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Gambling Painting: Caravaggio’s “The Cardsharps”

If anyone thought that playing cards in casinos was something that came about in the past few decades, they are off by at least four centuries.  The proof of this can be seen in one of the most famous paintings of all times, Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio’s “The Cardsharps”.  This incredible work of art was painted in around 1594 and depicts three characters playing a game of cards. One of them is wealthy, albeit innocent looking boy playing against a cardsharp who has a couple of cards hidden behind his back.  Also featured in the game is an older man who looks in a sinister manner over the boy’s shoulder and indicates to the cardsharp to help him understand what kind of hand his opponent has.

“Cardsharps” was immediately admired for its subject matter and the ability to portray two opposing characters of medieval Venice – the innocence and beauty (as portrayed in the young card player) and the the violence and corruption (as portrayed in the two cheats).  Caravaggio’s talent was acknowledged by one, Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, an avid collector of art and a patron of artists. So enamored was he with Caravaggio’s work, that he allowed him to live in his Palazza Madama, behind the prominent Roman square, Piazza Navona.  Del Monte also purchased “Cardsharps” from Caravaggio and added it to his collection.

“Cardsharps” changed ownership several times, before it disappeared from the art scene in around 1880, only to resurface about a century later, in 1987, when it was discovered in a private European collection.

Many art historians believe that “Cardsharps” was Caravaggio’s first real masterpiece, and a turning point in his career. Thanks to this painting, Caravaggio was introduced to the elite society of Rome.  Nevertheless, the painter was notorious for his brawling and despicable behavior and had several police records against him. In 1606, Caravaggio killed – either intentionally or unintentionally – a young man, and his patrons could no longer protect him from the law. He fled to Naples, and earned the protection of the wealthy and powerful Corona family, before travelling to Malta and earning himself a knighthood (!). He continued to travel through Europe, earning prestigious and well-paid commissions, but also embarking on more and more bizarre behavior, until he died in Tuscany on his way to Rome to receive a pardon, probably from fever.

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