Collection of Scipione Borghese (cited in 1615-30 inventory; in Manilli, 1650; in de Sebastiani, 1683; in 1693 inventory; in 1892 sales catalogue). Antiques market; purchased for Galleria Borghese, 2020.
A group of figures are engaged in a country fête in a broad landscape: the peasants have organised a dance, accompanied by the music of a lute and a violin, in which several local ladies and men dressed as hunters gladly take part.
The participants are seated in a circle in a clearing between trees, next to which flows a stream. At the centre, a young peasant invites a lady to open the dance. The viewer’s gaze passes over a variety of gestures and actions on the part of the figures: a slightly bored woman turns to her neighbour, while on the opposite side two women are taking care of a small boy; the lute player stops to reach for one of the refreshment flasks on the river bank, while a young man – perhaps already inebriated – is asleep next to an empty jug. A woman on a small bridge is bringing a boy to the dance, while groups of hunters and other figures disperse in the hilly landscape, which is dotted with castles, farms and a small church. In the background, sailboats glide across a stretch of water, which is illuminated by the twilight; several white birds, meanwhile, stand out against a dark, cloudy sky at the top of the scene.
When this painting was presented at a Bonhams auction in London in 2008, it was listed as by an anonymous artist from Bologna. The high quality of its execution gave rise to intensive research, which revealed that the work represented a significant and original episode in the development of this genre of landscapes with figures in a pleasant, festive or gallant atmosphere. At the time, however, no Bolognese painter known to have worked in this genre could be convincingly identified as the creator of this canvas. When critics later determined that the artist in question was Guido Reni, the discovery amounted to one of the most important and unexpected revelations of the last few years, together with its documented provenance from the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
The work’s art historical and critical vicissitudes were summarised in Patrick Matthiesen’s contribution to the catalogue for the 2017 exhibition on Guido Reni (Matthiesen Gallery, London) and more recently in Daniele Benati’s profile of the canvas in the Fondantico catalogue, edited by Tiziana Sassoli, for TEFAF Maastricht 2020. The first names put forth by critics from among painters specialised in this genre included Giovan Battista Viola and Giovanni Maria Tamburini; these, however, were soon rejected in favour of Sisto Badalocchio and Domenichino, artists active in Rome who had come under the influence of the Carracci. Other scholars, meanwhile, suggested the names of the young Guercino and Mastelletta, known for his fairy-tale landscapes with figures. Noting features reminiscent of the Carracci in the work, Aidan Weston-Lewis and Nicholas Turner interestingly proposed Agostino Carracci as the artist, who is known to have produced similar compositions, in particular a Village Festival – also known as the Milanese Festival – which was executed in 1584 and is held today at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseille. In spite of certain similarities, this hypothesis was likewise soon rejected on stylistic grounds, which situate the work closer to Annibale’s oeuvre – with traces of Flemish influence – but at a later date.
A key turning point in the debate occurred when Keith Christiansen compared the canvas to a small work on copper by Guido Reni depicting The Rest on the Flight to Egypt. Originally part of the Borghese Collection, this composition was transferred to the Coombs Collection in London and is held privately today. This suggestion immediately led to further research, beginning with Weston-Lewis’s identification of the Country Dance in the Palazzo Borghese inventory of 1693 and followed by Elena Fumagalli’s recognition of the work in an earlier Borghese inventory, dated by her to after 1620 and by S. Corradini (1998) to 1615-30. In addition, the canvas was indicated in Iacomo Manilli’s 1650 description of the villa. Below we give more detailed accounts of both the sources mentioned here as well as others that refer to the work in question.
The first documentation of the painting in connection with the works in possession of Scipione Borghese dates, then, to the 1620s and 30s, when it is listed in the inventory of that era with this description: ‘A work on canvas with a Lombard-style dance with various male and female peasants, black frame with gold, 3¼ high by 4 wide, by Albano’. Aside from the mistaken attribution to Albani, both the description of the subject – a dance in the ‘Lombard style’, as in the above-mentioned painting by Agostino – and the dimensions allow us to confidently identify this entry with the work in question.
The attribution was soon corrected in Manilli’s 1650 account of the villa’s holdings: ‘The other of a village dance is by Guido Reni’. The same name appears in Pietro de’ Sebastiani’s description of the Palazzo in his Viaggio curioso (1683): ‘The Village Dance by Guido Reni’. In the 1693 Borghese inventory, we read of a ‘work on canvas with a landscape and many large and small figures with a country dance, 3½ palms high, with a gilded frame, at no. [sic], by Guido Reni’. Both the 1650 and 1683 descriptions and the 1693 inventory also include the other small work by Reni, mentioned above, The Rest on the Flight to Egypt. In the 1693 document the inventory number was left blank, as is often the case. Today, however, direct observation of the work allows us to distinguish the numeral ‘456’, added in white ink, on the lower central portion of the work: indeed all paintings included in this inventory were numbered in this manner. On the other hand, the number ‘115’ on the back of the canvas does not correspond to any entries in the Borghese inventories, suggesting that it refers to a later collection.
