Per Mario Minniti, the model of Caravaggio. A repeated appearance but still little studied (Original english text)


This is a short note for Mario Minniti, who was Caravaggio’s servitore, and accompanied him from the time of their working together in Lorenzo Carli’s shop, near the corner of Via S. Agostino and Via della Scrofa, in 1596. 

From this time, until 1600, we recognise the features of this boy in Caravaggio’s paintings.  And this article  is not about Minniti’s painting career, which seems to have taken place mainly after he returned to Sicily.

Mario was from Siracusa, where he was born in 1577, but he was orphaned and evidently got into some trouble so he left with Maltese galleys that were regular visitors there. He was then about fifteen, and he did not settle in Malta, but chose to go on to Rome  where he  gravitated towards the Sicilian community around S. Maria Odigiatra dei Siciliani, the church in Via del Tritone where Clement VIII had recently established their Arciconfraternità, that was set up with the purpose of helping people in need, a social support system for people from that part of the world.  And he found  casual employment with another Sicilian, Lorenzo Carli from Naso in the province of Messina, who had a shop around the Scrofa tavern, on what is now the Via di Ripetta.  He was prominent in this confraternity, for between 1593/96 he served as sindaco and camerlengo.

There he met Caravaggio, also a recent arrival in Rome, who had training in Milan and so was able to do the kind of repetitive images that Carli specialised in, while Minniti was willing and able but as yet unskilled. There is no indication that he was learning the profession of a painter at this stage. He seems later to have started to learn disegno,  but clearly he didn’t do a great deal of that with Caravaggio, who used the medium entirely unconventionally. His master came from an entirely different background,  was almost ten years his senior, and he too had arrived without connections and without money, but it was normal for a young stray without family connections to make himself useful and work for an employer in this way – there was no question of a girl taking on this role.  And the painter from Milan had a profession, as he had done an apprenticeship in Milan, which was that of a bottega d’arte rather than a fine art training, which is why he had gravitated towards the artisans around the SS Trinità dei Pellegrini rather than the Accademia di San Luca.

We know that Del Monte took on Caravaggio and his servitore together in the summer of 1597, so evidently the painter had kept in touch through the difficult period from losing his studio at Palazzo Petrignani, his accident with a horse kick, his stay in hospital, and his release with no-where to go.

The consideration of this artists’s  phenomenal ability to replicate the detail of what he had in front of him has not been sufficiently appreciated, and Minniti’s repeated appearance in the paintings has not been underlined, although he is easier to recognise than the women who posed for him.

1) Attributed to Belesario Corenzio, detail of drawing with the central figure from Caravaggio’s Calling of St Matthew, Naples, Capodimonte
2) Portrait of Mario Minniti, from G. Grosso Cacopardo, Memorie de’ pittori messinesi e degli esteri che in Messina fiorirono dal secolo XII sino al secolo XIX, Messina 1821, pp. 83-86

He is the young man at the centre of the Calling of St Matthew  in the Cappella Contarelli, and he looks especially charming in the plumed hat and delicately knotted bow to his shirt. So he might be the boy sketched in the drawing in Naples, Capodimonte (attributed to Belisario Corenzio [1]) of the painting in progressi, but it would not pass muster in an identity parade.

3). Caravaggio, Arcadian Shepherd (Corydon) Galleria Doria Pamphij, Roma

But it is on a par with the engraving of 1821 that is generally paraded as Minniti’s likeness. We do not have any earlier source, and there Minniti has a prominent mole on his cheek, which Caravaggio, we can be sure, would have recorded faithfully.

Nowhere is this defect recorded in the paintings, instead he seems an angelic presence, from the Arcadian Shepherd  (Galleria Doria Pamphilj) and its original companion, the Fortune Teller  now in the Louvre, to the angel’s head  next to that of Christ in the Odsescalchi Conversion of St Paul


4) Caravaggio, Head of an Angel. detail from Conversion of St Paul, Odescalchi collection, Rome.

