Tag Archives: Andrew Graham-Dixon

The Red Leather Archive

This edition of the Red Leather Archive re-examines The Astronomer reviewed by Andrew Graham Dixon, Sunday Times, 2004.  Since that time Vermeer has been experiencing a renewed popularity, a fresh exhibition, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, at The Louvre drawing record visitors.  Continuing the relevancy of technology and historical art, apps were launched for both Apple and Google, bringing Vermeer to the cutting edge of art appreciation, redefining the museum experience.

The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer, 1668, The Lourvre, since 1983

The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer, 1668, The Lourvre, since 1983.

The idealized image of The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer, 1632-1675, depicts a 17th century scientist rapt in his study of the heavens.  Juxtaposed with its twin, The Geographer, the themes in the pictures run parallel courses towards the same moment.  Produced in the later period of the painter’s life, these are two of the only three paintings Vermeer signed, the other being the Procuress.

The Geographer, Johannes Vernmeer, Stadel Museum, 1668-1669.

The Geographer, Johannes Vernmeer, Stadel Museum, 1668-1669.

A 2017 study indicated that the canvas for the Geographer and Astronomer came from the same bolt of material, confirming their close relationship.  The paintings are unusual for Vermeer for having a male subject.  Styled correspondingly, the same man appears in both paintings, his identity unknown.  The historical record suggests the cloth merchant and amateur scientist, Antony Van Leeuwenhoek.  A contemporary of the artist, both born in the city of Delft, where van Leeuwenhoek assisted the family in sorting out Vermeer’s financial matters post mortem.


Faust depicted in an etching by Rembrandt (c. 1650). Faust, also a scholar, is depicted in the same pose as The Geographer, although facing in roughly the opposite direction.

The theme of the scholar in his study goes back to the Renaissance, where a number of artists including Jan van Eyck, Antonello da Messina and Albrecht Durer, depict St. Jerome in his study.  The celestial globe the model explores has been identified as one made in 1618 by the Amsterdam humanist Jodocus Hondius.  The book lying open on the table before him is a second edition of Adriaan Metius’ Institutiones Astronomicae et Is.  The painting scene appears mystical, and the oeuvre of Vermeer hints at mysterious beliefs, flooded by an otherworldly light suffusing the scene;  striking the celestial globe and the heavy ruck of carpet swag at the edge of the table; as intellect and knowledge fuse and combine, the artist capturing that moment, exquisitely.

St. Jerome in His Study

St. Jerome in his Study, Albrecht Durer

Vermeer and the Delft School

Vermeer and the Delft School

Thank you for joining me for this edition of the Red Leather Archive.  What art stories are you interested in hearing about?




Johnson, C. Richard, Jr, and Sethares, W.A. (2017). “Canvas Weave Match Supports Designation of Vermeer’s Geographer and Astronomer as a Pendant Pair”. Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art.

Bailey, Anthony (2001). Vermeer: A View of Delft. pp. 165–170. ISBN 0-8050-6930-5.

Vermeer and the Delft School, Metropolitan Museum of Art


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Scipione Borghese – Puppetmaster of Caravaggio


Caravaggio, Ottavio Leoni, 1621

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) created a world of darkness and light through his paintings.  What may appear as just another expression of art to the casual viewer is in actuality a true reproduction of his world.  I have returned to the well of Caravaggio for another story from the artist’s short life, the influence of his patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633).  Drawing from Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book, Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane, and M, the Man who became Caravaggio by Peter Robb, a portrait of sorts has appeared, detailing the obsession of the Cardinal and his ruthless collecting of the artist’s works.  No accidents of fate can be attributed to their relationship, only a hot- headed painter and one of the many who manipulated him to their own rewards.

Scipione Borghese, Ottavio Leoni

Scipione Borghese, Ottavio Leoni, 1610

Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope John V, is someone fit to be called the Cardinal Nephew, willing to bend all opportunities to his desired machinations in the name of the papacy.  Scipione built three major private estates: Palazzo Pallavcini Rospigliosi, the Villa Borghese and Palazzo Borghese.  The Villa Borghese art collection is a testimony of Scipione’s drive to establish the Borghese legacy with other ancient Roman families such as Colonna and Orsini.  Tireless and ruthless in his quest for art, the Cardinal considered extortion and outright theft to be tools of acquisition to complete his gallery.

