This remarkable discovery is a key addition to the oeuvre of Carlo Saraceni. It is a picture of such daring design and arresting quality that it can be considered one of his most outstanding achievements when working on this scale, adding a new element to the telling influence of Caravaggio on the artistic fortunes of Rome in the early-seventeenth century.
By the time Caravaggio fled Rome in 1606, travelling south to Naples, Malta and Sicily, he had left an indelible mark on the visual culture of the eternal city. His manner and mood of painting, so revolutionary, was adopted and reinterpreted by a vast number of followers, from both north and south of the Alps, artists who all created divergent styles in their own idioms that can each be traced back to Caravaggio’s singular imprint. While his legacy spread far and wide, there have been few pictures that have come to the market in recent times that bear such a clear and close relationship to both the technique and spirit of Caravaggio himself. It embraces the latter's sense of uncanny - and unnerving - realism, whilst employing dramatic chiaroscuro to create a composition that is as compelling as it is startlingly innovative, even to the modern observer.
It is hard to imagine that Saraceni did not have first-hand knowledge of Caravaggio’s Boy bitten by a Lizard (fig. 1; London, National Gallery), a picture that dates to 1594-5 and clearly met with great success, judging by the number of copies it inspired. The present picture appears in fact, to a significant degree, to be a response to Caravaggio's work, with many key elements adapted to his own devices. The similarities are evident: the startled looks on the sitters’ faces, the shoulder turned to the viewer, the positioning of the glass vase lower right, in both pictures used to playful optical effect. The inverted reflection of the sitter in the water of the carafe follows a tradition of artists experimenting with reflected portraits - often self-portraits - within compositions. This was not only a display of artistic skill and ingenuity, but also formed part of a broader interest in optics and theories concerning the nature of light, as it refracts through glass and water, that flourished in the seventeenth century. It could be that the sitter is even alarmed by seeing his own reflected image: indeed his expression of open-mouthed astonishment recalls that of Caravaggio's Medusa (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), who is shown recoiling in horror at the moment she perceives her own reflection.
Saraceni moved to Rome, from Venice, in around 1598, specialising in the early part of his career in small format pictures, before his exposure to the work of Caravaggio began to bear an influence on his work. The careers of Saraceni and Caravaggio in fact crossed paths, with one of the former's first important, large-scale commission in Rome coming about as a result of a notorious scandal surrounding an altarpiece by Caravaggio. The latter’s Death of the Virgin (now Paris, Musée du Louvre) was commissioned for Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, but it caused such controversy that the church Fathers demanded it was replaced. They turned to Saraceni, who painted his own version of the subject in circa 1610, which is still in situ and marked his first documented commission on a large scale. In Rome, he received commissions from the highest echelons of Roman society. Olimpia Aldobrandini, the niece of Pope Clement VIII, commissioned the renowned altarpiece, The Rest on the Flight to Egypt (Frascati, Eremo di Camaldoli). It is possible that this present picture would have been a commission from one such Roman family, although the early provenance is not yet known; an inventory number, to date unidentified, is listed on the reverse, together with an inscription in Italian that reads ‘di mano di / Carlo Venetian’, ‘by the hand of / Carlo Venetian’, the name sometimes given to Saraceni in recognition of his city of birth.
We are grateful to Prof. Dr. Maria Giulia Aurigemma for sharing her thoughts on this picture.