The subject of this painting is taken from the Old Testament episode in which King Solomon is called upon to judge a case involving two women who both claim to be the mother of a newborn. The painter’s pseudonym was coined by Roberto Longhi on the basis of this canvas; the critic noted the influence of Caravaggio, proposing that the artist was probably from France and was active in Rome in the 1610s. Later scholars continued to suggest specific names: in particular Gianni Papi’s thesis gained traction, namely that the painter in question is the very young Ribera, who executed the work just after arriving in Rome.
Salvator Rosa, 182.5 x 230.5 x 10 cm
Inv. 1693, room II, no. 1; Inv., 1790, room I, no. 30; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 39, no. 28; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
The painting depicts the well-known Biblical episode centred on Solomon, third king of Israel, who was believed to possess extraordinary wisdom. According to the story, two women came to the king with a newborn baby, both claiming to be its mother. To discover which of the two was lying, Solomon proposed splitting the baby in two, giving half to each. One woman accepted, while the other begged the king to give the child to her rival, aghast at the idea that it could be killed. The king then understood who the real mother was and gave her the newborn.
The question of attribution is quite complex and is still not completely settled. The historic inventories of the Borghese Collection – beginning with that of 1693, where the painting is mentioned for the first time – ascribed the canvas to a number of different artists, including Lanfranco, Guercino and Passignano; in fact both Piancastelli (1891, p. 269) and Venturi (1893, p. 47) supported an attribution to the last-named painter.
Yet early 20th-century critics reopened the question, with Voss (1910, p. 218) arguing that the work was by Stanzione. Roberto Longhi in particular dedicated much attention to the question over the course of his career, suggesting a variety of new names, from Orazio Gentileschi (1916, p. 256) to Guy François (1928, p. 18), to a French painter active in Rome around 1615 (1935, ed. 1972, p. 8). Indeed it was Longhi who coined the felicitous pseudonym – the Master of the Judgement of Solomon – for the artist of not only the Borghese canvas (from which of course the artist takes his name) but also a series of other works. These included the five Apostles that once belonged to Cussida – and which Longhi himself purchased from Marquis Gavotti – the Origen in the Galleria Nazionale of Urbino, and The Denial of Saint Peter in the Galleria Corsini in Rome. Longhi continued to attribute other works to the same artist, who he claimed was a follower of Caravaggio, probably French, and active in Rome between 1616 and 1620. Building on this scholar’s lead, over the years other critics have continued the debate the painter’s identity and which works can be attributed to the Master, a controversy that continues into the present. Indeed, not all scholars have accepted the first core of paintings ascribed by Longhi to this artist. In particular, in spite of the close similarity between the Saint Thomas of the Gavotti-Longhi Apostles and the figure on the extreme right in the Judgement of Solomon, the more classical and essentially different pose of the latter could call the thesis of their shared paternity into question (Della Pergola 1959, pp. 85-86). In addition, the scene of the Judgement is animated by smaller-than-life figures, which violates Caravaggio’s dictum. Similarly, the frieze-like arrangement of the pictorial space produces an overall effect reminiscent of classical art (Brejon de Lavergnée, Cuzin 1973, pp. 52-56; see also Spear 1971, p. 135). Other doubts regard the chronological relationship between the Apostles and the work in question: were the Saint Thomas and the Saint Bartholomew (the latter reappears in another figure in the Judgement) executed before or after the Borghese canvas? Which work is the model, and which the derivation? These questions have still not received satisfactory answers.
More recently, the debate took another turn in the wake of a thesis put forth by Gianni Papi (2002, pp. 21-43; 2005, pp. 270-273; 2007, pp. 134-136; 2011, pp. 104-106), who strongly believed that the Master of the Judgement of Solomon was the young Jusepe de Ribera, active at that stage of his career in Rome. According to this critic, a number of elements of the Judgement – the forceful colouring, the reduction of the scene to essentials, the rendering of the figures – are all in keeping with Ribera’s early production, in a period before his full adherence to Caravaggio’s school. On the basis of this theory, the work should be dated to roughly 1609-10. The choice not to depict life-size figures, meanwhile, may have been the patron’s and not the artist’s.
This hypothesis gives rise to a number of interesting scenarios, including the idea of a close relationship between Ribera and the Borghese family, probably in the person of Scipione, who certainly possessed the artist’s Beggar (inv. no. 325) and perhaps also his Saint Peter Freed from Prison (inv. no. 192), which was first documented in connection with the family collection in 1693.
Critics supporting Papi’s thesis include Silvia Danesi Squarzina and – after some resistance – Nicola Spinosa (2003, pp. 31-38; 2006, p. 395; 2008, pp. 306-307). On the other hand, Alessandro Zuccari (2009, pp. 345-353; 2010, pp. 42-43) and Marco Gallo (2010, pp. 483-487) were not persuaded. Zuccari in particular proposed that the Judgement reveals the hand of Angelo Caroselli, whose works were often imitations of other artists, at times a mix of more than one model. In this view, the Borghese canvas would be a sort of cross between Raphael’s Judgement of Solomon – the fresco on the vault of the Stanza della Segnatura – and the Gavotti-Longhi Apostles.
The critical debate surrounding the identity of the Master of the Judgement of Solomon, then, is still open. What we can affirm with certainty is that the work in question dates to the 1610s, a chronology accepted by most scholars.
Pier Ludovico Puddu