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Portrait of Monsignor Clemente Merlini

Sacchi Andrea

(Rome 1599-1661)

This portrait became part of the Borghese collection after 1704, and represents Clemente Merlini, a Rota auditor originally from Forlì. Critics have identified him by the heraldic emblem - an eagle on a tower - painted in the shape of an apple on the back of the chair on which the aristocratic monsignor sits.

The subject’s deep meditative air is rendered by the painter with great skill, showing some influence of Caravaggio and the classicist works of the descendants of Cavaliere d’Arpino and the Carracci. With a dense brushstroke, the artist describes a dark interior where a bookcase with a few shelves stands out, some books in a disorderly arrangement, one kept in plain sight by the cultivated prelate. The scene’s intimacy and the subject’s attitude show a certain life-like quality in the composition, far from the contemporary aulic portraits where the nobility of the character portrayed is expressed by the preciousness of the painted objects and richness of the fabrics.


Object details

Inventory
376
Location
Date
databile tra il 1630-1631
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
cm 138 x 136
Frame

19th century frame decorated with lotus flowers and beads (179.5 x 168 x 7.5 cm).

Provenance

(?) Rome, probably commissioned by Clemente Merlini (1590-1642); Rome, Antonio Barberini Collection, 1644 (Incisa della Rocchetta 1924); Rome, Francesco Barberini Collection, 1671 (see Aronberg Lavin 1975); Palestrina, Carlo Barberini Collection, 1679; Palestrina, Borghese Collection, 1706; Palestrina, Barberini Collection, 1738-1739 (Posse 1925); Rome, Borghese Collection, documented since 1833 (Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 9); purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Exhibitions
  • 1911 Firenze, Palazzo Vecchio;
  • 1930 Roma, Museo di Roma;
  • 1989 San Pietroburgo, Hermitage;
  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni;
  • 2000-2001 Siena, Palazzo Pubblico-Palazzo Chigi Zondadari;
  • 2008 Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum;
  • 2008-2009 Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada;
  • 2009-2010 Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1958 Renato Massi (restauro della cornice);
  • 1961-1962 Renato Massi (restauro della cornice);
  • 2009 Matteo Rossi Doria (ripresa ritocchi, restauro della cornice).

Commentary

This painting is first mentioned in 1644, when it appeared in the inventory of Cardinal Antonio Barberini’s possessions, described as “a painting with a half-figure seated portrait of Mons[igno]r Merlino Auditor of the rota, by m[iste]r Andrea Sacchi with a painted walnut frame with gold trimming.” Having subsequently entered the collection of Cardinal Francesco Barberini senior, it then passed to his nephew Carlo, and came to the Borghese family at an unspecified date, though certainly not before 1738-39. The various passages and the circumstances of its commission are still unclear.

In 1924, Giovanni Incisa della Rocchetta positively identified the subject of the portrait, until then believed to be Orazio Giustiniani, and made public a number of documents he had found among the papers from the Barberini house preserved in the Vatican Apostolic Library. The scholar’s observations were further corroborated by the identification of the crest of the Merlini family – a crenellated tower surmounted by an eagle – in one of the gilded wood knobs on the back of the chair visible behind the portrayed figure; as well as by the comparison of this portrait with an engraving featuring the Monsignor produced by Giovanni Battista Zampa and published as an illustration of the Decisiones Sacrae Rotae Romanae, an extremely important judicial treatise to which Clemente Merlini had contributed.

As attested by Giovan Pietro Bellori (1672), Andrea Sacchi’s portraits were recognisable for their “good colour” and his “rare talent,” exemplified, according to the writer, by certain compositions, among which “[…] the portrait of Monsignor Merlini, auditor of the rota, celebrated for his legal doctrine, seated in his study wearing a cassock, with one hand on the armrest of the chair and the other touching a page of the open book, as if indicating the doctrine.” In fact, as observed by Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2000), this canvas is a masterpiece of 17th century Roman Baroque portraiture and forces us to reconsider certain opinions on this painter, considered one of the greatest interpreters of Roman classicism, who in this portrait skilfully combines the experiences of D’Arpino and of the Carraccis with the teachings of Caravaggio (see Strinati 2000). In fact, as observed by both Hans Posse (1925) and Herrmann Fiore (2000), Sacchi was inspired by several of Caravaggio’s works, in particular the Portrait of Pope Paul V (Rome, Palazzo Borghese), the Portrait of Maffeo Barberini (Florence, Corsini Collection) and, according to this scholar, the Borghese Saint Jerome (inv. 56), recognisable in the gesture of the right hand, which extends away from the body, as well as the Portrait of the Artist’s Father (Lugano, Caccia Civic Museum), painted in 1628 in Rome by Giovanni Serodine.  

Furthermore, in this painting Sacchi illustrates his theories on portraiture, synthesised in a letter addressed to his apprentice Francesco Lauri: “[…] portraits must not be picturesque, and the hair, the garments, the gestures or other oddities mustn’t ridicule the original, and you mustn’t go looking for the tiniest details or defects, which should be hidden, or exaggerate that which should be diminished. For he who is capable of grasping the sentiments of the soul which appear on the face and trace them, has little need to render the likeness, as the painter must always make the copy vaguer than the original, though without forsaking the resemblance. And always use a greater light, shed from above, and preferable at sunset rather than midday, so the sun and lighting from below don’t cause the semblance to be altered. Nor should you make the folds of the garments too unrealistic, or crude and contrived, in an effort to make them richer and more bizarre; for they may not follow the pose of the body which they must cover, and rather than cover it they just sit there, a cumbersome, oppressing amassment […] the hair, which shouldn’t be too clinging or too neglected […] the eyes […] heralds of the soul, which shine and sparkle with mirth, on occasion become clouded with melancholy and weep […] for I believe you shouldn’t find it strange, if you consider it carefully, that I submitted to you as model the orator and the mute, though one is void of speech the other has far too much” (Pascoli 1736; Herrmann Fiore 2000).

This portrait, executed around 1640 according to Posse (1935) and Paola della Pergola (1959), was dated by Ann Sutherland Harris (1977) in 1630-31, produced according to this scholar in the same years in which Clemente Merlini commissioned the altarpiece for the Confraternity of San Pietro de’ Battuti (Forlì, Pinacoteca Comunale), which he bequeathed to Cardinal Antonio Barberini upon his death in 1642. Furthermore, that same year Carlo Magnone had quite likely produced a copy of this painting (Incisa della Rocchetta 1924), identifiable with a canvas preserved in the Pallavicini Collection in Rome, which was considered of poor quality by Federico Zeri (1959).  

Antonio Iommelli




Bibliography
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