Pietro Paolini was a key exponent of Tuscan Caravaggism, developing a highly idiosyncratic body of work that singled him out as a leading figure in the Lucchese school. Details of his early life are scarce, though he is known to have trained with Angelo Caroselli in Rome in the 1620s, where he was exposed to the work of the second generation of Italian and northern European followers of Caravaggio, notably Bartolomeo Manfredi and Valentin de Boulogne.
The artist’s biographer Filippo Baldinucci described him as a ‘pittore di gran bizzarria, e di nobile invenzione’ (F. Baldinucci, Notizie dei Professori del Disegno da Cimabue in qua, Florence, 1728, p. 365), a sentiment borne out in this striking work; while the action is crowded into the left half of the composition, the right side is dominated by the theatrically lit profile and red cap of the cardsharp. The chess board, shown precariously balanced on an unused dice shaker, serves a dual purpose: the strong diagonal of the checkered surface leads the viewer’s eye to the hands of the gull while providing his opponent with a prop under which he can hide his cards, an act of trickery in which the viewer is equally complicit. This detail and a similar Anatolian carpet reappear in Paolini’s Cardsharps or Christ’s Parable of the Prodigal Son in a private collection (see B. Nicolson, Caravaggism in Europe, Oxford, 1979, I, p. 153, no. 378).
The popularity of low-life subject pictures that were taken up by Caravaggio and his followers was reflected in the vogue for picaresque and rogue literature that swept through Europe in the first half of the 17th century. Paolini’s composition clearly reveals a knowledge of Caravaggio’s celebrated Cardsharps (fig. 1; Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum), painted c. 1595 and soon after acquired by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte along with the artist’s Gypsy Fortune Teller, now in the Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome. In both artists’ treatment of the subject, the cardsharp is shown with his back partly-turned to the viewer, while his standing accomplice appears to signal behind the ingenuous young boy. Whereas Caravaggio’s cardsharps are shown in raffish finery, no doubt part of the act to entice their foppish victim, Paolini’s protagonists are shown in comically different apparel; the decorous youth with his extravagantly feathered cap is in deliberate contrast to that of his opponent, whose chopped fringe and uncompromisingly thuggish appearance is characteristic of Paolini’s naturalism. It is likely that Paolini painted this canvas in Rome soon after encountering Caravaggio’s masterpiece in the Eternal City, c. 1620-1625.
This picture is listed by the 19th-century Neapolitan artist Aniello D’Aloisio in his inventory of Giacomo Lazzari’s collection (loc. cit.), where it is followed immediately by Antonello da Messina’s Christ Crowned with Thorns (no. 61), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. no. 32.100.182).
We are grateful to Nikita de Vernejoul for confirming the attribution to Paolini on the basis of firsthand inspection, and for proposing the dating to c. 1620-1625, during the artist's Roman sojourn.