is a traveller's mirror protected by its wooden lid, the lip of which we see reflected. The tilted mirror rests on both a leather pouch and on a round wooden container, lined with blue paper of the type that commonly held sugared sweets and which echoes the form of the mirror. The leather pouch in turn rests on a leather bound book. It is possible the objects on the table do not belong to him; the chair he sits in, is not his own. The scrolls of parchment, the book, the violin, the flask and what seems to be a type of telescope surely belong to a more educated man, the boy's unseen patron. What need of a fine travelling mirror would a young scoundrel have? Has he taken a coin from the gentleman's purse in exchange for a song and in doing so upset the lid of the mirror?

Allegorically, the mirror represents Pride, Vanity and Lust vall three of which are consequences of Vice and are therefore manifested vin the character of our young protagonist. Pride, in the aspectcof exaggerated self-importance and Vanity which implies self-admiration and an excessive desire to be admired by others, is clearly indicated by the pink carnation behind the boy's ear, his elaborate costume and plumed beret. Lust or strong sexual desire, is perhaps more indicative as a vice belonging to the onlooker who ultimately views the boy as an object of desire.

Decked out in the gay costume of a minstrel, we find a capricious young dandy who is perhaps ill-fitted to luxury as we define in his physiognomy, the coarseness of his birth. In this respect he follows the type of model favoured by Caravaggio himself; the adolescent thieves, street urchins and male prostitutes that abounded in the more colourful quarters of seicento
Naples and Rome. In the plumed hat Cecco's boy wears we are reminded of Caravaggio's The Fortune Teller and The Card Sharps. The flower behind the ear we see again in Boy Bitten by a Lizard.

Such trappings of Vanity are gained for a price and our epicene youth holds a coin which he presents to the spectator in one hand. Money here represents Corruption, another consequence of Vice. The pouch, the mirror and the round container are all left slightly ajar as if inviting the spectator to gaze at the boy's beauty, fill the purse and fill his panier with sweets. The flask is more likely to contain oil than wine by the appearance of its stopper and although both oil and wine can carry allegorical significance, this object is probably included simply as an exercise for showing the artist's skill.

In his youth, Caravaggio had been commissioned by Cardinal Francesco del Monte in Rome to paint young men holding musical instruments in Bacchic poses, paintings that radiate a homeoerotic quality.7. As our observations here demonstrate, the Athens painting can no longer be accepted as an uncomplicated representation of a musician surrounded by still-life accessories. Studio Veritas concludes that Cecco has concocted this painting as an Allegory of Vice and that like the controversial Caravaggio's own provocative early works, it was probably commissioned by and intended to please a gentleman of very specific tastes.

On the reverse of the canvas there is a monogram surmounted by a coronet. Studio Veritas has been able to identify the mark as that of Don Gaspar de Haro y Guzman (1629-1687), a 17th century collector and patron of Velazquez, whose collection which included over 1,800 paintings was dispersed after his death in 1687.8.

When one looks at paintings by Velazquez such as The Topers (The Rule of Bacchus), (1628) 9. with its obvious Caravaggesque references, one can understand why de Haro y Guzman was also attracted to the work of Cecco. It is not known precisely when Cecco del Caravaggio died, but it is estimated that his date of birth lay around 1589-90 which would make him de Haro y Guzman's elder by 40 years. Whilst it is entirely possible that de Haro y Guzman knew Cecco during his lifetime, The Boy With the Carnation seems likely to have been painted circa 1620 which would mean that de Haro y Guzman could not have commissioned the Athens painting but acquired it for his collection
at a later date.

Raichel Le Goff, copyrights Studio Veritas 1991

1 A. Bertolotti, Agostino Tassi, suoi scolari
e compagni pittori in Roma, in 'Giornale di erudizione artistica',
V, 1876, p. 208.

2 Spear, Richard E., Unknown Pictures by the
Carravaggisti, Storia dell'arte 14/1972 pp. 149-161.

3 Pappi, G. Cecco del Caravaggio, Nuova
Memoria, Florence 1992.

4 Benedict Nicolson, The International Caravaggesque
Movement, Phaidon, Oxford, 1979. pp.42-43.

5 Salerno, Luigi, A Study of some Frescoes
in the Villa Lante, Bagnaia: Cavaliere d'Arpino, Tassi, Gentileschi and
their Assistants, in 'The Connoisseur', no.589, pp.157-162, 1960.

6 Angelo Musicante, London, Christie's,
26 November 1971, (whereabouts unknown), Suonatore di Flauto, Ashmolean
Museum, Oxford. Both include violins with bows as non-allegorical still-life

7 see A Concert of Youths, (Una Musica)
ca. 1595, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

8 Paintings included in this prestigious collection
were El Greco's El Espolio, now in Upton House (National Trust)
England and Velazquez's Portrait of Camillo Massimi.

9 Diego Velazquez de Silva, (1599-1660), The
Topers, Prado, Madri


of the Web 1991

©Raichel Le Goff



Cecco Del Caravaggio News