The work is evidently missing from later Borghese inventories; it reappears in the catalogue of the sale of a number of paintings that took place in Palazzo Borghese in 1892.
This long absence can perhaps be explained by changes in taste. Beginning in the 18th century, the subject of the painting may have been judged to be out of fashion, which could have led to its transfer to a secondary collection in one of the family’s residences, where it was held until it was sold.
In the 1892 sales catalogue, the painting loses its correct attribution and is rather ascribed to the Flemish school. It is described in this words: ‘ECOLE FLAMANDE. XVII siècle. 157. - LA CHATELAINE. De nombreux personnages, dames, mousquetaires, paysans et paysannes entourent la châtelaine vêtue d'un riche costume et portant un col à dentelles; elle invite un paysan à danser le minuet. Fond de collines avec chateau et maisons. Montagnes à l'horizon. Cadre. Toile en largeur, m. 0.76 X m. 0.98.’
Following the sale, all traces of the work were lost, until its reappearance as item no. 101 at a Bonhams auction in London on 19 July 2008. The canvas was later exhibited at TEFAF Maastricht in 2020.
In the past, scholars were not aware that Reni was also a landscape painter. No mention of this connection appears in our sources, which speak of his participation in more important genres with a higher, more ideal tenor. Yet as recent research has shown, he produced landscapes during the first years of his stay in Rome. Several additional examples have come to light, such as the Landscape with Playing Cherubs, executed shortly after the Country Dance and published by Francesco Gatta in 2017. Reni’s interest in landscapes, however, was limited, much like his experiments in depicting figures and historical scenes adapted to altarpieces and fresco decoration, which he practised from his early years but then probably soon abandoned.
Reni looked to Bolognese artistic circles for his models. In addition to the above-cited work by Agostino, he made direct reference to Ludovico and above all to Annibale and his experiments in the world of landscapes; he also paid attention to Nicolò dell’Abate’s elegant scenes set in landscapes. This genre is still distant from the evolution of those ideal settings with figures, which Annibale began with the Flight to Egypt – executed for the so-called Aldobrandini lunettes in 1602-03 (Rome, Galleria Doria Pamphilj) – and which were taken up by two of Guido’s companions, Domenichino and Francesco Albani. The definition of this context suggests a date of 1601-02 for Guido’s Country Dance.
As soon as he reached Rome, the painter approached his patrons in full awareness of his abilities. This seems to be the intention of a detail in the work in question: in the sky above the scene, he placed two life-size flies as if they had landed on the canvas, almost as if he wished to tempt the observer to squash them with his or her hand. In addition to the popularity of the trompe l’oeil effect, this detail also clearly refers to art’s legendary capacity for mimesis since ancient times, discussed by Philostratus and Pliny the Elder and more recently by Vasari in his life of Giotto, in which he narrates that the artist painted a deceptively real fly on the nose of Cimabue’s figure.
In light of its documented provenance from the collection of Cardinal Scipione, the acquisition of this work for the Galleria Borghese represents a historic addition to the Museum’s possessions. At the same time, its rediscovery allows scholars to further investigate the fundamental importance of the Borghese patronage of Guido Reni.
The cardinal indeed wished to make Reni his court painter, considering him the most important artist on the Roman scene following the death of Annibale Carracci. In the person of Pope Paul V, the Borghese family entrusted him with the decoration of the two rooms in the Vatican Palace, with the execution of the frescoes in the Borghese Chapel of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, and later with those in the Great Chapel of the Quirinal Palace. Scipione Borghese also commissioned the Martyrdom of Saint Andrew in the church of San Gregorio al Celio as well as one of the painter’s greatest masterpieces, the Aurora in Palazzo Pallavicini Rospigliosi, which was built by the Borghese and became the cardinal’s residence.
Several of Guido’s works formed part of the family’s collection, in line with their preference for this artist. In addition to those already cited, we should mention the Saint Cecilia, executed several years later and held today at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, as well as Moses with the Tables of the Law, an important product of his later years depicting a very different subject.
The landscape in question, then, represents a partial yet timely addition to the effort of reconstructing the painter’s career and the various genres with which he experimented. It sheds light on the ways in which he pursued and developed different artistic paths and the success with which he met in each; it further expands our knowledge about his patron’s tastes and interests as a collector.