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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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Turn the key. Open another door…

Cabinet, antiques, antiquities, Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Roentgen

Cabinet lock from desk designed by David Roentgen

Welcome to this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities, with a special visit to the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Extravagant Inventions, The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens.  As always, the drawers hold even more mysteries, so let’s begin!

antiques, antiquities, Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Roentgen, Abraham Roentgen

Rolltop Desk by Roentgen

Abraham Roentgen, 1711-1793, may have lived life as a cabinet maker, but his works were in the castles and private homes of the aristocracy, such was the outstanding quality.  He was admired in England for his interesting use of inlay, inventive mechanical fittings and the hidden drawers he used in his furniture.

Another feature found at this exhibition is the Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette which I featured on this blog when the Google Art Project went to the Palace of Versailles.  This exquisite piece was produced by David Roentgen, 1743-1807, Abraham’s son.   Expanding the business with shops in Berlin and Saint Petersburg, David sold furniture to Catherine the Great of Russia.  This suite is believed to still be in the Palace of the Hermitage, the hiding place of so much remarkable and forgotten art.

Versailles, Google Art Project, Queen Marie Antoinette, Automaton

Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars signaled the end of David Roentgen’s career.  The Revolutionary government regarded him as an émigré, seized the contents of his showrooms and his personal belongings.  Following the invasion of Neuwied, his workshops closed and prosperity never returned; he died half ruined at Wiesbaden in 1807; albeit, the craftsmanship of this family of cabinet makers survived, perhaps to inspire a new generation.

Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, New Times, Holland Cotter

Three Mulattoes of Esmereldas, 1599, Andres Sanchez Gallque

“In a fall art season distinguished, so far, largely by a bland, no-brainer diet served up by Manhattan’s major museums, you have to hit the road for grittier fare.”

When an art reviewer begins with the above sentence, it can only mean more to come of a witty, well written article celebrating a new exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe.  Surprising links to ruling dynasties, and long ignored history is the focus of Joaneath Spicer, the museum’s curator of Renaissance and Baroque art.

Agnolo Bronzino produced a portrait of Alessandro de Medici, who ruled Florence for seven years before being assassinated in 1537.  He is considered by historians to be the illegitimate child of Giulio de Medici, Pope Clement VII, and a black or biracial woman.  His dark skin was remarked on by contemporaries who nicknamed him Il Moro.

Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

Portrait of Maria Salviate de Medici and Giulia de Medici, 1539

The portrait of Maria Salviati de Medici and Giula de Medici (1539) shows a child of the Italian aristocracy with black facial features, confirming the intermingling of African and European blood in the Medici family.  My own research on the Journey of the Magi fleshed out the story of Carlo di Cosimo de Medici, 1430-1492.  The illegitimate son of Cosimo de Medici and a Circassian slave name Magdelene.

The reviewer of this exhibition has supplied me with the final explanation of why I prefer historical art: “…one of the saving graces of art – what keeps you coming back – is that it isn’t a bottom-line business.  You think you’ve come to an end, a conclusion, and there’s always more: the exception, the extension.”   Like the many drawers in the cabinet, each waiting to be opened, explored, and imagined.  Thank you Holland Cotter, for taking that trip to Baltimore!

Watson and the Shark, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, coat of arms, history

Watson and the Shark, 1778, John Singleton Copley

Scuto Divino

A coat of arms and this painting tell another great drama from the time of travel on the high seas.  Painted by John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark depicts Brook Watson, 1735-1807, as the young merchant seaman in great peril.  Watson survived, but lost the power of his right leg in the attack.  He went on to great success in business and politics, even serving as Lord Mayor of London.  When he became a Baronet in 1803, Watson specified that the coat of arms designed to mark the honor must include a visual reference to his ordeal more than half a century earlier.  Thus the upper left of the crest depicts the leg Watson lost to the shark in 1749, and the motto Scuto Divino means “under god’s protection.”

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, Chicago Art Institute, Vote Early and Vote Often

Allegory on the Defeat of the Duke of Alva at Brielle

The first flowering of images of “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” type occurred in Germany and the Netherlands during the Protestant Reformation.  While the iconography is now difficult to puzzle out, an anonymous engraving dated 1580 from the Netherlands casts the dastardly Spanish invader, the Duke of Alva, and his forces as foxes in clerical garb, and the courageous Dutch nobles as geese.  These humorously be-spectacled fowl routed the Spaniards back out to sea from the recently captured town of Brielle.  This surprise counter attack occurred on April Fool’s Day, 1572.  The town’s name literally translates as spectacles, so afterwards it was often said that the Duke had lost his glasses on April 1.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s Cabinet of  Curiosities!  A short trip to New York, Baltimore, Boston, and Europe, but with so many interesting pieces of art and vignettes of history to experience.  Museum Monday will be coverage of the Chazen Museum and the Uffizi paintings and tapestries.  I look forward to chatting with you!
A late entry sent to me about the upcoming Vincent Van Gogh movie, Loving Vincent.  Take a moment to watch this unique animation telling his story, it will make you thirsty for more!



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