When I went to see the exhibit Caravaggio in Florence, the painting that most struck me was this one - the Cavadenti. I'd never seen it before despite the fact that its home is the Pitti Palace and said in totally technical, art historical terms... it grossed me out. Caravaggio's dramatic use of tenebrism (his own brand of chiaroscuro) is particularly effective in this genre scene that combines a theme often found in German prints with Italianate furnishings and facial expressions. Caravaggio must have known the print by Lucas van Leiden, from 1523, of The Dentist, or Tooth-puller. It's an age-old story of swindle as a purportedly-expert dentist causes but relieves pain, while the assistant (in the print) relieves the patient of his purse. The novelty and appeal of Caravaggio's painting for his public at the beginning of the seicento is precisely this reference to Northern moralistic prints, but developed horizonatally, as if it were a scene of real life, and in full colour. What would have been the purpose of this brutal work? Scholar Roberta Lapucci suggests that it might have been painted in Malta for the Maltese Knights' Hospital (Sacra Intermeria), perhaps hung in the section dedicated to tooth-extraction. Personally I'd rather a calming painting of the sea hanging in the waiting room of my dentists' office! But the Renaissance mentality was different than ours. The painting appears to have reached Florence already by 1620 and influenced in particular the Northern artists working here at that time, like Gerrit van Honthorst. Scholars have debated the authenticity of this work despite its attribution to Caravaggio already in an inventory of Palazzo Pitti of March 4, 1637. In 19th-century inventories it's listed as "school of Suttermans", and it had to wait until the 1970's to be reclassed under "school of Caravaggio", since which time there has been disagreement in the scholarly community. Mina Gregori, who wrote the catalogue entry, alligns this painting with other works by Caravaggio and is entirely convinced that it is by him. Source: Catalogue, "Caravaggio e Caravaggeschi a Firenze" (Giunti 2010), pp. 122-5, written by Mina Gregori.
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