The painting is a replica of the famous work by Titian (1511-1512) now in Edinburgh, but with a few significant variations. It is not known when and how this work entered the Borghese collection, however, the “where” has been mentioned since 1700 and is recorded in the 1833 inventario fidecommissario as a work by Sassoferrato.
Nineteenth-century frame, external frieze in kymation
124 x 181.7 x 12.2 cm
(?) Aldobrandini-Pamphilj collection (Della Pergola, 1955); Borghese collection, quoted in Montelatici, 1700, p. 297; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, p. 11 (Mariotti, 1892, p. 84); Piancastelli, ms, 1891, p. 346. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.
The canvas is a version of Titian’s Three Ages of Man (Bridgewater Collection, Duke of Sutherland, on display at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), painted at the beginning of the 1620s.
In our work, the representation is set against a green landscape, enclosed on the left by a backdrop of trees and on the right by a building partly hidden by some trees, and open in the centre to a valley that disappears into the horizon against a blue sky furrowed by white clouds; a shepherd with his flock can be glimpsed at mid-height. There are three groups of characters in the scene: on the left, a young couple lying on grassy meadow with flowers: the boy, almost completely naked, rests his flute on the ground and gazes intensely at the girl, who returns his gaze; her very blond hair is partially bound and adorned with a myrtle wreath; she is dressed in red and white; she holds two flutes: one slightly closer to her lips, the other explicitly alluding to the clear erotic tension between the two lovers. On the right, two putti sleep embraced, watched over by a Cupid who seems to be holding up a dead tree trunk. A little further on, a seated old man holds one skull, surrounded by at least three others and some bones.
The depiction differs from Titian’s original in a few important details. Not so much the building (a country cottage in the Edinburgh version), but above all the number of skulls the old man is pondering - four in the Borghese painting, two in Titian’s work - in which the moralising sense imposed by the young master is rendered more dramatic and loaded: life that flows under the sign of the subtle balance between voluptas and virtus, from childhood (two cherubs watched over by Cupid) to maturity (two young people in an amorous relationship). In the old man, only the regret of useless vanity (two skulls are pondered) is generated, destined to die like all things, like the dead tree that ideally separates the first and third ages, if it is not made virtuous by Cupid who watches over the young protagonists. A continuous, inevitable, identical cycle, where humanity is always faced with universal choices, between possible demise and longed-for eternity: central themes in the work of the young Titian, recurring and depicted differently in his later and final work.
In the X-rays of the Edinburgh painting, published in 1971 (Robertson), a primitive idea of the work could be seen, very close in those same details (the number of skulls above all) to the two known versions of Titian’s canvas: the Borghese and Doria Pamphilj examples (De Marchi), which are almost identical in composition.
The subject is widely debated, and critics have put forward the possibility that at least two, if not three replicas (with variants) of this allegory on human life (Humfrey) came from Titian’s workshop. Of these, only one has come down to us, as confirmed by the various versions mentioned in the sources (Wethey), the engraving by Valentin Le Fevre (c. 1680), and above all the copies/derivations from Rome that still exist today. The dating of the latter is also a matter of debate, and is related to their respective collecting histories on the one hand, and on the other, to the direct relationship at least with one original version by Titian, possibly present in Rome between the 16th and 17th centuries. The Edinburgh painting was in Rome in the mid-17th century in the collection of Christina of Sweden, purchased in 1655 and registered in the queen’s residence in the Riario palace in 1662. But, apart from the compositional differences already highlighted, it is unlikely that the Doria painting could have depended on it, as it was certainly in the collection of Pietro Aldobrandini (later, through inheritance and marriage, coming to the Doria Pamphilj) as early as 1603 (D’Onofrio). This last note seems to be of some importance, not because the Doria version should be considered an autograph work, but rather because the latter, to be considered as 16th century (De Marchi) and painted following a prototype by Titian, was believed to be by Titian at least at the beginning of the 17th century and for almost the entire century, in a context such as Rome in which paintings from workshops or even those made in the style of the master circulated and filled the collections of aristocrats and cardinals as Titians, tout court, arousing admiration from amateurs, soliciting the attention of travelling or resident artists, and generating copies.
It was in this context that the Borghese work was most probably produced, perhaps around 1682, when, following the death of Olimpia Aldobrandini, and due to hereditary issues, an inventory (1682) was created that lists “a painting on canvas with a Shepherd and a Woman Playing the Flute with Three Cupids and a Reclining Old Man, four palms high, Gilded Frame, by Titian” (Della Pergola, 1955). When the Aldobrandini collection of paintings was divided up, with some going to the Borghese collection, it must have prompted the occasion to create a copy of the painting, which remained with the Doria Pamphilj branch, still and at the time considered to be an original by Titian. Hence, on the one hand, the stylistic gap between the two versions, on the other hand, the compositional similarity almost to the point of overlapping. What is more, in the Borghese collection our specimen is only recorded in 1700. In fact, Montelatici mentions, in the villa outside the Porta Pinciana, as a “sovraporta” above the door in the Cameral del Sonno (sleeping chamber - currently room 10) a painting “where a young man is depicted sitting with a young girl, a Hermit, & some Cupids, sleeping”, adding the note that “it is taken from Titian”. It is therefore clear that the painting was a copy of a Titian, or, as the 1833 Inventario Fidecomissario records, “The Passage of the Life of Man” by Sassoferrato.
The attribution to Giovan Battista Salvi was confirmed in 1893 by Adolfo Venturi, who judged the painting to be a “faithful, but cold” copy, and was not generally questioned. Among the few exceptions were Wethey - an unknown artist who slavishly copied the Doria Pamphilj version - and Herrmann Fiore (2000) who, taking the stances of Wethey, Russell, and Vitaletti, rejected it on stylistic grounds, ascribing the work to an unknown painter.
The attribution to Sassoferrato, also supported by Della Pergola (1955), could instead be confirmed by the most recent studies on the painter, who was more or less permanently in Rome from 1629 until his death in 1685. The studies show an artist who was greatly appreciated at the beginning of the 19th century (Rosazza-Ferraris), with a socially ambiguous position, accustomed to working as a copyist, but distinguished from the “bottegari” for his quality and painting skills (Cavazzini). There is therefore nothing to exclude that these skills were used to produce the Borghese painting, in which the clarity of the forms and colour backgrounds recall his style.
Maria Giovanna Sarti