Pietro Paolini’s animated musical scene is a youthful work by the Lucchese artist, most likely completed while he was in Rome. Paolini’s reputation as one of the most individual and inventive painters of his time is well established. Here, the compelling gaze of the lute player, turned to engage the viewer, and the playful look of Cupid foreshadow the uncanny sense of realism that would characterize his work for the duration of his career. This strain of realism can be traced back to his early development when, having been sent to Rome by his father at sixteen to work with Angelo Caroselli, he absorbed the influence of Caravaggio. This very composition is itself based on Caravaggio’s The Musicians, painted for Cardinal Francesco Maria Monte in 1597 and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 1).
Paolini’s The Concert was first mentioned by Gustav Friedrich Waagen in 1866, when it formed part of Vienna’s most prestigious art collection, that of Count Eugen Czernin of Chudenitz (loc. cit.). Czernin inherited the bulk of the collection upon the death of his father, Johann Rudolf in 1845, though he himself added subsequently to its number. It is not clear whether this Paolini was among those inherited from Johann Rudolf or acquired later by Eugen, but according to Waagen’s list of the Czernin paintings, it was at that time considered to be a work by Valentin de Boulogne. Roberto Longhi questioned this attribution in 1958, however, and suggested it might instead be by Adam de Coster (loc. cit). While with Wildenstein in 1960, the canvas was exhibited at the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, and given to an anonymous Emilian hand. It was in an article responding to that exhibition that Benedict Nicolson first proposed an attribution to Pietro Paolini. This idea was endorsed by Anna Ottani in 1963, who noted the inscription on the lute at the center of the composition, PPL for Pietro Paulinus Lucensis (op. cit.).
In her 1987 entry for this painting, Patrizia Giusti Maccari dated it to around 1627-28, considering it to be a youthful work executed while Paolini was still in Rome and at a similar moment to his Marta admonishing the Magdalene in the Galleria Pallavicini, Rome (fig. 2; loc. cit.). The depiction of musicians playing stringed instruments is not coincidental: music was clearly a subject of enduring appeal and intrigue for Paolini, with music-making and instruments frequently playing key roles in his pictures. He depicted craftsmen making violins and tuning instruments, staged concerts peopled with numerous figures and painted individuals playing to no audience but the painting’s viewer. The repeated treatment of musical subjects reflected the great demand for – and production of – stringed instruments in the seventeenth century, especially in Tuscany, and explored the fertile relationship between the visual and musical arts.
Burton Fredericksen in 1972 suggested the painting was a depiction of Saint Cecilia and that the winged figure may have been included at the specific request of a pious patron (loc. cit). As Maccari countered, it would be highly unusual for the saint to be accompanied by other young women as well as a winged figure. Both Maccari and Andrea Bayer point out, however, that the composition is entirely in keeping with Giorgio Vasari’s description of Music, as being always in the company of Love and represented by three music-making women accompanied by Cupid (Maccari, op. cit., pp. 43-44; Bayer, op. cit., p. 70). Bayer further argues that the strength of characterization of the musicians' faces suggests that they are actual portraits, drawn from life, 'evoking an ordinary musical performance' (ibid., p. 25). Maccari indicates this was not the only instance in which Paolini included a winged figure within the context of a musical subject. She cites an archival entry in the 1708 inventory of Stefano Conti (1654-1739) in Lucca, listing a ‘mondone che suona la Chitarra, con una brutta donna a mano destra, e un brutto cupido a dietro’ (‘a bald man who plays the guitar, with an ugly woman at his right hand, and an ugly cupid behind’; B.S.L., Ms. 3299, 14, c. 63). That painting was recently identified as almost certainly the unlined canvas recently sold in these Rooms (fig. 3; sold Christie’s, New York, 22 April 2021, lot 40).
Like Caravaggio, Paolini depicted his three musicians half-length, apparently mid-song, with an additional violin and sheet music in the immediate foreground. In both paintings, Cupid is consigned to the background and the foreground figure is similarly seated with their back to the viewer. Unlike Paolini’s lute player, though, Caravaggio’s figure is not the protagonist in the scene, nor does he turn to face us.