Portrait of a courtesan 1597 - by Caravaggio


This was probably the portrait of the courtesan 'Phyllis' listed in the Giustiniani inventory of 1638. If it was actually commissioned by the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani it would have been the earliest fruit of contact between Caravaggio and one of his most important patrons, for the work can be dated no later than 1598/99 on stylistic grounds. The strong, yet not extremely dark shadows, the treatment of the sleeves and the challenging expression of the face remind one of such works as St. Catherine, The Conversion of the Magdalen and Judith and Holofernes. But the 'Phyllis' was probably painted earlier than any of these: it is worth noting that the pose of her hand resembles that of the Virgin in The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The flowers which she holds so elegantly at her breast are definitely jasmine, symbol of erotic love, and certainly not orange blossom, symbol of'pure' love, as Voss and others have claimed. Voss's suggestion that the picture represented Caterina Campani, wife of Caravaggio's friend, the architect Onorio Longhi, is, therefore, unacceptable, while the old description in the Giustiniani inventory would seem to make sense of the posy of jasmine.