PENSIONANTE DEL SARACENI
(active 1610-1620s in Rome)
Still-Life with Fruit and a Carafe of White Winec. 1615
Oil on canvas, 51 x 72 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
When he published this painting at the end of the 1920s, Roberto Longhi described it as an 'Unfinished meal - the carafe half-emptied, the melon and the water melon cut, the pear intact and the apple cut, and the flies jumping on their own shadows'. Longhi was at this time just beginning his research into Caravaggio and, in his view, the painting, which is impressive but really only of medium size, was by Caravaggio. Who else could have painted a masterpiece of such intensity and of such compositional excellence?
Caravaggio's paternity in this case, however, was quite short-lived. By the 1950s the work had been attributed to an anonymous artist close to Carlo Saraceni named 'Pensionante del Saraceni'. Agreement on this attribution was almost unanimous, but it has not yet to a precise identification of the artist. His probable French nationality and his first-hand knowledge of Caravaggio appear to be the only secure information we have about him. The group of works attributed to him is tiny and the Washington painting is his only true still-life.
In this still-life the table is covered with a silken cloth on which are placed a pear, a monumental slice of water melon, a melon, a plate of fruit and a glass carafe half full of white wine. Two flies buzz at a distance, but they could easily jump onto these recently abandoned leftovers. The dark background is one of the walls of a room, not just a backdrop as it is in the more or less contemporaneous painting in Rome attributed to the Master of the Hartford Still-life. In Pensionante's picture the few pieces of fruit and the splendid carafe reflecting the light possess an extraordinary presence. The soft, almost velvety light is unlike that in Caravaggio's youthful works. It dissolves the forms and multiplies the reflections in the shadows.