Cecco del Caravaggio, in the Shadow of His Famous Teacher

La Gazette Drouot
Published on

A show in the Northern Italian town of Bergamo sheds light on Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s most mysterious follower. The first retrospective of works by the master’s model, student and lover, this exhibition shows how crucial he was in his circle.

Cecco del Caravaggio, Fabbricante di strumenti musicali, c. 1615-1616, oil on canvas, London, Apsley House, Wellington Museum.
© Historic England Archive
Cecco del CaravaggioFabbricante di strumenti musicali, c. 1615-1616, oil on canvas, London, Apsley House, Wellington Museum.
© Historic England Archive

For a long time, Cecco del Caravaggio’s beaming, boyish face was more famous than his name. He appears in at least six of Caravaggio’s paintings, smiling mischievously in Youth with a Ram, looking pleadingly into his father’s eyes in The Sacrifice of Isaac, grinning erotically in Amor Vincit Omnia, also known as Amor Victorious, or embodying David with the Head of Goliath. But Cecco del Caravaggio the painter remained an elusive figure until art historian Gianni Papi, a specialist of Italian 17th-century painting and Caravaggism, pulled him out of his master’s shadow.

Like any event involving Caravaggio or Caravaggism, “Cecco del Caravaggio, l’Allievo Modello” at Bergamo’s Accademia Carrara is a sure-fire crowd pleaser, but it is also based on serious scholarly research. This is the first monographic exhibition about one of Caravaggio’s least known disciples. In 1991, he was identified as Francesco Boneri by Papi, who has spent nearly 40 years documenting his life and tracking down the works of one of Italy’s most famous “anonymous” painters. The art historian’s keen eye has allowed him to attribute 25 paintings to Cecco, 19 of which are on show in Bergamo. However, despite scouring the archives, he has found scant biographical information. The exact places and dates of Boneri’s birth and death remain unknown, despite some clues.

Cecco del Caravaggio, Ragazza con colombe, c. 1620-1622, oil on canvas, Madrid, museo del Prado.
Cecco del Caravaggio, Ragazza con colombe, c. 1620-1622, oil on canvas, Madrid, museo del Prado.

The Ambiguity of “Del”
Boneri was likely born in the late 1580s into a family of artists in Bergamo with connections to the Merisi family. As an adolescent, he was put into the care of Michelangelo Merisi, who left Lombardy to pursue a brilliant career in Rome. Everything suggests that he is “Francesco garzone”, the boy apprentice who shared Caravaggio’s lodgings, according to the 1605 census. He also shared his studio as a model and student, and his bedroom as a lover. In the notes of his 1650 journey to Rome, the English traveler Richard Symonds wrote that a certain “Checco” was Merisi’s model for Cupid as Victor and was “his own boy that laid with him”.

All the ambiguity of the relationship between the two men is contained in the possessive article “del” (“Caravaggio’s Cecco”): it was erotic, but also artistic. Boneri brilliantly applied his master’s lessons in the composition of his paintings and the choice of his themes. A non-conformist capable of dazzling innovations, he depicted a scandalous, if not scurrilous, sensuality. The historian of ideas Anne-Marie Lecoq calls his homoerotic-tinged masterpiece Cupid at the Fountain “perhaps the most shameless painting ever to emerge from the time and artistic milieu”. This alone gives Boneri his credentials as a Caravaggesque painter. In his reflections on the artist, the collector and art dealer Giulio Mancini (1559-1630) had already attributed the work to the Caravaggio Scuola alongside those of Jusepe de Ribera, Spadarino and Bartolomeo Manfredi, the master’s inner circle in Rome and Naples. When Cecco followed him into his Neapolitan exile in 1606-1607, he moved to the other side of the easel and picked up a brush, becoming familiar with the work of Filippo Vitale, Louis Finson and Battistello Caracciolo.

A Premature Death?
Then Boneri returned to his native Lombardy before going to Veneto, where he discovered the work of Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo (c. 1480-after 1548), whose influence would be as decisive as Caravaggio’s, and translated his almost obsessive taste for early 16th-century fashion down to the slightest details: his ruddy-faced figures are draped in silky fabrics illuminated by low light. After returning to Rome around 1612, he collaborated with Agostino Tassi on decorating Cardinal Alessandro Montalto’s Villa Lante in Bagnaia, Northern Lazio. The marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani, who had commissioned Cupid as Victor from Caravaggio, would be another of his benefactors.

In 1619, Piero Guicciardini, the ambassador of Tuscany, commissioned Cecco del Caravaggio to decorate his family chapel in Florence. When he received the immense altarpiece depicting the resurrection of Christ—the only work that can be attributed to the artist without the slightest doubt—Guicciardini, decidedly a man of conservative tastes, took offense at its hyperrealism. Nevertheless, he scrupulously paid the 100 scudi required by the contract before selling the painting to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, whose respect for propriety in no way dampened his collector’s enthusiasm: the churchman also owned Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, which, like the Resurrection altarpiece, he had bought from the scandalized patrons who had commissioned it. The last known record of Cecco del Caravaggio is the receipt for Guicciardini’s payment, dated June 30, 1620. After this date, the artist’s name drops out of sight. It does not appear in any contract, account by colleagues or minutes of a trial for debts or a duel, unlike his teacher. Did he die prematurely? Did he return to Rome, Bergamo or Naples or leave for Spain? The enigma shrouding what resembles a damnatio memoriae remains unsolved.

Cecco del Caravaggio, Interno con natura morta e Giovane con flauto, c. 1615-1616, oil on canvas, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum.
Photo : Adicorbetta
Cecco del Caravaggio, Interno con natura morta e Giovane con flauto, c. 1615-1616, oil on canvas, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum.
Photo : Adicorbetta

Contemporaries Under His Influence
It was not until 1943 that the great Caravaggio specialist Roberto Longhi pulled the student out of oblivion by identifying the first works of what would become the core of his accepted oeuvre. To Christ Driving the Money Changers From the Temple at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, he added three paintings previously attributed to Louis Finson, which suggest that Cecco del Caravaggio may have been French or Flemish. Longhi praised him as “one of the most influential figures of Northern Caravaggism”.

The exhibition shows that Boneri was not just Caravaggio’s model. His influence on his contemporaries Bartolomeo Manfredi, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, Gérard Douffet and Valentin de Boulogne is obvious in the twisted hands, sharply delineated broad faces and thick brown hair that appear in their works. Cecco del Caravaggio was also a brilliant still life painter, painstakingly rendering the velvety skin of fruits and making the musical instruments abundantly arranged in the foreground of his paintings vibrate. “There is no doubt that he painted many still lifes,” says Papi. “They remain to be discovered or attributed to this great artist who was overlooked for too long.” Cecco del Caravaggio was much more than a student and model.

Worth Knowing

“Cecco del Caravaggio. L’allievo modello”, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy.
Until June 4, 2023.

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