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From Caravaggio to Bernini

A major exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale examines the close ties between the Spanish court and the Italian states in the 17th century.

Art for art’s sake, of course, but also in the Baroque period art was a diplomatic currency. Sometimes Italian rulers would offer paintings to curry favour with the Spanish in Naples and Milan and sometimes the Spanish kings and viceroys would buy works directly from the artists. When Diego Velasquez was the ambassador/buyer, the quality was guaranteed. Alternatively, in the reign of the ailing Charles II, the last of his line, a more practical option was to invite star painters to Spain – most notably the Neapolitan masters Luca Giordano and his protégé Solimena.

The Duke of Urbino gifted Spain's Philip III the first picture in the exhibition – Barocci’s Call of St Andrew – and, although it belongs to the Mannerist period, its dramatic diagonals, a hallmark of the Baroque, are already in evidence. Alongside it is Fede Galicia’s Judith and Holophernes. The splendour of Judith’s dress in Galicia's work rather belies the horror of the event, and Holophernes’ head seems more wooden than human.


There are no such discrepancies in Caravaggio’s Salomé, snapped up by the Spanish crown during the reign of Charles III in the second half of the 17th century for a bargain 78 scudi. It was painted in late career, when Caravaggio was threatened not only by a papal death sentence but also with reprisals from the Knights of Malta after he had been declared membrum putridum et foetidum (putrid and fetid member) for an offence that remains unclear.


Caravaggio's Salomé was purchased by the Spanish crown during the second half of the 17th century.
Holding the platter containing the Baptist’s head, Salome recoils in disgust from the very atrocity to which she had made herself an accomplice at the behest of her mother Herodias. Meanwhile the executioner, a staple figure in Caravaggio’s works, twists his back, his sword-hilt plainly visible since the painting's restoration. Completing the circle, the old maid-servant (or, according to another interpretation, Herodias herself) looks on with malefic intensity. Beyond the frame, story multiplies story. Bellori, Caravaggio's biographer, reports that the painter offered “a painting of Herodias holding the Baptist’s head” (this or one of two other Salomés, one of which is in London’s National Gallery) to the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, hoping to placate him for whatever offense he may have perpetrated while on the island. Caravaggio’s fears of reprisals were well-founded; the emissaries of the Knights of Malta caught up with him in Naples shortly before his death, slashing his face.

Guido Reni

Arriving in Rome in 1601 Guido Reni had been immediately impressed by Caravaggio’s genius, although far from being flattered by such homage, Caravaggio took offence. 

In Reni’s St Catherine, of which the Bolognese artist made several copies, the heavenward sweetness of her gaze borrows from Raphael’s St Cecilia. In the next room, however, Reni has pride of place. Arriving in Rome in 1601, Reni had been immediately impressed by Caravaggio’s genius although, far from being flattered by such homage, Caravaggio took offence.

Guido Reni’s Conversion was gifted to Spain by Prince Ludovisi in return for Spanish protection of his princedom of Piombino.
In Reni’s rather than Caravaggio’s Conversion scene, Saul (who will later take the name of Paul) stretches toward the viewer in a pose reprising Raphael’s Heliodorus chased from the temple, all flailing legs and arms. One art critic has suggested that the action in the Reni painting, particularly the twists and turns of Saul’s body, is more reminiscent of Raphael's Heliodorus that the comparatively still Caravaggio version. The picture ended up in Spanish hands after Prince Ludovisi donated it to ensure the then super-power’s protection for his tiny princedom of Piombino. Another gift was Guercino’s Lot and his daughters. Mindful of the fate of Sodom and of Lot’s wife in the background, the two daughters, using wine as part palliative, part providential instrument, prepare to perform the unspeakable so that the race survives. Another wall features two pretty female heads by Baglione – orCoglione” as Caravaggio renamed him in a scurrilous poem, incurring for Caravaggio a libel charge and another mark on his criminal record.

Jusepe de Ribera

The next two rooms are dedicated to the Spaniard, Jusepe de Ribera, the artist best represented in this exhibition, most of whose mature work was done in Naples. From 1612 to 1616 Lo Spagnoletto, as he was also known, was in Rome and one can surmise that he would have encountered Caravaggio's work.

If not in Rome, they surely would have met in Naples, where Caravaggio would soon flee to escape a papal death penalty. Illustrating Ribera’s label as “poet of the repugnant” are two St Jeromes.

The first, each wrinkle lovingly observed, thrusts a skull toward the viewer with less than clean hands, only the Bible as an intermediary. In the second painting, the saint, even further into old age, hauls himself up by ropes attached to the roof of his grotto, dog-eared Vulgate, skull and feather as points of reference.

