Caravaggio The Musicians
Caravaggio's 1595 painting The Musicians is a stirring painting of a group of young musicians, allegorical in arrangement but in spirit true reflections of a late-sixteenth century musical performance. There is something truly moving about early paintings depicting the act of making music, that most ephemeral and temporal of art forms conjured in a single glance in paint. Caravaggio's eloquent piece, currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, portrays three young men engaging themselves in the art of music, accompanied by a pagan allegory in the form of a winged cherub. The second character from the right, who dreamily gazes out at the viewer, in facial and physical traits bares a great similarity to the painter. Indeed, Caravaggio had a tendency to place himself at the heart of many of his most evocative and provocative works.
The Musicians was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte in the aim of documenting on canvas the cultural climate of his court. One of the artist's most important patrons, many contemporary critics have argued that the Cardinal's sexuality may have played a large role in the work he commissioned, allowing for an unusually liberal vision to come to the surface through Caravaggio's distinct iconography. In the late-sixteenth century, Italy, and especially Rome, was a centre of musical life that attracted composers and artists from all over Europe, a place where churches, colleges and seminaries offered great employment opportunities. Among aristocracy musical talent was held in high esteem, and in this culture Cardinal Del Monte played a leading role. Both he and Ferdinand de Medici were passionate music lovers in touch with the most esteemed composers and performers of the time.
Therefore, Caravaggio's The Musicians could just be a depiction of some of the leading musicians on the scene, the rock-stars of his day. Most remarkably, a number of Italian scholars have recently discovered the piece of music that the artist's subjects might well have been playing. In light of the great precision with which Caravaggio painted musical instruments and sheet music, it has been possible to trace and reassemble the tune that is referenced in the work. To listen to the piece while gazing at the sensual and emotionally-charged musicians is a truly emotive experience, and wonderfully links that most fleeting of art forms with one of the most fixed. It is truly a journey through time.
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