Style: Baroque

Lived: September 28, 1573 - July 18, 1610 (16th - 17th century)

Nationality: Italy



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by Caravaggio

Oil on canvas dimensions 110 × 92 cm Narcissus is a painting by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, circa 1597-1599. It is housed in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome. The attribution of this painting to Caravaggio has been discussed at length, and it is still questioned by some scholars. There are no contemporary sources to refer to, and the attribution rests entirely on stylistic bases. The theory that the picture is by Caravaggio might be confirmed by an export license dating to 1645, referring to a Narcissus by Caravaggio of similar measurements to this canvas. While it is difficult to propose with absolute certainty a secure connection between the document and the present canvas, several major Caravaggio scholars have reconsidered the issue, accepted the link between the license and the painting, and confirmed the autograph quality of the work. Analysis of the details of execution (carried out as part of a recent restoration), stylistic comparison to other works of Caravaggio, and the iconographic innovativeness of the subject all lead to acceptance of the Narcissus as a work of Caravaggio. On the subject of invention, it suffices to mention as exceptional the double figure which—like a playing card—turns on the fulcrum of the highlit knee at the centre of the composition. The work belongs to the years between 1597 and 1599, a transitional period of Caravaggio's career that is still not entirely sorted out or fully understood. It is a moment in which Caravaggio tended towards a magical sense of atmosphere, suspense, and introspection. Still strongly influenced by the Lombard style of Moretto and Savoldo, he is also testing the infinite possibilities of light and shadow. Dating from the same phase of Caravaggio's career are the Lute Player, the Penitent Magdalene, and, above all, the Saint Catherine and the Martha and Mary Magdalene, with which this canvas has many connections and resonances. This is one of only two known Caravaggios on a theme from Classical mythology, although this reflects the accidents of survival rather than the historical reality. The story of Narcissus, told by the poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, is of a handsome youth who falls in love with his own reflection. The story was well known in the circles of collectors, such as Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte and the banker Vincenzo Giustiniani, in which Caravaggio was moving at this period. The story of Narcissus was particularly appealing to artists (or at least the kind who painted for the educated tastes of patrons such as Giustiniani and Del Monte), for reasons explained by the Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti: "the inventor of painting...was Narcissus...What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool?" The painting conveys an air of brooding melancholy: the figure of Narcissus is locked in a circle with his reflection, surrounded by darkness, so that the only reality is inside this self-regarding loop. The 16th century literary critic Tommaso Stigliani explained the contemporary thinking that the myth of Narcissus "clearly demonstrates the unhappy end of those who love their things too much."

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