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Saint Jerome

Merisi Michelangelo called Caravaggio

(Milan 1571 - Porto Ercole 1610)

According to Giovanni Pietro Bellori, the painting was made by the artist for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a sophisticated and avid collector, known among his contemporaries for being one of the greatest admirers of the promising Lombard painter.

The painting depicts St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church, studying the Sacred Scriptures which, according to tradition, he translated from Greek to Latin. In fact, the saint is hailed for his qualities as a studious man, portrayed as an elderly humanist hunched over the complex exegesis of the sacred text.

The compositional partitioning into two large fields of colour, distinguished by warm tones – such as the skin of the saint and the purple mantle – and cold ones – the skull and white cloth standing out against the open book – seems to emphasise a symbolic dialogue between contrasting contents: life and death, past and present.

Because of some rapidly painted details and the straightforward way the paint was applied, some critics have hypothesised that the canvas was never completed.

 


Object details

Inventory
056
Location
Date
1606 circa
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
cm 116 x 153
Frame
Cornice ottocentesca decorata con palmette.
Provenance

Rome, Cardinal Scipione Borghese (Bellori 1672, p. 208). Inv. 1693, room II, no. 43. Inv. 1790, room V, no. 19. Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 33; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

 

 

Exhibitions
  • 1914 Roma, Palazzo Corsini;
  • 1922 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti;
  • 1951 Milano, Palazzo Reale;
  • 1986-1987 Roma, Palazzo Barberini;
  • 1991 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti;
  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo Ruspoli;
  • 1999 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado;
  • 1999-2000 Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes;
  • 2001 Okazaki, City Museum;
  • 2001 Tokyo, Museo Teien;
  • 2005-2006 Milano, Palazzo Reale;
  • 2006 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum;
  • 2006-2007 Dusseldorf, Museum Kunst Palast;
  • 2012 Belo Horizonte, Casa Fiat de Cultura;
  • 2012 Buenos Aires, Museo Nazionale delle Belle Arti;
  • 2013 San Pietroburgo, Hermitage Museum;
  • 2014-2015 Roma, Palazzo Barberini;
  • 2016-2017 Milano, Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana;
  • 2017-2018 Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum;
  • 2018-2019 Parigi, Musée Jacquemart-André.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1941 Carlo Matteucci;
  • 1947 Carlo Matteucci;
  • 1965 Renato Massi (pulitura, risanamento giunture, stuccatura e doratura della cornice);
  • 1968 Oddo Verdinelli;
  • 1981-1983 Gianluigi Colalucci (restauro completo);
  • 1988 Seracini-Lappucci (indagini diagnostiche);
  • 1996 Elena Zivieri, Guido Piervincenzi (consolidamento, disinfezione e risanamento della cornice)
  • 2001 Emmebici (indagini diagnostiche);
  • 2001 Giantomassi-Zari.

Commentary

Although we have no documentation concerning the date of its entry into the Borghese Collection, critics are certain that this painting came into the possession of the family at the behest of Cardinal Scipione, as Giovanni Pietro Bellori duly noted in 1672: ‘For the cardinal [Borghese] he executed a work with St Jerome extending his hand and pen toward the inkwell as he writes attentively (Bellori 1672, p. 208).

Slightly dissenting from his colleagues, Maurizio Calvesi proposed that the canvas was not commissioned by the powerful prelate but was rather personally donated to him by Caravaggio: aided by the well-known collector in one of his many juridical run-ins, the artist repaid him with this painting, in which the cardinal’s cassock worn by Jerome is intended as a tribute to his protector.

The work was mentioned for the first time in a description of the villa made by Iacomo Manilli in 1650. It was then listed in the 1693 inventory as ‘a large canvas painting with St Jerome writing and a skull: no. 316, in a gilded frame. By Caravaggio’. In spite of this document, in 1790 the work was mistakenly ascribed to Jusepe de Ribera. This attribution was retained in both the Inventario Fidecommissario and by Adolfo Venturi in 1893. Several years later, Ettore Modigliani again proposed the name of Caravaggio, an opinion, however, which was not accepted by Matteo Marangoni, Nikolaus Pevsner and Ludwig Schudt. The attributions of these three scholars were in turn strongly criticised by Hermann Voss, Lionello Venturi, Sir Denis Mahon, Aldo De Rinaldis, Roger Hinks and Walter Friedländer.

In 1951, Roberto Longhi included the painting in an exhibition of works by Caravaggio, held in Milan; critics unanimously supported the attribution. In 1959, Paola Della Pergola concurred when she published the work in the catalogue of the Galleria Borghese.

Longhi believed the work to be among the last ones of the artist’s Roman period, dating it to 1605-6. This opinion was generally accepted by scholars, with the exception of Mahon, who anticipated the period of its execution to 1602-4. According to Mina Gregori, the painting was probably conceived together with the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (Madonna dei palafrenieri, inv. no. 110) – that is, in 1605-6 – taking as its model the head of the elderly saint in Montserrat’s St Jerome as well as that of the central apostle in Caravaggio’s own Death of the Virgin (Paris, Louvre). For his part, Friedländer traced the saint’s face to older works, citing in particular the man with glasses in The Calling of Saint Matthew (Rome, Church of St. Louis of the French), the apostle Peter in the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, and Saul’s servant in Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Cerasi family chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome).

The limited quantity of paint used in the work, the summary representation of some details – such as the irregularity of the beard and the rapid execution of the cassock – as well as several elements that seem to indicate that the painter had second thoughts – evident in the left hand, the right arm, the face and the pose of the saint – inclined Maurizio Marini to propose that the painting was unfinished. In 1983, however, Mia Cinotti rejected this idea.

  Antonio Iommelli




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