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Art review: Cecco del Caravaggio: A model pupil, at the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

21 April 2023

This fine show sheds light on Caravaggio and an able pupil, says Nicholas Cranfield

museo del prado

Girl with Doves (c.1620-22) by Francesco Boneri, called Cecco del Caravaggio, on loan from the Prado Museum, Madrid

Girl with Doves (c.1620-22) by Francesco Boneri, called Cecco del Caravaggio, on loan from the Prado Museum, Madrid

RICHARD SYMONDS (1617-60) grew up near Braintree in Essex in a family of lawyers originally from Shropshire. He attended the newly established Puritan foundation of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but at the outbreak of the Civil Wars found himself out of sympathy with neighbours across the county. He defended his “Laudian” Rector at Black Notley and joined the king’s own mounted lifeguards, but he left the country before Charles I had been put to death.

His diaries show him travelling to France and then continuing on the Grand Tour to Rome, where he lived for 19 months. His antiquarian interest can first be seen in is notes of churches and monuments in Oxfordshire and Berkshire (British Library, Harley MSS. 964, 965) and later in the notebooks that he kept in Italy, recording painters and their artistic practice.

There, Symonds knew Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and, c.1650, he visited Cardinal Giustiniani’s collection, noting the model for the Cupid painted by Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio from his Lombard home town (1571-1610), the Amor Vincitore (now Berlin), “Checco del Caravaggio tis calld among the painters twas his boy haire darke, 2 wings rare, compasses liute violin & armes & laurel . . . it was ye body & face of his owne boy or servant thait laid with him.”

This was not the first time that Cecco del Caravaggio (c.?1586/7-?1620) entered the historical record as a painter, not just as a model; we now know from his admission to the artists’ guild in Rome in 1619 that his name was Francesco Boneri and that he came from Alzano in Lombardy.

This is the first monographic exhibition showing 19 of the 25 paintings that have so far been recognised. It fittingly celebrates a local artist in Bergamo, the joint City of Culture (with Brescia) in Italy 2023. We still do not know when or where he died, and it is possible that he returned to his native Lombardy or even worked in Spain in the 1620s.

adicorbettaInterior with Still Life and Young Man with Flute (c.1615-16), by Francesco Boneri, called Cecco del Caravaggio, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Other near-contemporaries recalled Cecco as being the better-known Lombard painter’s boy (“Caravaggino”). Caravaggio’s digs in Rome and later in Naples, which included the Sicilian-born painter Mario Minitti (1577-1640), who had also served as a model, would have been financially stretched. In 1995, a male Westminster MP was driven to share a bed with another man in France “to save money”.

The last time I stayed in Bergamo (on my own, I add) was during a Milan Fashion Week. Something of the cosmopolitan glamour spilled out beyond the city of the Viscontis and Borromeos. The women wore the velvets and satins captured so well by the Venetian-born Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556/7), and their menfolk, in designer suits and ties, looked every inch the models of G. B. Moroni (1520-78). Maybe they were not the lawyers of the day, but their faces were immediately recognisable. Italy remains a remarkably regional country, and facial types in the street have not changed in 500 years.

That was in April 2017. Since then, the pandemic has cut a swath across this region and it is appropriate that Bergamo now celebrates. In the Accademia Carrara, with newly refurbished galleries for the permanent collection (seven paintings by Lotto and 13 of Moroni’s enigmatic, but realistic, portraits are currently on show), this fascinating show of Francesco Boneri has been running this year.

Pinacoteca Capitolia, RomaMichelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, St John the Baptist (1602-03), for which Francesco Boneri was the model. Now replace in the exhibition by David with the Head of Goliath (1606, Galleria Borghese, Rome)

This builds on a previous exhibition (2020), when Simone Peterzano (1535-99) was celebrated as the apprentice master of Caravaggio, between 1584 and 1588. Here, it is Caravaggio’s turn to be shown off as a pupil master.

