This Artwork Changed My Life: Caravaggio’s “The Lute Player”

Jacqui Palumbo
Dec 17, 2019 1:00PM

Back in February, Elephant launched a new series celebrating the profound impact a single work of art can have on a person: This Artwork Changed My Life. Then, in September, Artsy launched its own series, The Artwork That Changed My Life, exploring deeply personal responses to individual works of art. While this overlap could have led to frustration between the publications, Elephant and Artsy have come together to present a new creative collaboration.

Both sites will share the personal stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy, jointly commissioned as part of the series. Together, both Elephant and Artsy celebrate the transformative power of art.

So make sure you’re following both @ElephantMag and @Artsy on social media, to keep up with each and every installment in this exciting series.

Out today on Elephant is a piece on the Guerilla Girls’s “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?” by Elise Bell.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Lute Player , ca. 1596–97. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The boy with the lute watched me as a child, his cheeks flushed and eyelids heavy under his dark brow. He hung in my grandmother’s Long Island home—a Tudor-style house of cream stucco, dark wooden beams, and stone—in the spare room where I played with my cousins. In that room I sat cross-legged beneath the boy’s gold frame, filling the pages of coloring books and dressing my American Girl doll in her powder-blue ski outfit. Then, at 17 years old and newly enthralled with Baroque paintings, I realized I knew the boy.

I’ve known my grandmother Violet as “ABCC” since the day she patiently taught me the alphabet. A slight woman with a blunt-cut bob, she raised five dark-haired children in a house filled with antique furniture and ceramic figures, a piano at the nexus. I attended the same Manhattan high school for music and art that she did, over five decades later, and it was there that I discovered an electric love for art history. As a teenager who was content with brooding in all black, the moody chiaroscuro scenes of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio became my favorites. His hot-headed personality and exile from Rome for murder made him a fascinating character in my AP art history textbook.


The Caravaggio in my grandmother’s home was a poster of The Lute Player (1596–97). The painting was celebrated as a “rediscovered” Caravaggio in a 1990 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it had previously been considered a copy of an earlier, similar Caravaggio hanging in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg by another artist. My grandmother’s lifelong love for music led her to buy the poster upon attending the Met exhibition. She was pleased that I was studying Caravaggio and told me I could have the poster when she went to her “great reward.”

My grandmother began talking about her death in her seventies, in a half-joking manner that I have never been able to respond to with levity. She has long predicted she would pass at 88 years old. It’s a good number, she believes, the number of keys on a piano. It’s the age she is now. For years, she has tried to give away her belongings as she prepares for her great reward. Though I can imagine her journeying to the afterlife as Egyptian royalty did, accompanied by cherished possessions, such as her Lladró figurines, paintings, and sheet music, she has opted for cremation at her modest Episcopal church. She reminds me of this each time I see her.

I have deflected taking the Caravaggio poster for well over a decade. “We don’t have room,” I tell her. “My husband and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment. Let’s wait until we have more space.” Really, I mean: “Not now, not yet. I’m not ready to lose you.”

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Lute Player, ca. 1595, in the Hermitage Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Watching my grandparents age and pass away has stoked my own anxiety over death. The idea that nothing ever lasts keeps my mind racing into the small hours; it is the same notion that kept Northern Renaissance artists occupied as they painted blemished fruits and foreboding skulls. In Caravaggio’s portraits, he added still-life elements that would become popularized in Dutch vanitas paintings in the 17th century.

The first iteration of The Lute Player (1595–96), painted for one of Caravaggio’s patrons, Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, includes wilted flowers, overripe pears, and a cracked lute, signaling the ephemerality of love and life. The second work was painted for his other major patron in Rome, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. Upon examining it via X-ray, researchers learned that it was based on a tracing of the former work, then significantly modified. Caravaggio replaced the fruits and blooms with a spinettina on the table and a caged songbird, now darkened by time, in the upper left corner; other noticeable additions include a tenor recorder and a Turkish rug in the foreground. The boy himself is the same sitter, possibly Pedro Montoya, a Spanish castrato who performed in at least one private performance put on by the cardinal.

The second version of The Lute Player may not be an explicit allegory for fading love and the passage of time, but those ideas are still present in the aging and yellowed sheet music. An X-ray also revealed that the entire composition was painted over a much older, unfinished painting that had been scraped from the canvas—possibly a devotional portrait of the Madonna and Child from when Caravaggio was still struggling to find patronage.

Detail of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Lute Player , ca. 1595, in the Hermitage Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Detail of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Lute Player , ca. 1595, in the Hermitage Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The second lute player was disregarded by art historians until a paper trail confirmed its sale to del Monte. Why would Caravaggio have painted the same subject twice? There’s no record of why the cardinal, who introduced Caravaggio to Giustiniani, commissioned the second work. Yet the paintings are decidedly different, as Caravaggio came into his distinct high-contrast style and moved away from overt Northern influences. Eleven years after the Met exhibition, a third lute player surfaced at auction; some experts have claimed that it, too, is a Caravaggio.

Today, the second painting is back with the Wildenstein family following its extended loan to the Met, and the framed exhibition poster is finally in my possession. Following an extended stay in the hospital this summer, my grandmother had to sell her home. After helping to sort through a lifetime of her ephemera, I said farewell to the house which was my family’s lodestar. Though she was not in the room, I could hear her asking, “When are you taking the Caravaggio?” as I lifted it from the wall. The fruit will ripen, and the lute will crack, and there’s nothing we can do to halt the passage of time. Like The Lute Player, we change, too, inexorably becoming different versions of the same self.

Head to Elephant to read their latest story in the series, a piece on the Guerilla Girls’s “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?” by Elise Bell.

Did an artwork change your life?

Artsy and Elephant are looking for new and experienced writers alike to share their own essays about one specific work of art that had a personal impact. If you’d like to contribute, send a 100-word synopsis of your story to [email protected] with the subject line “This Artwork Changed My Life.”

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.