The Hack Painter, 1592–1596

When Caravaggio reached Rome, he was penniless. He had brought brushes, paint, and canvases with him from Milan, but, according to Bellori, he could not afford to pay the modest fees charged by the models whom he then thought indispensable. He drifted into the Campo Marzio in the center of Rome, by all accounts one of the city’s poorest areas. While sleeping out of doors was not too much of a hardship for a young man during the Roman summer, we know from the Venetian ambassador’s dispatches that there was a severe famine in 1593, which began in April and lasted until the harvest. Normally, he could have expected to live on the food doled out to the homeless by religious orders, but because of the shortage of grain this must have been drastically curtailed. He was lucky not to die from starvation.

Fortunately, Monsignor Pandolfo Pucci, an eminent cleric on the staff of St. Peter’s, lent him a room. Caravaggio had to pay for it by some kind of work, which he later recalled with a touch of bitterness as “demeaning services,” perhaps those of a scullion in the monsignor’s kitchen. All he got to eat was a salad in the evenings that, he said with a laugh afterward, “had to do for breakfast, dinner and supper.” But, even if Pucci’s hospitality was scarcely lavish, it enabled Caravaggio to survive.

The monsignor was steward to a sister of the late Pope Sixtus, whose family, the Peretti, were closely related to the Sforza Colonna. It is more than likely that Caravaggio had written to the Marchesa Costanza, begging for help, and that she had asked Pucci to take him in.

He found time and working space to copy some devotional pictures, which the miserly Pucci admired enough to buy and eventually took back with him to his hometown of Recanati. During this period, Caravaggio also painted the Youth Bitten by a Green Lizard, now at Florence, together with a Boy Peeling a Green Citrus Fruit, a portrait of the keeper of an inn where he had once stayed, and another long-vanished portrait of which there is no description.

After several months, he managed to leave Pucci, whom he sardonically called “Monsignor Salad,” having been hired by Lorenzo Siciliano, who was a hack painter and dealer in cheap daubs. Lorenzo’s speciality was mass-producing rough portrait heads, and Caravaggio, so poor that he went almost naked, turned out three heads a day for a few pence each. If any survive, they have not been identified. However, employment at Lorenzo’s workshop had one consolation. Another young painter was working there, Mario Minniti from Palermo, who was as poor as Caravaggio. They made friends and lived together for the next few years.

There is no firm evidence for Caravaggio’s movements during his early years in Rome, but it looks as if he left Lorenzo’s to work for Antiveduto Grammatica, a portrait painter of about his own age who afterward had a modest success with religious themes. At the time, like Lorenzo, Antiveduto went in for mass production. Bellori believed that Caravaggio lived in Antiveduto’s house, painting half figures for him. Ironically, in later years, Antiveduto copied his former assistant’s mature style, especially the violence. Some of his paintings have been mistaken for lost works by Caravaggio.

Caravaggio moved farther up in the world as an assistant to Giuseppe Cesari, better known as the Cavaliere d’Arpino, one of Rome’s most fashionable painters and about to become Pope Clement’s favorite artist. He specialized in historical and religious scenes, and, at their best, his paintings were graceful and hauntingly mysterious. It cannot have been easy working for him; he was vain and haughty. Caravaggio probably spent no more than six months in his workshop. During this time, he painted self-portraits with the help of a mirror. One of these, an odd, sickly little Bacchus(theBacchino Malato), sits hunched and half naked at a table, holding up a bunch of grapes. His skin is yellowish, his face ugly, with thick lips and would-be mocking eyes. Another painting from this period is the Boy with a Basket of Fruit, which has had many highly imaginative interpretations. Some think it depicts autumn, or the sense of taste. Others consider it an allegory of Christ as Love; still others believe it contains a homosexual message. In Bernard Berenson’s whimsical view, “The ‘Fruit Seller’ is a languishing youth in a situation unsuited to his temperament.” Whatever the boy signifies, he and his basket of fruit are a magnificent study.

Although Caravaggio did not work long for Arpino, the association ensured his emergence from obscurity. He became known to the city’s artists and connoisseurs as a young man of promise. His employer moved among Rome’s cleverest and most cultivated men, belonging to the “Academy of those without Senses,” whose members pledged themselves as Neoplatonists to forgo sensual pleasure to enjoy more fully the “celestial and divine.” Arpino also belonged to the Accademia di San Luca, revived at about this time to improve the status of Roman artists; its cardinal protector was Federigo Borromeo, Carlo’s nephew. Some of these discerning minds must have noticed the young Lombard, realizing that if Arpino employed him, he was likely to be talented.

Despite the benefits of being associated with Arpino, Caravaggio developed a lasting hatred for him. Arpino was conceited and overbearing, and nobody ever found Caravaggio easy. Or it may have been sheer envy at the dazzling success of someone still only in his early twenties. Before they could come to blows, Caravaggio left Arpino’s workshop in January 1594, after being injured by a kick from a horse. Penniless, he had to enter a free hospital, Santa Maria della Consolazione, which specialized in nursing the victims of street accidents. During what appears to have been a lengthy convalescence, Caravaggio painted pictures for the prior in charge of the hospital, who afterward took them home with him to Spain.

On leaving the hospital, Caravaggio worked with another widely respected artist, Prospero Orsi, a specialist in “grotesques” inspired by the ancient murals he had seen underground. The first documentary evidence for Caravaggio’s presence in Rome dates from October 1594, when his name and Prospero’s appear as members of a vigil in a church during a “Forty Hours” exposition of the Sacrament. Then he set up on his own, hoping to live by his paintings, but he failed miserably in trying to sell them. To make matters worse, he had to leave a room he had been lent at the Palazzo Petrignani. Once again, he was destitute.

Luckily, some gentlemen of the profession came to his rescue out of pity, and Maître Valentin, a French picture dealer, at last managed to sell some of his pictures. One of them was The Fortune Teller, now at the Louvre, which shows a gypsy girl stealing a ring from a young man’s finger while she tells his fortune. Caravaggio received a mere eight scudi for it.

This was probably during the autumn of 1596, just before a dramatic change in his own fortunes. Valentin’s shop was visited by a distinguished collector, who seems to have admired The Fortune Teller but was told that it had already been sold. His attention was drawn to another painting by Caravaggio, The Cardsharps (in Italian, I Bari—“The Cheats”). During the next century Bellori saw this picture in Cardinal Antonio Barberini’s collection and described it: “He depicts a callow youth holding some cards in his hands, with a head which is very well done from life, and wearing a dark suit of clothes, while facing him a young rogue leans on the table with one hand as, with the other behind him, he pulls a false card from his belt. At the same moment a third man next to the youth is reading his cards and signaling what they are to his accomplice with three fingers of his hand….”

The picture disappeared in Paris in 1899 and, long mistaken for a copy, was rediscovered nearly a century later. It is now at Fort Worth, Texas. The Cardsharps is just the sort of low-life encounter that Caravaggio must have seen often in the seedy taverns of the Campo Marzio. For his contemporaries, the idea of portraying such a scene was utterly new and startling. The collector who bought it was Cardinal del Monte, who lived at the Palazzo Madama, within walking distance of Valentin’s shop, and who was reputed to be one of the most discerning art lovers in Rome.

It is not difficult to guess the excitement in the shop at the sale of a picture to the cardinal. It transformed Caravaggio’s prospects. A summons came for him to present himself at the Palazzo Madama. Del Monte then asked him if he would enter his famiglia, his household of gentlemen, inservitu particolare, that is to say, do him special service as his painter in residence. He would live at the palazzo, and the cardinal would buy his paintings at a fair price. Caravaggio had found the perfect patron.

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