Donated to Scipione Borghese by Cardinal Girolamo Bernerio of Emilia in 1611, the painting was displayed in one of the ornate rooms of the Casino di Porta Pinciana. It was here that Iacomo Manilli saw it in 1650, together with six other works by the same artist. The canvas depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds in an atmosphere of peasant familiarity typical of Bassano’s works. The diagonal arrangement of the composition shows the Holy Family with the Child on the left and a group of shepherds and animals on the right
Salvator Rosa (93 x 109.5 x 7 cm)
Rome, Cardinal Girolamo Bernerio, 1611 (Schütze 1999); Rome, Borghese Collection, 1650 (Manilli 1650); Inv. 1693, room II, no. 3; Inv. 1790, room II, no. 23; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 32; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
The provenance of this painting is well known. Mentioned for the first time in the collection of Cardinal Girolamo Bernerio (‘a work of the Nativity of Our Lord, with a frame, by Bassano, eight scudi’; see Schütze 1999), the canvas was given by the ecclesiastic from Emilia to Scipione Borghese in 1611 together with other works, which the cardinal-nephew added to his own rich collection at the Casino di Porta Pinciana. It was here that Iacomo Manilli saw the work in 1650: ‘We find [...] seven paintings by the elder and younger Bassano, two of which, namely the Nativity and the Magi, were gifts of the father’; Manilli 1650). This description confirmed what Carlo Ridolfi (1648) had written about the presence of works by Jacopo and his workshop in the most important Roman collections, proof of the esteem that the painting of Veneto had always enjoyed in the Eternal City.
Although the attribution to Bassano appeared in all the Borghese inventories, it was called into question by both Piancastelli (1891) and Adolfo Venturi (1893). The latter scholar rather proposed that it was the work of an anonymous artist of the Bassano school. This opinion was supported by Arslan, who in the first edition of his monograph on the painter (1931) even suggested that the work in question was a 17th-century copy. This view, however, was rightly rejected by Aldo de Rinaldis (1948), who took up the hypothesis put forth by Roberto Longhi (1926; 1928), namely that the canvas in the Borghese Collection was ‘a truly authentic work by Jacopo’. Likewise, Paola della Pergola (1955) had no reservations in attributing the work to Bassano; subsequent critics accepted this view, beginning with Arslan himself (1960).
In the opinion of Pietro Zampetti (1964), the artist from Veneto executed the work at the height of his career; Venturi and Longhi proposed the date of roughly 1550, that is, between the execution of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan) and Lazarus and the Rich Man (Cleveland Museum). Alessandro Ballarin (1964; 1994) likewise dated the work to the 1550s. The similarity of this work to others of the same period – its almost metallic quality and the conspicuous use of certain colours, including white and blue – indeed support the view that it was painted in the first half of that decade, a date proposed by Maria Elena Avagnina (1992) as well.
The work depicts the adoration of Jesus on the part of several shepherds, who had been told by an angel of the birth of the divine Child. Narrated in the Gospel of Luke, the episode is set here in a bucolic atmosphere, with the presence of several figures dear to the artist in his compositions, such as the reclining shepherd in the foreground, whom we meet again in The Annunciation to the Shepherds in Washington and in Lazarus and the Rich Man in Cleveland. This subject inspired the Bassano workshop on various occasions (see Donati 2017); in this case it is rendered with an exceptional compositional rhythm, enhanced by a fresh use of colour ‘pierced by arrows of light’ (Venturi 1929) and by elegant allusions to Parmigianino, evident here in the sinuous, flexible pose of the Virgin (see Avagnina 1992).