Domenico Fetti trained in his native Rome under Ludovico Cardi (known as Il Cigoli, 1559–1613), absorbing myriad influences including the luminous, painterly approaches of Rubens (1577–1640), Federico Barocci (ca. 1533–1612), Orazio Borgianni (1574–1616), and Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610). In 1613, Fetti make a pivotal move to Mantua, where he worked at the court of Duke Ferdinando I Gonzaga (1587–1626). Fetti arrived in Mantua with his sister, the painter Lucrina Fetti (ca. 1590–ca. 1673), who also received support from the court; both artists studied the rich Gonzaga collection of Venetian and Northern European painting. Fetti’s series of small format panel paintings executed for Ferdinando’s studiolo
illustrating New Testament parables was particularly well received and established compositions for which he and his studio became well known. In 1622, Fetti moved to Venice where, like his contemporary Johann Liss (ca. 1590–1629/30), he melded Roman precedents with the Venetian school’s feathery, paint handling and lighter palette. In 1623, Fetti died in Venice at only thirty-four years old.The Painting:
Around 1619, Fetti began a series of twelve compositions illustrating the parables of Christ and two related subjects of proverbs spoken by Christ at the Sermon on the Mount. The Met’s painting represents one of the latter, a warning against judging others found in the Gospels of Luke 11:41-42 and Matthew 7:1-5: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven ... He also told them this parable: ‘Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. Why do you look at the splinter [mote] in your brother’s eye and pay not attention to the beam in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”
Although Fetti’s image seems to take these words quite literally, he actually naturalizes the proverb to a far greater degree than earlier compositions, such as those by Daniel Hopfer (1471–1536; The Met 23.88.1
) and Ambrosius Francken I (1544–1618; The Met 53.601.33(122)
). A print after Karel van Mander (1548–1606)—which includes a vignette of “The Blind Leading the Blind” in the middle distance—comes closest to Fetti’s solution, including the zigzag effect of the beam and splinter, and must have been known to him (see fig. 5 above). In Fetti’s image, a complex ruined architecture provides a well-calculated stage for the figures, an elder presumably instructing a student, their fingers pointed each at the other; from the beam extending from the wall, a splinter points back at the younger man’s eye.
The genesis of Fetti’s series of parables is suggested by an entry in the 1631 Piccolomini Inventory of the Mantuan ducal collections: “In the dressing rooms of the ‘grotto’ there were various apartments and diverse paintings and along the top, gilded, were several paintings of parables of N.S. [Nostro Salvatore] by Fetti.” (Nelli camerini della grotto vi erano apparamenti et diversi quadri et nell’alto tutto indorato erano diversi qudri di parabole di N.S. fatti dal Feti). The grotto was a series of small rooms that had once formed part of the apartments of Isabella D’Este (1474–1539); their low ceilings made Fetti’s compositions easy to see, even if they were installed close to the ceiling, perhaps inserted into the room’s gilt wood cornice. This decorative role would explain the consistency of format and scale across the series and similar construction of their panel supports. While the group was probably executed over a period of two or three years, the general consensus is that the concept and first works crystallized around 1619. The Mote and the Beam
and The Lost Silver
(Palazzo Pitti, Florence) have generally been considered the first in the series, though a strict chronology is difficult to establish.
As indicated by earlier printed precedents to the composition of The Mote and the Beam
, Fetti pulled heavily on a longstanding Northern tradition of parables and moralizing subjects. In Rome, Fetti’s exposure to Elsheimer, whose works have a similar sense of scale and rapport between figures and nature, surely influenced how he developed the series. Moreover, from the Gonzaga collection, Fetti would have known Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569)’s celebrated painting The Blind Leading the Blind
(1568; Museo di Capodimonte, Naples) and Fetti himself included this subject among his series of parables. As Pamela Askew has observed, however, Fetti may also have also take into account Italian precedents, notably Venetian artists’ treatments of The Prodigal Son
and The Good Samaritan
. Regardless, Fetti’s contribution to the genre in Italy is paramount to his legacy. Both his own invention and the wider popularity of Fetti’s imagery was partially spawned by his appeal to Counter Reformation pedagogy which, like the parables themselves, aimed to translate theological tenants into relatable terms. In speech and Fetti’s paintings, proverbs mingled the religious and everyday.The Mote and the Beam
was among the most frequently repeated compositions from Fetti’s workshop. With its light touch, luminous ground, and brilliantly brushed sky, The Met’s painting is accepted as the prime version executed for the Gonzaga household. As with most of Fetti’s parables, numerous copies of varying quality are found in public collections and on the art market (also see The Met 30.31
). An autograph replica with slight variations to the shape of the urn and vegetation is found in the York City Art Gallery (fig. 6) and multiple copies of this alternate version are known. Sometime between 1732 and 1750 Pietro Monaco (1707–1772) produced print after the latter composition replete with the parable in Latin (The Met 51.501.897
David Pullins 2020
 Askew 1961.
 D’Arco 1857, p. 173; Askew 1961, pp. 23–24.
 See technical notes in the object file at The Met.
 Askew 1961, p. 23.
 See Safarick 1990, p. 72, pace Askew 1961, p. 26.
 Safarick 1990, pp. 72–77. Among recent sales of copies based most closely on The Met's version, see Tajan, Paris, March 28, 2007, no. 23; Christie’s, New York, July 6, 2000, no. 301.
 This includes the copy in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseilles.