The painting shows a landscape with Saint Jerome meditating, coupled with the typical iconographic attributes of the lion and skull. The composition is distinguished by strong chiaroscuro contrasts of a style also found in several landscapes by Paul Bril.
Its attribution oscillates between Paul Bril’s sphere and that of Frederick van Valckenborch, a painter from Antwerp who was slightly younger and directly influenced by the master’s work.
It has been suggested that the painting may have come from the group of works confiscated from Cavalier D’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari) in 1607 and then later added to the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, but there is no certainty regarding this hypothesis.
The work can be dated to a time between the late 1590s and early 1600s.
Salvator Rosa, 90.5 x 114 x 6 cm
Rome, Giuseppe Cesari called Cavalier d’Arpino, ante 1607, no. 61 (?); Scipione Borghese Collection, 1607 (?); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 15, no. 7; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
This painting would appear to be among those listed in the inventory of works confiscated from Giuseppe Cesari, known as Cavaliere d’Arpino. Here, item no. 61 is described as ‘a medium-sized landscape with St Jerome and a lion nearby, without a frame’. In 1607, Paul V ordered the seizure of Cesari’s entire collection of paintings when the painter was accused of illegal possession of weapons. After the works were appropriated, the pope gave them to the cardinal-nephew Scipione Borghese.
Nonetheless, the lack of attributions in the list of confiscated works prevents us from identifying the above-mentioned work with the Landscape with Saint Jerome with absolute confidence. The first certain mention of the painting is found in the fideicommissum inventory of 1833, where it is described as a ‘Landscape by Francesco Viola’; the same attribution to the Bolognese painter is made in Giovanni Piancastelli’s Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese (1891, p. 194).
Following the suggestion of Barbier de Montault (1870, p. 363), who first spoke of Paul Bril, Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 36) and Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 177) both attributed the work to the school of the Flemish master. On the other hand, Paola Della Pergola (1959, p. 154, n. 219) was more cautious: she was not persuaded that the artist was so close to Bril as to warrant an attribution to his workshop; she rather chose the qualification ‘in the style of’.
In the 1990s, Teréz Gerszi (1990, p. 181) suggested ascribing the Landscape with Saint Jerome to Frederick van Valckenborch, a painter from Antwerp who was active between the second half of the 16th century and the first years of the 17th. This hypothesis was taken up by Maria Rosaria Nappi (1995, pp. 379-380): the painting was in fact displayed with this attribution at the exhibition Fiamminghi a Roma 1508-1608, held in Brussels and Rome in 1995.
Since then, scholars have gone back and forth between the two Flemish artists on the question of who actually painted the work, even if those who once supported the name of Paul Bril now tend to lean toward a member of his school, as we have seen. The most recent contribution to the debate was made by Francesca Cappelletti (2000, p. 197, n. 22) on the occasion of the exhibition Caravaggio. La luce nella pittura lombarda (Bergamo, Accademia Carrara, 2000), where the painting was displayed together with a significant number of works from the Borghese Collection. Cappelletti ascribed the work to Bril’s circle, or more precisely to the Italianised Flemish culture of which Bril was an important exponent. This influence of this milieu even reached Cesari’s workshop, which was open to northern European artists and which may have even been the source of this canvas. Both the compositional scheme of the work, similar to those of Bril’s paintings, and the representation of the saint, which reflects knowledge of models of late Italian Mannerism, suggest contact with this culture.
The painting is indeed a good example of that taste for landscapes animated by figures of saints or hermits, which was already popular above all with northern European artists before 1550 and which saw a particular revival in the second half of the 16th century. This interest was in part due to the engravings of landscapes with saints and monks by Cornelius Cort from the 1570s, who based his works on paintings with these motifs by Girolamo Muziano. Cort’s engravings in fact met with great success (see the detailed treatment of this theme by F. Cappelletti, Paul Bril e la pittura di paesaggio a Roma 1580-1630, Rome 2006, ch. VI).
The figure of St Jerome lent itself to this artistic genre, especially as the saint received particular attention within Church circles in those same years. The same subject, a Landscape with Saint Jerome, was painted by Bril, the first of his known works executed in oil on copper (formerly in the Morris collection in London). Cappelletti’s comparison of the two works (2000, op. cit.) revealed the same division of the space of the scene: the saint is portrayed in the foreground on the left in a shaded, rocky setting, while the landscape extends toward the back on the right side, which is by contrast illuminated by a diffuse light. Cappelletti also noted that the representation of the vegetation hanging from above reveals that the painter was familiar with the work of Jan Brueghel.
According to Nappi (1995, op. cit.), the contrast between the foreground and background in the work recalls several of Jan Brueghel’s early paintings, while from the point of view of the use of light and colour, the canvas reminds us of the landscapes of Ludovico Pozzoserrato (Lodewijk Toeput), the Flemish painter who became a naturalised Italian and was active in Veneto in the second half of the 16th century. Nappi in fact attributed the work in question to van Valckenborch, suggesting that the artist may have met Pozzoserrato in the region to which the latter had moved.
The work forms part of a notable group of landscapes with figures which have been in the Borghese Collection since it was initially established; they offer important evidence of the collector tastes of Cardinal Scipione.
Pier Ludovico Puddu