The scene is a gambling den. We have a fresh faced, rich young man dressed in sumptuous black silk over a lace-trimmed shirt (on your left). The sleek finery has attracted the attention of not one but two urban predators. The yellow and black stripes of their costumes suggests the image of a pair of wasps buzzing around a honey pot…
Some money (honey) has already been extracted judging from the detail of the backgammon board, pushed to the edge of the table (bottom left). Having failed at one game the young rich gentlemen is trying to win back his money in a card game. His optimism is undimmed if you look at the half-smile on his face as he stares at his cards.
But he can’t possibly win.
The young cheat sat opposite him has a choice of extra cards tucked into his back which he can summon at will. The other gentlemen (his accomplice) peeks over the gentlemen’s shoulder and signals in code to his partner in crime, letting him know what will be required to ensure a winning hand. The older of the con-men, with his holed, threadbare glove and black cloak – perfect for melting into the unlit gloom of Rome’s streets by night – is the spying accomplice mentioned in many books of the time.
The subject matter of this painting was topical at the time it was painted. Counter-Reformation Rome was a breeding ground for all manner of thieves, scoundrels and rogues. One of the tricks they would use was to use cards that had a certain fine indentation on them. An indentation that could only be felt by shaving the skin off the tip of the finger – thus rendering the finger more sensitive to this indentation. On touching the card with that finger, by just feeling it, they could tell what card it was.
This explains why the cheat’s accomplice in the painting above has two prominent holes in his glove. The glove has not been worn out by use. Its stitching has been unpicked, so that the trained and sensitive middle finger and thumb of the sharper can do their work
Despite Caravaggio’s reputation for realism – the above picture is anything but reality. This is not a snap shot from the scene of a crime – it is a piece of lively theatre. The gestures of the crooks are way too exaggerated. In an actual gambling den such overt gesticulation would soon be discovered. The exaggerated body language however makes sense if you imagine the painting to be a scene from a play frozen in time – with the audience enjoying the sense of superiority that comes from knowing that THEY can see everything that the gullible cardplayer is blind to.
The painting is about a world turned upside down. A world in which the crooks and guttersnipes and cheats win and the aristocrats loose. But the message is not straightforward. The rich young man will no doubt return to his palace at the end of the game, whilst the scoundrels robbing him will no doubt drink their gains away and end up in the gutter. But for this brief moment they are the winners.
Caravaggio’s painting is ambiguous as to where the painters sympathies lie. However there may be a hint. He paints the wealthy gentlemen as a person of smooth insouciant indifference. A prop. By contrast, the cheats themselves look alive, lithe and fascinating. The older man’s concentration is absolute with a touch of desperation in it. The younger conman gazing with a fixed gaze at his prey is as tense and alert as a feral cat!
Caravaggio paints these two desperadoes as if he feels with them. As if he is on their side. He understands their desire to feed and drink themselves and to carry out their strategy without a hitch.
He feels with them because he is like them.