Salvator Rosa, 84.5 x 110.5 x 8 cm
Rome, Giuseppe Cesari called Cavalier d’Arpino, ante 1607, no. 65 (?); Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1607 (?); Inv. 1693, room IX, no. 23; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 15, no. 8; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
This work has certainly formed part of the Borghese Collection since 1693, as we know from the inventory that was drafted that year. It includes the description of ‘a painting roughly three spans high with a landscape with a mount on which two shepherds stand with a large flock […] by Paul Bril’. Later, the work was included in the 1833 fideicommissum list, with the same attribution.
It is not known how the painting became part of the Borghese Collection; yet it may have been one of the set of works confiscated from Giuseppe Cesari, known as Cavaliere d’Arpino, in 1607. Pope Paul V ordered the appropriation of the 105 works following accusations against Cesari for illegal possession of weapons; the paintings were later given to the cardinal-nephew Scipione Borghese. In her analysis of the inventory of the confiscated works, Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2000, p. 69) suggested that the Landscape with Shepherds was among them. Indeed, item no. 65 is described as ‘a medium-sized painting of a landscape with trees, vegetation and animals, without a frame’. Nonetheless, the correlation of this phrase with the work in question is not certain, as is the case with many other landscapes included in the inventory, especially given the lack of an attribution and the vagueness of the description.
Another mention of the painting is perhaps to be found in the poetic composition which Scipione Francucci (1613, st. 126-127) dedicated to Cardinal Borghese’s collection in 1613. This would attest to the presence of the work by that date, six years after the confiscation of Cesari’s paintings.
Although all the inventories ascribed the work to Paul Bril, critics began to cast doubt on the attribution at the end of the 19th century. Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 36) thought the work too weak to be by the hand of the master, proposing rather an artist in Bril’s circle. In 1928 Roberto Longhi (pp. 176-177) backed Venturi’s hypothesis, as did Paola Della Pergola (1959, pp. 152-153, n. 214), who had no doubts in labelling it a collaborative effort of his workshop, without, however, excluding that Bril himself may have had a hand in it. Since then, scholars have generally agreed that Landscape with Shepherds is the work of the Flemish artist together with his workshop.
The work has been displayed only once: in 1985 it was included in the exhibition Paesaggio con figura held at Palazzo Venezia in Rome, together with a series of works from the Borghese Collection which had been chosen for the dual themes of human figures and landscape.
In the Galleria Borghese the work is on display in room 5 together with others from the same milieu: Landscape with a Classical Temple and a Hunter (inv. no. 12), Fantastic Landscape (inv. no. 19) and Landscape with Saint Jerome (inv. no. 20). While the first two are held to be from Bril’s workshop, the attribution of the last-named painting has wavered between Bril himself – or at least his school – and another, slightly younger Flemish artist, Frederick van Valchenborch. In fact, some scholars claim that some of the paintings in the Borghese Collection that have traditionally been attributed to Bril are in fact by van Valchenborch (Gerszi 1990, pp. 173-189; Cappelletti 2006, p. 24).
Among the above-mentioned works, Fantastic Landscape has the same dimensions (66x90 cm) as Landscape with Shepherds, as does another landscape painting, which is also called fantastic (inv. no. 18); the last-named work is on display in room 3 of the Galleria. This fact could suggest that they all formed part of a series of pendant paintings, although the first-named stands out for its different, more melancholy tone: the ruins on the right and the presence of a solitary shepherd on the left indeed anticipate tendencies that would be developed later (Stefani, 2000, p. 144, n. 8).
The Landscape with Shepherds, by contrast, shows elements in common with the Fantastic Landscape of room 3, in particular the strong chiaroscuro contrast created by the intense beams of light which cut through the shaded areas and highlight the dense vegetation. This atmosphere also characterises the left portion of the composition, where we find a rocky wooded area in the foreground, while the landscape develops toward the back of the scene, in which a church illuminated by natural light can be glimpsed. The centre of the composition is occupied by a large rock onto which two shepherds have climbed; they are looking toward the horizon, perhaps in the direction of the church in the background.
The compositional scheme is based on the division of the scene into two distinct parts: while one dominates the foreground, the other develops into the background; the two sections are further characterised by contrasting lighting effects. These elements are often found in Bril’s paintings, as we see, for example, in the Landscape with Saint Jerome, which is on display in the same room as this painting.
Pier Ludovico Puddu