THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE COLLECTOR
This painting of dice-players and a bird-seller by a 17th-century follower of Caravaggio has been grouped together with a number of other works showing gamblers and food-sellers, all of which are considered by Gianni Papi to be by the same hand.1 The name of this anonymous artist, known as the 'Master of the Gamblers' or 'Maestro dei Giocatori', was coined by Papi on the basis of the thematic links between these works, in which figures are shown engaged in various gambling activites such as throwing dice (for example, the painting in the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice), playing cards (ex-Sotheby's, New York, 30 January 1998, lot 135), or morra (formerly Galleria Gasparrini, Rome).2 The Master has eluded identification and scholars have even disagreed on his nationality. Benedict Nicolson considered the artist to be a Netherlandish follower of Caravaggio whose style lay somewhere between Bartolomeo Manfredi and Theodoor Rombouts. A photograph of this painting held at the Fototeca Longhi was classified by Roberto Longhi as being by a Caravaggesque painter of some note, not of Italian origin but probably French and close in style to Valentin de Boulogne.3 The group of paintings brought together by Papi reveal an artist working in Rome during the second and early part of the third decade of the 17th century, whose style was especially influenced by Cecco del Caravaggio and Tommaso Salini and who might therefore be Italian after all.4
A comparison between the present picture and a painting of Card-players, attributed by Papi to the same hand and sold at Sotheby's New York in 1998 (Fig. 1), reveals numerous stylistic and compositional similarities. In both works the players are arranged around three sides of a stone slab whose surface recedes rather steeply from the foreground, providing a focal point for the gambling taking place in each scene. The figures are shown in chiaroscuro; a lighting effect ultimately derived from Caravaggio but interpreted here through the example of Cecco del Caravaggio, whose stark contrasts of light and shade give plasticity to both the figures and still life elements. The figures in the present painting and those in the ex-New York picture are physiognomically very close: the standing and gesticulating youth (third from the left) is not dissimilar to the smiling card-player on the extreme left of the ex-New York picture; and the man seen in profile pushing a coin towards the bird-seller is also similar to the youth holding his cards close to his chest in the latter. That the artist may have used the same models for a number of his paintings is not impossible: this was certainly common practice for Caravaggio himself and for other Caravaggesque painters. The protagonists are for the most part everyday people, characterised with what Papi describes as a brutal realism5, and the lively characterisation of the bird-seller finds parallels with other 'portraits' of food-sellers by the same Master: compare, for example, the set of four sellers of wine, melons, artichokes and eggs, all shown alongside their wares.6 These canvases display the artist's extraordinary ability to depict still life elements - their naturalism often detracting from the figures themselves - and are once again reminiscent of Tommaso Salini. This work is a key component in the reconstruction of the Master of the Gamblers' œuvre and its appearance on the market at this time is particularly important given the recent studies on anonymous Caravaggesque masters conducted.
1. See Papi, under Literature, 2005, pp. 33-49, and pp. 121-22.
2. For the dice-players in the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, see Papi, op. cit., p. 35, no. C.1, reproduced in colour. For the card- and morra-players see Papi, ibid., p. 39, no. C.5, and p. 45, no. C.15 respectively, both reproduced.
3. "il quadro di notevole qualità è di qualche caravaggesco non italiano, probabilmente francese e in rapporto con Valentin"; cited by Papi, under Literature, 2000, p. 446, footnote 3.
4. Indeed the ex-Gasparrini painting of Figures playing morra, and its pendant of Figures playing cards, was formerly attributed to Tommaso Salini by Maurizio Marini.
5. '...un interesse peruna rappresentazione popolaresca, vivace... marcato da un particolare, ruvido, espressionismo' (ibid., p. 33).
6. Ibid., pp. 46-47, nos. C.17-C.20, all reproduced (location unknown).
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