In the first room, alongside two portraits thought to depict Cecco in his twenties, smartly turned out in black suit and ruff, one a possible self-portrait, the other a joint friendship portrait by Bartolomeo Manfredi, is Caravaggio’s Roman masterpiece of the Capitoline Museum, a very naked St John the Baptist (or is it the shepherd boy Corydon?).

It is the only painting by Caravaggio brought here, although we know that Cecco modelled also for the Berlin Cupid, a full-frontal brash portrayal that puts me in mind of Lucian Freud’s use of his model and muse Celia Paul; the angel in the first version of The Conversion of St Paul (Odescalchi Collection, Rome); and the fleeing acolyte, who screams at the hiericide of St Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome).

What singles out this show is twofold. This may not be a blockbuster show if we are thinking in terms of the Vermeer in Amsterdam or the hype around the Tate’s Cézanne, with or without an accent, but it is, none the less, wide-reaching and vital. It is grounded in recent and continuing scholarship and staged with both panache and a careful realisation that the paintings, not all by Cecco, can speak for themselves.

Second, it puts the Lombard artist on an international stage where he can more than hold his own. True, Chicago has not loaned the great Resurrection that shows perfectly the younger artist’s indebtedness to Caravaggio in Naples as we think of the Seven Acts of Mercy, but it pairs off the two versions of The Instrument Maker (Athens and London, Apsley House), while, to my own ignorant surprise, Bratislava lends an extraordinary piece, The Road to Calvary (1611/12).

As Boneri matured after his master’s death, his paintings challenged and explored existing conventions. On the Via Dolorosa, Jesus falls beneath the weight of the cross and looks out at us with an abject cry for help, even though Simon of Cyrene appears to take the weight. Behind him stands Veronica, handkerchief at the ready. Leading the rabble are two near-naked criminals, only one of whom (presumably the Good Thief) turns back as if he has just heard Jesus stumble.

In Christ and the Moneychangers (Berlin), Jesus hurtles down a temple staircase, about to flail the moneychangers, who number 12. One is already sprawled on the lower steps beneath Christ’s feet while another sits aghast at his bench, his legs awkwardly akimbo to accommodate his bulging sporran. An overturned pot of coins is at his feet. Neither could have been painted by Caravaggio (they are too crowded, for a start), but neither could have been painted without Caravaggio.

Mauro CoenMichelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (1606), on loan from the Galleria Borghese, Rome. This painting has now replaced the Capitoline St John the Baptist in the exhibition

Repeatedly, that became apparent. Superficially, the Vienna Tribute Money borrows a composition from the master, for the Call of the Apostles Andrew and Peter (HM The King). Jesus indicates the two coins held out to him while his other hand makes the internationally recognised sign, thumb upwards to point to God.

But who is challenging Him? The thirty-something-year-old who holds out his palm is not a Doctor of the Law, while his older friend, with a handful of cash, is not, either. These are just local men; it could be an argument over splitting the bill. Behind St Peter, an old woman crowds in on the scene (his wife, or mother-in-law?; Mark 1.30, 31), her head nestling on his shoulder as she strains to get a better look. Who is she?

The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, from Warsaw, is a canvas previously attributed to Valentin de Bourgogne, whom Cecco may have taught. It is a foreshortened composition, deliberately copying Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St Ursula (Gallerie d’Italia, Naples). Cecco is subverting the history of saints as the Roman legionary makes to pluck out the offending arrow, fired by one of his own men.

Occasionally, Cecco betrayed his master’s skills; two overweight teenagers lurch forward to drink at a phallic water spout, copied from a lost original by Caravaggio; one is a St John the Baptist at the Fountain (Venice, collezione Pizzi), the other Cupid (Milan, collezione Koelliker). Merisi’s own anatomical understanding was limited, but the posture of these two is ungainly and unworkable. Neither is a work that Cecco would have proudly shown his own pupil Valentin, whose Death of Hyacinth (Cherbourg) is so tellingly observed. But then we all have good and bad days.


“Cecco del Caravaggio: A model pupil” is at the Accademia Carrara, piazza Giacomo Carrara, 82, Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy, until 4 June.


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