by Roderick Conway Morris

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Hermitage, St. Petersburg
The Lute Player by Caravaggio, 1595-96

The Genius of Rome: 1592-1623

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 10 March 2001


In the late 16th century, Rome became a magnet for artists not only from all over Italy, but also from north of the Alps. Many new churches and palaces were being built, the Jubilee of 1600 was approaching, there was a sense of renewed confidence generated by the apparent success of the counter-reformation, and young artists of the caliber of Caravaggio and Rubens were, by chance, ready to stride into the limelight.

Demand in Rome was hot, but so was the competition - not just among artists but equally among a new generation of collectors with a thirst for novelty and eclectic tastes that spanned the religious and the secular, and were as energetic in seeking out ancient sculpture as they were in promoting startling realism in contemporary painting.

The combination of historical circumstances, personalities and a lively market made Rome the crucible in which what later came to be called the baroque was formed.

This intense, exuberant period is examined in two shows: 'Caravaggio and the Giustiniani,' at Palazzo Giustiniani in Rome (which continues until May 15 and will then be at the Altes Museum in Berlin from mid-June until early September), and the London Royal Academy's 'The Genius of Rome: 1592-1623' (until April 16, before transferring to the Palazzo Venezia in Rome in mid-May for a two- to three-month run).

The Palazzo Giustiniani show, curated by Silvia Danesi Squarzina, brings together a representative sample of 70 pieces from the collection amassed by the brothers Cardinal Benedetto (1554-1621) and Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637) in a small part of the palace in which many of them were housed at the time.

The exhibition spaces include the frescoed hall built to display some of the most prized classical sculptures, though the paintings, alas, are shown in windowless rooms with bright artificial light beamed onto the canvases, in a manner quite alien to their original hanging. The Royal Academy exhibition, curated by Beverly Louise Brown, contains twice as many pieces, constituting a kind of ideal collection of the epoch.

The Rome show's catalogue contains some very interesting information on the formation of the Giustiniani collection, its importance and subsequent history, but the one for the London exhibition is superior in readability and scope as a panorama of the period, and exemplary in the artful way it manages to dovetail the essays by several hands with the entries on individual works and a wealth of additional illustrative material.

The Giustiniani brothers' immense wealth (they were scions of a Genoese dynasty that had made its fortune in the Eastern Mediterranean trade and banking); their presence in both the ecclesiastical and secular aristocratic spheres, and their differing but complimentary tastes (the Marchese Vincenzo, who wrote perspicaciously on art and was an especially acute connoisseur), secured them a leading position among their fellow collectors. The inventory made at the time of Vincenzo's death detailed nearly 600 paintings and more than 1,800 ancient sculptures.

Caravaggio was able to continue to paint in the arrestingly naturalistic style he developed not least because he had the backing of a number of rich patrons whose taste was in advance of the times. On several occasions his altar pieces were rejected by the churches for which they were commissioned, only to be snapped up by the artist's private admirers.

The Giustiniani bought no fewer than 15 Caravaggios during the artist's short and turbulent career, and Cardinal Benedetto was instrumental in winning for him church commissions (including one at Santa Maria del Popolo, which Benedetto paid for himself). Rubens also benefited from the Cardinal's intervention in obtaining the job of painting the altar piece at the Oratorians' Santa Maria in Vallicella.

The brothers, however, never regarded their collection as solely for their own delectation, but as a stimulant and inspiration for other art lovers and artists. Indeed, this and other similar privately created museums played a major part in fostering the revolution in art that took place in Rome during these years, and not merely reflected its progress.

But of equal interest is the evidence adduced by Silvia Danesi Squarzina of the influence that free access to the Giustiniani collection had on the work of innovative, independent-minded artists. Even Caravaggio, who was committed to painting directly from life, was still not indifferent to the lessons to be learned from the masterpieces of classical sculpture in his patrons' collection.

Our unusually detailed knowledge of this collection is owed to the fact that Vincenzo commissioned a monumental two-volume catalogue of engravings of it, and also the exceptional quantity of surviving documentation relating to it. An inventory of 1793 confirms that the collection of paintings was then still more or less intact. But it was dispersed soon after, ending up in the many diverse collections, whose loans have made this temporary, partial reunion possible. The largest single block of 157 paintings was bought from a dealer in Paris in 1815, by the Prussian monarch Frederick William III, for his grand new public art museum in Berlin.

The rough and tumble of Rome's artistic scene just before and after 1600 gave rise to two principal schools: Classicism and Caravaggian naturalism. Although these became distinct, even hostile to one another, it is an achievement of both the Rome and London shows that they make evident that in the early days these two tendencies were not uninfluenced by one another. Accordingly, artists of the stature of Caravaggio and Annibale Caracci, while plowing their own furrows, did so with an eye to what was happening in the neighboring field.

In Rome itself, Classicism won the day, ushering in the era dominated by the trend substantially founded by Annibale Caracci, and Caravaggism, while finding few direct followers at home, successfully migrated northward. This latter development was facilitated by the large number of visiting foreign artists, such as Gerrit van Honthorst, who, when in Rome was lodged in Palazzo Giustiniani, where he thoroughly absorbed the Caravaggian style before returning to Holland.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023