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What Is "the Lute Player"?

By Donna Tinus
Updated May 23, 2024
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"The Lute Player" is an old Russian fairy tale about a captured king and his queen who saves him. It is also the name of an oil painting, created around 1600, by the Italian baroque master Caravaggio. Another painting by Orazio Gentileschi, believed to have been painted between 1612 and 1620, bears the same name.

The Russian fairy tale The Lute Player tells a tale of a happily married king who became bored and wanted to seek adventure. He called his army together and went to a distant land to defeat a heathen king who tormented everyone within his reach. The king was captured, and sent word to his queen for help. She was afraid to go, for fear she would be captured herself. The queen didn't know who to trust, so she disguised herself as a lute player, and charmed the evil king with her music. He said he would give her whatever she wanted, so she chose the king, and brought him home.

The Caravaggio painting, The Lute Player, depicts a person of unknown gender, with full lips, soft features, and brown hair. He is playing a lute and singing a love song. Caravaggio painted three versions of The Lute Player. One is shown in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, one in Badminton House, Glouchestershire, in Great Britain, and a third one is in the Wildenstein Collection, in the United States. The Badminton House version was discovered later than the others, in 2007.

The Badminton House and Hermitage versions depict a marble table in front of the lute player, with a violin, sheet music, fruit, and a vase of flowers on the table. The Wildenstein painting shows a recorder, sheet music, and a spinetta on a carpet-covered table. It is thought that the model could be a castrato named Pedro Montoya, who sang at the Sistine Chapel. Some people believe it to be Caravaggio's companion, Mario Miniti, because he was identified in other paintings such as The Fortune Teller and Cardsharps.

The artist Orazio Gentileschi painted an oil on canvas of a girl with a lute sitting in front of a table. This painting is also called The Lute and seems to be inspired by Caravaggio's painting. Gentileschi's painting depicts a female musician from the back, with her head turned. On the table in front of her are a several musical instruments. The table holds a cornetto, violin, recorders, and sheet music, much the same as the Caravaggio paintings.

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