The Fortune Teller (Caravaggio)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Fortune Teller is a painting by Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It exists in two versions, both by Caravaggio, the first from 1594 (now in the Musei Capitolini in Rome), the second from 1595 in the (Louvre museum, Paris). The dates in both cases are disputed.

The Fortune Teller is one of two known genre pieces done by Caravaggio in the year 1594, the other being Cardsharps. 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 painting shows a foppishly-dressed boy (in the second version the model is believed to be Caravaggio's companion, the Sicilian painter Mario Minniti), having his palm read by a gypsy girl. 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.

Caravaggio's biographer Giovanni Pietro Bellori tells that the artist picked the gypsy girl out from passers-by on the street in order to demonstrate that he had no need to copy the works of the masters from antiquity: "(W)hen he was shown the most famous statues of Phidias and Glykon in order that he might use them as models, his only answer was to point towards a crowd of people saying that 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.

The 1594 Fortune Teller aroused considerable interest among younger artists and the more avant garde collectors of Rome, but, 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. 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, copied from the Giustiniani but with certain changes. The undifferentiated background of the 1594 version becomes a real wall broken by the shadows of a half-drawn curtain and a window sash, and the figures more completely fill the space and defining it in three dimensions. The light is more radiant, the cloth of the boy's doublet and the girl's sleeves more finely textured. The dupe becomes more child-like and more innocently vulnerable, the girl less wary-looking, leaning in towards him, more in command of the situation. The man's sword at Mario's boyish hip now juts out towards the viewer, defining the scene in real space, and seems more a danger to himself than to any possible opponent.

The Louvre (1595) version provides the main illustration to this article. The 1594 version in the Musei Capitolini is in poor condition, but the Louvre version is well preserved and was cleaned in 1984/85.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Fortune Teller (Caravaggio)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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