Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit is a youthful work, which the painter executed before he intensified his dark tones, and in which his ability to render real life is already exceptional.
The canvas entered the Borghese collection in a rather unusual way. In effect, it was part of the notorious attachment of Cavalier d’Arpino’s paintings carried out in 1607. Cardinal Scipione Borghese had been eyeing them when Cavalier d’Arpino became involved in criminal proceedings for the wounding of his painter rival Pomarancio. A search of his home found hidden harquebuses. Cavalier d’Arpino was subsequently acquitted in the Pomarancio case, but was tried and convicted of illegally possessing firearms. He was able to plea bargain in exchange for his collection: all of 107 paintings, acquired by the Apostolic Camera and subsequently given to the cardinal by the pope, his uncle. Among them were two paintings by Caravaggio, the Boy with a Basket of Fruit and the Self-Portrait as Bacchus.
The two paintings had probably been left in Cavalier d’Arpino’s home-cum-studio by Caravaggio himself. Recently arrived from Lombardy, at the beginning of the 1590s, Caravaggio entered the workshop of the famous painter, who dominated the artistic scene in Rome at that time. The organisation of such a large workshop was highly specialized. Given Caravaggio’s naturalistic Lombard background, he was used for painting decorative garlands, flowers and fruit, and still lifes, subjects on which he had certainly developed his talent in Milan. Recent studies suggest that his activity in this artistic genre led to the birth of still life in Rome. It was a minor genre, in which the artist worked at the beginning of his career, before devoting himself to historical painting.
In the Boy with a Basket of Fruit, light is already the protagonist: light coming from behind the boy and reverberating on the fruit, probing the tactile features, the texture of the skins, and the irregularities, including the imperfection of the dry and blemished leaves looming up in the foreground from the basket. They are the antecedent of the famous Basket of Fruit, now in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, which was painted shortly thereafter and was once owned by Cardinal Federico Borromeo.
The Borghese painting also depicts what Longhi called” a humble biological drama”: the withering of the leaves, the shriveling of the fruit, and, in this case, also an intimation of the fading of the beauty of the seductive youth holding the basket. In these terms, the painting could have a moral meaning as an allegory of the inexorable transience of everything in the face of time. However, the interpretation of the painting is very controversial.
The boy’s sensuality and his gesture of offering the basket are clearly evident. In this perspective, some scholars argue that –with his lips parted, as if he were singing – the Boy could represent the groom in the Song of Songs or could be a symbolic image of Christ as Love showing in the basket the fruits of sin (the apples) and offering those of redemption (the grapes and figs).
The identity of the model whom Caravaggio portrays so sensually is uncertain. It could be his very young assistant and friend Mario Minniti, with whom he shared his first years in Rome.