This is Caravaggio’s early masterpiece, The Cardsharps.
It (or rather, sadly, a mere print of it) hangs in my dining room, looming large over guests as they eat. Some would consider it a strange choice for a dining room, but I’ve never been too worried about being thought a little eccentric. The Cardsharps bears closer study, both for the psychological insight on display, and for the clothes on show.
The narrative can be grasped instantly – the young man on the left is being systematically cheated by the other two players – but the detail is immense. Our dupe has an almost angelic innocent expression, more akin to cherub than Roman. His clothes are new, luxurious and well-fitting, speaking volumes for his wealth and naivety. The young rascal opposite him is tense and furtive, mouth slightly agape, as he reaches towards the hidden cards in tucked into his waistband. His clothes are bright and new, but also flashy, and I think it no coincidence that the yellow and black striped doublet echoes the warning colours of a wasp. The drooping feather in his cap symbolises a soul already bending in the winds of fate.
The older cardsharp in the middle of the picture has an air of desperation about him. His eyes are wide as he cranes over to see the cards of the dupe and the holes in his glove could be interpreted as either a sign of poverty, or of a practised cheat who uses his fingertips to feel the indentations of a marked deck. He also wears warning yellow and black, and his left hand on the table is inching ever closer to the hilt of his younger accomplice’s short dagger.
The painting masterfully demonstrates Caravaggio’s understanding of body language, understanding of the symbolism of clothing, and his sense of theatricality and black humour. The eye does not, cannot, rest on any one character, but darts around the scene, drinking in the narrative and filling in any psychological gaps. It is an exercise in Theory of Mind; the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.
Both delicate and menacing, The Cardsharps captures a scene of life on the edge, where one false move will result in blood being spilt.