Early biographers of Bartolomeo Manfredi (Mancini, Baglione, Bellori, Sandrart) inform us that this close follower of Caravaggio emulated his maestro so perfectly that he was often confused with him. Indeed, this work was attributed to Caravaggio right up until the last century, when the first correct attributions to Manfredi (Voss and Longhi) removed some paintings from the corpus of genre scenes which had revolved around the name of Caravaggio. “ Colui ch’a la sua terra fa sublime onore ” (“He who renders sublime honour to his land”), and whose commissions for illustrious families are remembered, was long surrounded by uncertainty and even now much has not been fully clarified, as one can see when comparing the works attributed to him now with those which were reported as his in prestigious collections even in the early 17th century. Even the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, who were punctilious connoisseurs, had paid Manfredi good money — 300 and 400 scudi — for works which well reflected the new change in taste introduced by Caravaggio.
True to the method carefully learnt from his maestro, the structure of the painting — in which the standers-by are arranged in an ellipsis and are seen three-quarters — focuses attention on the tribute money in a hypothetical centre: this is the subject and object of the parable. A gentle play of light softens the outlines and gives powerful emotional expression to the watchful characters in their provocative expectation.
The drapes of the clothes are soft, the impasto of colours is warm, although the illuminated faces and foreheads of the apostles contrast with the various different mundane forms of pagan headwear which distinguish the other participants, on whom the light skilfully dwells or slips away in a fashion which is never mannered, but always openly close to Caravaggio. Never does it lower the quality of this painting, which is a fine example of true, mature freedom of expression.
Giovanna Giusti Galardi