As Caravaggio’s servant he would not have necessarily  learnt the trade of his master, but would be bound to do all the practical services that he would need.  In the Baglione libel trial the painter referred to this ‘Mario’ who had left him three years before[2], and this was most likely Minniti, coinciding with the time he set up with his girlfriend in a locanda in the Via Gregoriana [3].  The eighteenth century biographer Susinno [4] says he left because the found Caravaggio to be too difficult (torbido), and by 1600 he was already living in a hostelry (locanda) in Via Gregoriana, in the parish of S. Andrea delle Fratte, with his fidanzata Alessandra, already described as his wife (for form’s sake), they actually married 2 February 1601 [5]  She was the daughter of Giovanni Battista de Bertoldis from Milan, and she was evidently an orphan as he is described  as quondam, ie the late, and this was presumably how she was free to co-habit, quite unusually.

And the 11 January 1605 document in Siracusa [6] was to appoint a lawyer (Giovanni Battista Bonanno) to give him power of attorney to represent him in possible litigation in Messina and Palermo, which presupposes activity in those places, probably over some time. His collaboration introduced the Sicilian connection to Caravaggio, and this was renewed when the painter was brought (by Carli) to the hospital – Santa Maria della Consolazione – in 1597, where the Prior was Luciano Bianchi, another Sicilian from Messina,  who apparently intended to be buried in the local church of S. Agostino (for which Caravaggio would later paint the Madonna dei Pellegrini). During his stay in the hospital  he apparently (according to Mancini)  did ‘many paintings’ for Prior Bianchi, and his portrait that was however sold at an Easter fair, having been (unintentionally) admired by Cesare d’Arpino. Bianchi apparently took these paintings, done presumably to compensate for the care he received, back with him to Sicily, but no trace of them has emerged.

But the Sicilian connection was significant, Caravaggio does not seem to have much contact with his Lombard roots, but his early friends in Rome seem to come from that southern community. Minniti must have left Rome at least by 1604, the recently discovered Siracusa  document of 11 January 1605 [7]. indicates he had been there for some time. The annotation to the marriage register of February 1601 already reports that he was partito, gone[8].  Apart from this (undated) note, there is no indication of when he returned to Sicily, but his work there does not suggest he was familiar with Caravaggio’s work after 1601, and indeed the latter had not seen this ‘Mario’ for three years – at the time of the  August/September 1603 Baglione libel trial.  And he is no longer featured in the paintings after 1600.

But his presence in the earlier paintings has a chronology, as he aged, and this is a valuable consideration as Caravaggio’s observation is so accurate.  We can recognise his features in the series of paintings up to 1600, and the artist exploited his good looks and his ability to assume poses and expressions that coincide with a growing need to represent azione  or happenings.

5) Caravaggio, Bacchus, Florence, Uffizi, Detail of head

The unusual perfection of Minniti’s face lent itself to depiction without idealisation. The arch of his eyebrows Uffizi Bacchus framing his face and his classic ‘Greek’ nose, the articulation of his lips and chin , and his ears were all measured , no doubt he was just his servitore,  but he came with all the best features central casting could provide He had obviously to perform all service, and an education or training were not part of the deal.  His features however coincided with the taste that Caravaggio’s patrons favoured, and it clearly corresponds to aesthetic ideals rather than a way of life. If there is a sensual overtone to Bacchus in the Uffizi painting, it is not a tribut Caravaggio e to the god of sex, but of wine. This was a form of admiration that was termed Platonic, and was seemingly practised by the intellectually curious members of the society of the Accademia degli Insensati, who met in Maffeo Barberini’s palazzo, studiously avoiding their baser instincts, as their chosen name implied. To start with, they were particularly celebrating what for them was more beautiful, the beauty of adolescent boys, and he actually had an example who worked for him, of the kind of Sicilian youth that would later charm Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1932) four hundred years later in Taormina.

Before leaping to conclusions about where this took his patrons, not to mention the painter himself, we should recall the disclaimer used in many modern films ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this movie’  the trademark of the American Humane Association.  The admiration of male form has easily been interpreted pejoratively, but it was not always seen this way, and there was a definite idealism about it that was at worst a sinful reminder than most had no simple outlet for their sexual inclinations, until marriage, which did not usually occur until the age of 30 / 31.

6) Caravaggio, Victorious Cupid, Berlin Staatliche Museen, detail of head of Cupid
7) Caravaggio Boy with a Basket of Fruit, (Fruttaiolo) Museo di Villa Borghese, Rome, Detail of head.