Spain’s Jusepe de Ribera depicts St Jerome hauling himself up by ropes attached to the roof of his grotto.
Yet, as well as gloom and shadow, Ribera could also do skylight as shown in the two large depictions of St Francis. Or again in the recently restored Jacob with Laban’s flock: the silvery light filters down to illuminate even the sheep’s eyelashes as the much favoured Jacob looks heavenward to receive God’s next instruction. In the top corner rears a brown and rampant ram, a sign that Jacob’s own tawny and mottled flock will soon outnumber the prize white herd of Laban, Jacob’s stingy and trickish father-in-law.Ribera’s command of registers is there in his portrait of Don John of Austria, Philip IV’s illegitimate son, sent to Naples at the age of 18 to quell a republican revolt against Spanish taxes. Notice, below the horse, the Bay of Naples and the fort of Castel d’Elmo. Not a shadow to be seen anywhere, nor for that matter Vesuvius. Or maybe Ribera was busy elsewhere.

Pride and scorn

Outside the frame flits the rumour that Ribera’s daughter bore the same Don John a child. Other candidates for paternity are Ribera’s brother or his brother-in-law. Bernardo de Dominici in his Lives of the Painters (1742) attributes the illegitimate birth as “a divine punishment, given Ribera’s pride and scorn of the city’s other painters”, so hinting at the sometimes cut-throat rivalries underlying Naples’ Baroque glories.

The Spanish connection continues with Velasquez. Painted after his first Italian trip, Jacob’s Cloak borrows from Tintoretto not so much a chequered floor as, in Velasquez’ hand, a stage. Two of Joseph’s brothers act out their deception. Behind, one brother smiles at the performance; another, hands on mouth, suppresses a snigger. The picture’s interplay of expressions is pure theatre, capturing the dramatic moment, a Baroque specialty. Credulous Jacob expresses paternal shock and grief, but it is left to the yapping dog in the corner to sniff out the ruse.


In the exhibition’s second section upstairs, Velasquez – court painter to Philip IV – is indirectly present as royal art dealer, a genius to spot a genius. One of the works bought up for Philip IV during Velasquez's second Italian visit was Bernini’s Crucifix. Not that this prevented the painter from taking time off to paint Innocent X’s portrait which can be seen today in Rome's Galleria Doria Pamphilj.

Via a section dedicated to another Neapolitan master, Vaccaro, we reach the final room. As though to compensate for his childlessness and chronic ill-health and restore the fading lustre to il siglo d’oro, Charles II (1665-1700) invited a series of artists to Spain, most notably Luca Giordano. The same Luca Fapresto (Luca paints quickly) remained there ten years, earning the title of caballero, a gentleman). Three paintings here show the honour was well-deserved.

In Noah’s drunkenness, grapes offer themselves to the viewer’s touch while the cloth with which Shem covers his father’s nakedness is of a richness to do Titian proud. Balaam’s ass, as in Velasquez’s dog on the floor below, shows how an animal can sometimes see what here even, in Balaam’s case, a prophet cannot – namely the angel blocking Balaam’s way toward Balak, the Moabite king who has invited the prophet to invoke God’s curse on the invading Israelites.

Balaam raises his stick to beat the fractious beast, which (or rather who?), seconds later, will also speak. Giordano makes the animal disconcertingly human. The third painting – The Taking of Christ – encapsulates time and space with a precision modern film directors might envy. Illuminating three separate episodes, the torches might but for the solemnity of the subject matter be fireworks, while at the end of one of the painting’s dramatic diagonals glimmers a crescent moon. Using his good offices, Giordano invited to Spain the still life painter, Andrea Belvedere, two of whose works occupy a room in the Scuderie exhibition.



Then arrived Francesco Solimena, Giordano’s former pupil from Naples. Solimena had aged; the two miniatures here were evidently helped on by his wearing two pairs of spectacles. A far cry from his youth: frescoing Naples’s Donnaregina church with the Miracle of the roses, the same Solimena had once prompted a certain cardinal to complain that the artist’s good looks would distract the adjoining cloister’s Franciscan nuns from their devotions. It’s a fitting end to an epoch (whether Hapsburg or Baroque), and also to an exhibition which lingers in the mind long after one has left.

Martin Bennett

The exhibition can be seen unitl 30 July. Scuderie del Quirinale, Via XXIV Maggio 16, tel. 0639967500, This article was published in the June 2017 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.

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