Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) (Milan 1571 – Porto Ercole 1610)
Narcissus

1597-1599

Oil on canvas

113.3 x 94 cm

Palazzo Barberini

Inv: 1569

The classical myth of Narcissus had been frequently represented since antiquity, but the version by Caravaggio is distinguished by its unusual compositional scheme, conceived rather like a playing card: the lower half is a mirror image of the upper, as if the painter had turned the upper part of the canvas through 180 degrees to obtain the figure’s reflected image. The composition is appropriate to the story of the young hunter who fell in love with his own image mirrored in the water.
The device of the naked knee is the visual pivot of the painting, while the puffed sleeves guide the viewer’s gaze to the hand immersed in the water, with Narcissus vainly seeking to embrace the beguiling form of his own image, as recounted in Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His lips are parted, suggesting the climax of Narcissus’ longing: having realized the paradoxical nature of his passion, he wastes away on the verge of the spring.