It is the same face in the Berlin Amor Victorious, and the same tousled hair, but with even more lascivious intent that must clearly have come from the patron who commissioned it (hardly the Pope’s banker Benedetto Giustiniani who ended up with it.).   The same young man is seen  posing as a fruit seller  (Fruttaiol0) in the picture bought by Giuseppe Cesari,  who encouraged its painter to continue with the genre of fruit (and flowers) that was the main subject of this and other works at the outset.

8) Diagram of an ear,

As much as he observed fruit meticulously, he was also equally faithful to details like the eyes, mouth and ears.  Maybe we take it for granted that his boy always had the same curved eyebrows, in the same relationship to the eyes, whether or not they are looking at us.  It is not so immediately obvious that the ears are always the same, and they are as individual as fingerprints. It is useful to look at a diagram of an ear, to take notice of the variety of forms encountered.

In the Bolognese Accademia degli Incamminati Agostino Carracci saw to it that the apprentices had a larger-than-life model of an ear to familiarise themselves with its anatomy,  but Caravaggio was not practicing to be able to draw one from memory, he had the real thing in front of him.

10). Caravaggio, The Lute Player, London, Private Collection, Detail of IRR (C. Falcucci)
9). Caravaggio, The Lute Player, London, Private Collection, Detail

As we look at ourselves, in general the lobe varies from being  attached, or else it hangs free below the point of connection, the helix (at the top) can be pointed, or round.

With Caravaggio’s young man  we are seeing the same ear, from different angles, which is not surprising as he was observant to the extent of not using his experience even of the last time he recorded it.  From the IRR of the Lute Player we can see how Caravaggio proceeded, with a strong outline of the ‘Cupid’s bow’ of the inner margin of the lips, the distinct outline of each tooth, and a faint graphic outline of the outer edge of the lips.

12). Caravaggio, Head of the central musician in Musicians, New York, Metropolitan Museum
11). Caravaggio,Head of the central musician in Musicians, New York, Metropolitan Museum IRR

This is still visible in the head of the lute player in the Musicians . The application of the shadow of the underlip, that of the nose, the dimple of the chin, is also accompanied by the outlines of the folds of skin on the neck, and these defined lines enabled him to subsequently work through the close observation of the tones and colours in-between.

13) Caravaggio, Head of the horn player, detail from the Musicians, New York, Metropolitan Museum.

Mario appears again in the player of the crumhorn on the right of the same composition, where the artist employed Mario as a model for a second alternative pose. It was not an unusual employment  for an orphan like Mario and we do not need to jump to the conclusion that he was also the artist’s catamite.  Even though the artist was mercurial and difficult, it is also certain that his enemies would have jumped on the opportunity to penalise him for such an offence, which under the law could have been a capital one .It is also clear that Mario posed for each of these studies, it was not a situation where the artist developed a subjective projection from his previous observations.   Just as he often started work on a painting with a pronounced accent for an ear, he often orientated himself with the mouth: these features gave him a plan to register the colours and tones associated with them, to produce a mosaic of real forms. .

The face we see has a sometimes pronounced dimple in the chin, and also a marked philtrum on the upper lip (the channel that leads from the nose towards the mouth). These are characteristics that today are sought after even with plastic surgery, but Caravaggio was fortunate to have access to a face that satisfied the ideals he and his patrons aimed for.  Minniti’s nose was also of a Grecian profile  (Detail of right hand Cardsharp) with a virtually straight bridge and small nostrils, the lines seem to extend to the arcs formed by his  dark eyebrows with an unusual symmetry. It is good to see this in the right hand card player in the Cardsharps  but it is there in other profiles too, like the right hand figure at the gaming table in the Calling of St Matthew.  

14) Caravaggio, Cardsharps, Fort Worth, Kimbell Museum Detail of the profile of the right hand player
15) Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi , detail of profile of the right-hand player.

