Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio) spent only a few decades on this sweet earth, dying at the tender age of 38, but his contribution to the development of western artistic styles and themes cannot be understated. Once his initial artistic training concluded, Caravaggio moved to the populous and highly cultured city of Rome in the 1590s. Unfortunately, the poverty that had haunted his early years followed him there, and he spent most of the period from 1592 – 1595 exploring the darker (and often criminal) underbelly of the city streets.
Caravaggio himself contributed to various criminal incidents to his life and at one point murdered another young man (Ranuccio Tomassoni) in a fight over an unknown dispute (possibly to do with gang rivalries or a shared love interest) (Link). Even where his works appear to adopt the popular religious themes of the time, he often featured either more gruesome biblical scenes altogether (Thomas putting his finger into Christ’s wound and Judith beheading Holofernes) or used certain models or imagery that cast aspersions on the holiness of the work (e.g., using a prostitute as his model for the Virgin Mary).
Caravaggio brought to his art a story, bringing out the drama and emotions of his characters and thus giving them character. The pieces showcase as many darker tones as light, mixing and melding the two much as he did depictions of lower class individuals amongst those of the upper classes, the crass and the holy. Many of his works involved mischief to some extent. Whether a child being bitten by a lizard; his own self-portrait as Bacchus, the drunk god of wine and R18+ parties; or a fortune teller reading a wealthy man’s fortune (and possibly slipping his ring off in the process).
One of the works that helped rocket him towards popularity was “The Cardsharps” or “The Cheaters.”
Therein, one can see a wealthier young man seated at the table playing a game of Primero with another young boy as a third, older man looks on. This game was one of the earlier versions of what would eventually become the modern game of Poker.
The young nobleman sits calmly and studiously immerses himself in understanding his own cards. Meanwhile the other two men at the table have clearly begun implements a plan to fleece the boy of his monies. The third gentleman gazes over the boy’s shoulder at his cards while gesturing to the opposing player. One can see as he does so that the gentleman is wearing fingerless gloves, a common trick for cardsharps who used it to feel out the marked cards. The opponent, in turn, reaches behind himself to pull out cards hidden within his breaches, clearly giving it a go at cheating his way to victory.
Notably, the painter’s audience is given a glimpse into the scene from the criminal’s perspective, looking at the image from the young cheater’s point of view. While the young nobleman appears calm and emotionless as he begins to peer into his cards, the other two men are waiting anxiously to see their next move. The third gentleman’s eyes are widened, whether in surprise or simply to see the cards all the better is unclear. His young compatriot also appears to be waiting for the next move, staring anxiously and fixedly at the nobleman, going so far as to lean far cross the table as he waits to draw the cards from behind his back.
There is something to be said for the fact that the cheating in this scene is not particularly well hidden; rather the ploy will only be successful while the young victim is too engrossed in his cards and unaware of his surroundings. It speaks both to the innocence and naivety of the victim and the casualness and ease of the con artists. And perhaps to the slight carelessness of the wealthier player for whom the results on this hand may or may not be fiscally significant. Unlike some works that seek to hide or darken the criminal’s faces, the cardsharps stand out in brilliant color with their faces and profiles on full display.
For the modern audience, it is a fascinating realization that the cards the young cheater is pulling out bear the same heart and club figures so familiar on our cards today. And with this comes the recognition that the more things change, the more some crimes stay the same. No matter how many centuries pass by, cheating at poker still continues to grace our game rooms and bars. And the victims of today can find an ease to their frustration with the realization that they share that bit of shame across the centuries with the victims of long ago.