(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)
Oil on canvas, 110 x 92 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, 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 our 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 the 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 Doria Magdalene, and above all the Thyssen St Catherine and Detroit Magdalene, with which our canvas has many connections and resonances.