Caravaggio was in fact notorious for representing real people,  and so these faces are of actors chosen by him like a casting director. This was a striking effect in the Contarelli Chapel paintings, where all the heads were ‘from life’ as we read in Celio’s newly discovered biography,

16) Caravaggio, Boy bitten by a Lizard, Detail of head (Minniti’s)

This was an innovation, but it was also an embarrassment as it was an infringement of decorum to be able to recognise  the features of known individuals  in sacred subjects, and this played a part in the rejection of some of the artist’s commissions, some of them were then snapped up by patrons who realised their extraordinary qualities, but it remained problematic for those who could not accept the intrusion of familiar faces in sacred subjects. But the artist used his most accessible model to represent expression, for example to communicate  feeling, as in the Boy bitten by a Lizard.

This is a determined effort to capture a fleeting expression, as well as the extraordinary effects of light and images passing through water in the carafe, the teardrop about to weep, the dewdrop about to run down the outside of the glass.

17) Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, Florence, Uffizi, Detail of head of Isaac.

And action is at the centre of Mario’s face as he lies under the threat of Abraham’s knife as he prepares to slit his throat. (Sacrifice of Isaac) 

On both occasions Mario had to endure ‘fixing’ an expression that was happening, a fleeting moment that a photographer would have to ‘freeze’ a frame for. Although the Uffizi painting is usually associated with a payment recored in the Barberini archives that Maffeo made in 1603, it is clearly earlier, not only the landscape associating it with the Doria Flight into Egypt .[9]

15) Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi , detail of profile of the right-hand player.

The same applies to the screaming boy reeling from the sight of the martyrdom of St Matthew in the Cappella Contarelli.  Minniti obviously collaborated, acting the part the artist wanted to portray, and he had frequent recourse to his acting skills.  But Minniti’s presence in these paintings is also useful for dating; it is clear that he was still a young boy as he is restrained by Abraham. And the usual date attributed to it by payments from the Barberini accounts (in 1603) must refer to another transaction – they do not indicate a subject, and Maffeo Barberini, the patron, maintained his patronage of the artist, who had painted a Basket of Fruit on a Stone Table for him,  presumably early on, as it belongs with the artist’s early activity and specialisation, characterised by the Ambrosiana Basket of Fruit.

These were the ritratti per Barberino that Mancini speaks of, and his words should be read with this meaning in his early paintings – although he subsequently did turn the facility he had for likeness to doing actual portraits. This was also the context of another known Basket of Fruit, the one in the National Gallery Supper at Emmaus.

18) Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, National Gallery, London. Detail of Head of Christ.

This has usually been associated with  the single mention in the Mattei accounts of a payment for a painting of this subject of January 1602.  But the Mattei painting  that was paid for in that year clearly belonged with the other subjects from the Gospels in the Galleria in Palazzo Mattei di Giove, which are all of a wider dimension (including the original Taking of Christ) . The Mattei version of the composition, which has not been identified, was still there in 1638, when Celio referred to it in his Memoria of the paintings in Rome[10]. And Bellori distinctly refers [11]  (it is obvious that this refers to the picture now in the National Gallery) to Caravaggio as still unfamiliar with the iconography, so much so that the apostles are country folk, the host is inappropriately wearing a bonnet, and Christ is beardless.

Not really surprising, as Minniti was not of the age to show a beard, and the magnificent array of still-life is what Caravaggio was producing when he arrived in Rome, which he abandoned as he found success with figure painting. The painting  which was regarded by Bellori[12] as wanting in decorum was however a revolutionary piece of naturalism that would have been a irresistible target for the collecting urges of Scipione Borghese, who had a second version (also by Caravaggio) in his country Villa on the Pincio.  It had pride of place in the gallery in Palazzo Borghese in town, it still bears the inventory No 1 from the 1693 list of the Borghese paintings . It is unreasonable to think that Caravaggio restricted himself to doing a single version of a successful composition, in this case the identification of the National Gallery painting as the one and only (apart from the later Patrizi painting now in Milan)  has impeded the search for the other one that Scipione had in his country villa, or the separate pictures seen by Bellori (1672 p. 208, 213)

