An old man examining a young man's hand

A medical professional, or a palm reader?

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Painting of an old man examining a young man's hand
An old man examing a young
man's hand

Pietro della Vecchia
(a.k.a Pietro Muttoni)
c.1640

An old man reads the palm of a young soldier in partial armour. Who is this old man who so effectively demonstrates the regular method of using early spectacles?

  • Is he a doctor?
  • Is he a quack?
  • Is he a palm-reader?

Are his spectacles a sign of his learning, or a satirical comment on the pseudo-science underlying his actions?

You may click on the image of this painting to enlarge it.

The artist is known to have painted many satirical pictures, often heightening the effect by using a macabre light, a narrow suffocating space, and highly theatrical gestures. One source of intense amusement to his public were his pictures of deformed people. An outstanding example is his series of the Five Senses, including Grotesque Figures looking into a mirror (representing the sense of sight) which shows caricatures, one in spectacles, peering into a looking-glass. He also painted soldiers picturesquely outfitted and throwing dice, playing morra, or having their palms read - all occupations that were traditionally frowned upon. Such subjects had often been portrayed by the Caravaggists, and it is likely that della Vecchia’s pictures were based on those earlier works.

Spectacles often feature in such ‘quack’ scenes by other artists, or may also imply the proclaimed foresight of a palm-reader. The art of palmistry already had a doubtful reputation in Antiquity, and it continued to be frequently ridiculed in the Renaissance. Chiromancy, for instance, featured in several comedies (including Galeazzo dal Carretto’s Tempio d’Amore) as well as in the Commedia dell’Arte. Soldiers and ‘bravi’ were often represented as thieves and deceivers in paintings of Caravaggio and his followers and in such comedies, a notion strengthened by the negative associations evoked by palmistry. 

Palmistry was, nevertheless, extremely popular in some quarters during the seventeenth century as numerous surviving popular almanacs and broadsheets prove. The Const van procognosticeren uyt de Handt, Handtwijzer tot de Chiromantia (Art of foretelling from the hand) is an example of such a popular printed work on chiromancy from the Netherlands. It was believed that the planets controlled various parts of the hand and that studying the lines and mounds of the palm, usually of the right hand, allowed the reader to interpret the subject’s fate.

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