It is surely true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery in the case of The Cardsharps or I Bari by Caravaggio. There are over 30 known painted copies of the original painting (now in the Kimbell Museum, Texas), more than any of Caravaggio’s other works, testifying to the enduring appeal of this composition: a well-dressed, fresh-faced young man who is clearly soon to lose his money to his opponent at cards, a streetwise youth who looks ready to pounce, and who has the advantage of extra cards behind his back, an older accomplice, and, more worryingly, a dagger in his belt. It is easy to imagine being part of this tense scene in what might have been a tavern not unlike those Caravaggio himself frequented in the seedy, violent back streets of Rome – one early copy (sold at Sotheby’s in 1983) features what look like two scorch marks on the wall to the right, suggesting a smoky, candle-lit room.
The copies of this composition are fascinating, not only because they evidence the popularity of the original painting from its inception, but also because of the similarities and differences between them and what these may reveal. For instance, in the copy currently being offered for sale, catalogued as The Cardplayer, there is space above the central figure’s head, as there is in other known copies, whereas Caravaggio’s original canvas ended abruptly at the level of the feather in his hat, creating a more claustrophobic atmosphere. It is known that at some point a strip of canvas was added to the top of Caravaggio’s original, possibly to give the composition some “breathing space” for the viewer, so copies which include this additional space were logically painted after the strip was added. Many copies also feature a shadowy area to the left of the elbow of the naïve youth. Was this once a chair or a cloak in the original? Did the intended form become degraded over time so that it could only be conveyed in copies as an indistinct dark mass? The copies are tantalising echoes of the past, hinting at features in the original. In The Cardplayer now on sale, the artist appears to have made a decision to depict the back of a chair in that area, showing that copyists may use some artistic interpretation of the original work they are imitating.
AFTER MICHELANGELO MERISI DA CARAVAGGIO, THE CARDSHARPS. ESTIMATE: £3,000-4,000.
Possession of a copy can carry with it the irresistible hope that it could turn out to be a second original by Caravaggio himself, although it is unproven that he ever painted identical replicas of his own work and some copyists were themselves proficient artists. Certain copies of The Cardsharps have achieved a degree of notoriety in their own right, often due to disputes over their status. There has been litigation over copies of The Cardsharps since the early 17th century, and more recently in relation to a copy now hanging in the Museum of St John in Clerkenwell which was sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 in its pre-restored state. The 2015 judgment in that case endorsed the assessment of the painting as a copy. Like the copy now being offered, the Clerkenwell painting has the added strip at the top, as well as the shadowy dark mass.
The Clerkenwell painting was originally sold with an elaborate English frame from the 18th century, a time when copies of The Cardsharps were particularly popular in Britain, perhaps due to aristocrats on the Grand Tour who were inspired by it (and who may have seen something of themselves in the figure of the elegant but hapless youth?). The Scottish artist David Allan himself painted the composition while he was living in Rome in the 1760s/70s and a copy of The Cardsharps was one of the works left in his studio when he died.
In the 17th century in Italy, copies were specifically commissioned by wealthy patrons and deemed worthy of giving as gifts. Copies have since been found all over the world but the artists who produced them have mostly remained untraceable. What is certain is that owning a copy of this work means joining some illustrious company and becoming part of the long tradition and history of copies of this most sought after composition.