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Patronage I: The Western World from Ancient Greece until 1900  
 
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The interaction of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte (1549-1627) with Caravaggio (1571-1610) constitutes the earliest known example of the fruitful collaboration of a queer patron and queer artist with the explicit goal of producing art that would celebrate their shared same-sex sexual desires. The ground-breaking religious works that Caravaggio executed for Del Monte evolved logically out of the Cardinal's earlier patronage of his explicitly homoerotic genre scenes.

Del Monte was a prominent figure in the cultural life of Rome in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and he was on friendly terms with many leading intellectuals, including Galileo. Cardinal-Protector of the Accademia di San Luca, the painters' organization in Rome, Del Monte had a strong interest in the arts and assembled an impressive collection of modern and ancient works.

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Around 1595, Del Monte purchased from a Roman art dealer one of Caravaggio's early half-length genre scenes, The Cardsharps (1594, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth). Impressed with this work, Del Monte invited the artist to live in his Roman palace, and Caravaggio continued to reside there until the end of the decade.

Del Monte's first commission to Caravaggio was the Musicians (around 1595, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which retains the compositional formula of the Cardsharps but infuses it with homoerotic meaning. The depiction of beautiful youths, dressed in vaguely antique costume, evokes accounts of parties held by Del Monte, who is supposed to have encouraged street boys to participate in his musical soirees. Two of the figures look out solicitously towards the viewer, and a figure of Cupid and other motifs emphasize the erotic intention of the work. For Del Monte, Caravaggio executed several other homoerotic images of youths, including the Luteplayer (about 1596, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg) and Bacchus (about 1596/7, Uffizi, Florence).

In the genre pieces, Caravaggio formulated several of the distinctive features of his style, which he would develop further in the religious pictures that dominated his later production. Del Monte was responsible for encouraging Caravaggio to undertake religious subjects, including the Stigmatization of Saint Francis (about 1596; Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford).

The Cardinal commissioned the Stigmatization as a pendant to the previously cited Musicians. Inventories indicate that the two paintings originally were displayed next to one another. Both paintings have exactly the same dimensions, and the figure of the angel in the Stigmatization very closely resembles the Cupid in the Musicians. Caravaggio has radically transformed the iconography of the Stigmatization. Artists traditionally showed Francis in the process of receiving the stigmata. Instead, Caravaggio shows Francis immediately after that event, being consoled by an angel. Showing the angel tenderly embracing and leaning down toward the recumbent saint, Caravaggio envisions the scene in explicitly homoerotic terms.

Del Monte subsequently used his influence to help Caravaggio obtain commissions for large scale altarpieces, in which he interpreted basic Christian themes from the perspective of an outsider. Caravaggio's first major public commission was a series of paintings of the life of Saint Matthew for the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, directly across the street from the Del Monte palace where he was living. Del Monte was closely associated throughout his career with San Luigi, and his funeral was held there in 1626.

As the executor of the Contarelli and a prominent member of the board of Works of Saint Peter's (in charge of all religious projects in Rome), Del Monte in 1599 awarded Caravaggio the contract for the paintings on the two side walls in the chapel (completed by July 4, 1600). The Calling of Saint Matthew depicts the tax collector, seated in a darkened tavern with several youths who recall figures in Caravaggio's genre scenes. The figures of Christ and Peter are virtually lost in the darkness.

Coordinated with the actual illumination of the chapel, a beam of light, entering the scene at a sharp diagonal, represents Christ's call to Matthew. The startling impact of this event is conveyed by the way that one of the youths, dressed as a page, leans backward into the space of the worshipper. The naturalistic depiction of both Matthew and his associates vividly emphasizes that Christ sought his followers among ordinary individuals, not the social elite.

Deeply concerned about the impact it would make, Caravaggio revised the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, on the opposite wall, three times. The scene is organized as a sort of pin-wheel, centered upon the figures of Matthew and his executioner. The muscular, nude executioner leans down over Matthew, whose recumbent, foreshortened figure seems to extend out into the space of the chapel. Also leaning out into the worshipper's space are nude men whom the disciple was about to baptize. Among the fleeing figures in the background is a self portrait of the artist. The only note of consolation is provided by an angel who extends a palm branch down to Matthew; this celestial being closely resembles the youths in Caravaggio's homoerotic genre scenes.

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