            One of the characteristics of Caravaggism was that it took many forms, the artist was blamed for all the sins of the Bamboccianti and even battle scene painters, and few understood ‘un fare così bizzarro’. But various artists were seen as emulating him, including Lanfranco’s pupil Tommaso Donini, who became known as ‘il Caravaggino’.it seems for his use of chiaroscuro. He was of the next generation (born 1601), like Leonello Spada, who Malvasia believed had been Caravaggio’s  model, despite not actually coinciding with him. The appellation ‘del Caravaggio’ applied to Cecco is also to be seen as adjectival, rather than documenting a close collaboration,, but although we do not know the date of his birth , his activity is from the second decade to around 1620,.  The anecdote recalled by Symonds in 1649/50 that the model of the Amore Vincitore  had been ‘his boy’ does not identify him as Cecco, and we might have expected Sandrart (curator of the Giustiniani collection) to have said something, if there was any truth in in the story..  Donald Posner’s ‘Caravaggio’s Homoerotic Early Works (Art Quarterly  XXXIV  1971 I  201 – 24. has coloured much of the appreciation of the artist, and led to all manner of questioning of the company Del Monte (and indeed Caravaggio himself) kept.  For Howard Hubbard in 1983 even ‘the vegetables seem overtly sexual’ (Caravaggio, 1983, p. 37)  One of the most blatant examples of Caravaggio’s ability to produce images to suit his platonic clientele, the Arcadian Shepherd was not even included in Posner’s review, perhaps because it had been wronglyidentified by Denis Mahon in 1951 as of St John the Baptist. Although this was wholly mistaken, Caravaggio’s boy shepherd could hardly  be approximated to a saintly persona, particularly. as he is shown embracing a ram, the symbol of lust.  Derek Jarman’s film produced by the British Film Institute in 1986 took the tendency to further extremes, introducing a sensuality and even violence at the slightest hint by the painter.  A balanced review not only exonerates Minniti (who left Caravaggio’s employ to get married)  of involvement in this humor peccante, but also enables us to appreciate the extraordinary originality of the subjects Caravaggio produced, and his astonishing ability to produce a likeness of familiar scenes that was new and arresting.


[2] He admitted knowing ‘un Ludovicum Bresciano et Mario pittori q[est] Mario stava una volta con me et è tre anni che se ne partì da me e non più di tre anni che non mi ha parlato’ ( S. Macioce, Michelangelo da Caravaggio, Fonti e documenti, 2003, p. 128.

[3] It is not clear that  un certo Mario pittore, che sta sul Corso referred to by Salini in his deposition a month earlier to Caravaggio’s ,about the distribution of the verses about Baglione, was really Minniti

[4] F. Susinno,  Le Vite e’pittori messinesi e di altri, che furono in Messina [1724] ed. Firenze 1950, p. 116-117

[5] See  R. Vodret, Alla ricerca di ‘Ghiongrat’ Studi sui libri parrocchiali romani (1600-1630), Roma, 2011,  p. 21

[6]   A document recently published by Michele Cuppone records him as present there i 11 January 1605

[7]  see note 6 above

[8] See R. Vodret, ‘Alla ricerca di Ghiongrat, Studi sui libri paracchiali romani  1600-1630,  Rome 2011, p. 21

[9]  The payments made by Maffeo Barberini to the artist in 1603/04  (Lavin, ‘Caravaggio Documents from the Barberini Archive, Burlington Magazine,  v. 109, 1967,  p. 470-473) do not indicate the subject of the picture(s) paid for, and the Uffizi painting must be earlier, like the portrait of Maffeo in the Corsini collection, Florence Mancini refers to the ritratti that Caravaggio did ‘for Barberini’, and these were not portraits but works painted ‘dal naturale’

[10] Gaspare Celio, Memoria dell nomi dell’Artefici delle Pitture, che sono in alcune Chiese, e Palazzi di Roma  Naples 1638, p. 134.

[11] Bellori, Vite, 1672, p.213.  Nella Cena in Emaus, oltre le forme rustiche della due apostoli e del Signore figurato giovine senza barba, vi assiste l’oste con la cuffia in capo, e nella mensa vi è un piatto d’uve, fichi melagrane fuori di stagione.  These are mistakes that would become much less likely after his stay in Palazzo Madama, where there were many voices to correct him.

[12] ‘se bene mancano nella parte di decoro, degenerando spesso Michele nelle forme umili e volgari (Bellori, ibid., p.208.