The meeting of these men occurred in the Antechamber of Quirinale Palace, where Borghese was the papal representative of judicial administration.  Caravaggio was caught up in the net of his own violent arrogance, having assaulted the notary Mariano Pasqualone, who brought charges against him.  A settlement was the required agreement, and for this consideration, Caravaggio showed his gratitude to the Cardinal with a gift, Saint Jerome Writing.  The deal was private enough that no record of a commission or payment survives, but the painting does appear in the possession of Scipione Borghese following this interesting event.

Saint Jerome Writing

Saint Jerome Writing, 1605

Camillo Borghese, Pope Paul V,

Camillo Borghese, Pope Paul V, 1552-1621, Caravaggio, 1605-6

Soon after, Caravaggio found himself the latest flavor in the Roman carnival of fame.  Commissions came his way from several sources, including a portrait of Pope John V, and a commission for the Basilica of Saint Peter; The Madonna and Child with St. Anne, 1605-06; for the altar of the Archconfraternity of the Papal Grooms.  The dream of his fellow artists to be enshrined in this cathedral with the greatest names of the day was within his grasp, for two days.

Madonna of the Grooms, Caravaggio

Madonna of the Grooms, 1605-6

“In this painting there are but vulgarity, sacrilege, impiousness and disgust… One would say it is a work made by a painter that can paint well, but of a dark spirit, and who has been for a lot of time far from God, from His adoration and from any good thought…” note from a Cardinal’s secretary of the time.

This was not the first of Caravaggio’s paintings considered unacceptable, but it was rejected by the College of Cardinals, from Saint Peter’s.  Displayed from April 14 thru April 16, the painting was removed and purchased at a remarkably reduced price by Scipione Borghese.  Recent archival research has revealed that the Cardinal was involved in obtaining the painting at a very early stage of the commission.  Borghese was stepping up his collection of the temperamental artist, by fair means or foul.

Death of the Virgin

Death of the Virgin, 1606

The Death of the Virgin, commissioned by Laerzio Alberti for his chapel in the Carmelite Chuch of Santa Maria della Scala, was ultimately rejected by the Carmelites.  The public reason is the portrayal of the Holy Mother is considered too secular, showing her bare legs.  Accused by his contemporaries of using a local prostitute in the portrayal of Mary, sacrilege for the time, the church deemed it unacceptable, giving another wound to Caravaggio’s pride.  The painting was immediately purchased by the Duke of Mantua, on the recommendation of Peter Paul Ruebens, who called it Caravaggio’s “best work.”

The next masterpieces came to the Borghese collection in 1607, through the settlement of a tax bill.   Giuseppe Cesari, former teacher of Caravaggio, found himself an impediment to Cardinal Borghese’s obsession.  Cesari had a considerable stock of paintings from various apprentices, with two by Caravaggio; Borghese made an insulting offer, which Cesari had the temerity to refuse.  That mistake saw him arrested on false charges with a possible death sentence hanging over him; the payment came in the form of 107 paintings.  The Pope gave them all to Scipione including Sick Bacchus, and Boy with a Basket of Fruit, advancing the Borghese family collection further.

Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593

Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593

Sick Bacchus

Sick Bacchus, self portrait, 1593

I leave the story of Caravaggio for the moment, as he struggles between the love and hate of Rome, his ego filled with righteous indignation and praise.  The events of his life are ready to collide with the murder of Ranuccio Tommassoni and the artist’s life on the run from papal justice.  Scipione Borghese is not finished with Caravaggio, becoming a crucial figure in his final days.

Has Caravaggio influenced your view of art?  Is his story typical of the tortured artist or are his actions compounded by the puppetmasters of the time?  I would love to chat with you about this artist!

If you want to learn more about the artist Caravaggio, there are similar facets to his story posted here:

Caravaggio, before Fame and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Detail, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593

Detail, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593

Picture Links

Caravaggio, by Octavio Leoni

Scipione Borghese, by Octavio Leoni

Saint Jerome Writing, by Caravaggio

Pope Paul V, by Caravaggio

Madonna of the Grooms, by Caravaggio

Death of the Virgin, by Caravaggio

Boy with a Basket of Fruit, by Caravaggio

Sick Bacchus, by Caravaggio

Research Links

Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane

Peter Robb, M, the Man who Became Caravaggio


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