Giuseppe Cesari called
(Arpino 1568 – 1640 Rome)
St. Jerome in the Desert
Oil on panel, 52 x 58 cm
Private collection, Italy; Antonacci & Lapiccirella Fine Art, 2014.
Against the backdrop of a moonlit landscape, Saint Jerome kneels before a skull and crucifix. Nude but for a loincloth and his characteristic cardinal-red cloak, the bearded anchorite has stripped himself of all earthly comforts in pursuit of a life of ascetic penance in the wilderness. The wonderfully balanced foreground of jagged rock formations opens up to a distant view of a town bathed in blue light. Saint Jerome holds a stone, the instrument of his self-inflicted punishment for the sin of the flesh, and is accompanied by a lion that, according to the popular hagiographical belief, he tamed by removing a thorn from its paw. Executed around 1600, the present panel displays the lively elegance of Giuseppe Cesari, an artist of immense acclaim and considerable influence in Rome at the turn of the seventeenth century. Stylistically a transitional figure, he is seen as bridging the gap between late Mannerism and early Baroque art, brought to Rome by Carracci and Caravaggio.
Born Giuseppe Cesari, the artist became better known as Cavalier d’Arpino after Clement VIII bestowed him with the honorable title at the height of his artistic career around 1600. Giuseppe was the son of an artist, Muzio Cesari, and a mother who recognized his precocious talent for drawing. She took him to Rome in 1581 where he started in the studio of Niccolò Circignani, who was at the time directing the decoration of the Vatican Logge for Gregory XIII. Giuseppe’s skill as a painter won him favorable attention from the Vatican, which is probably the key to his numerous fresco decorations in various churches around Rome. In 1592 Clement VIII was elected pope and Arpino became his principal painter. It was around this time that Caravaggio became a member of Giuseppe’s studio. From 1599 to 1601 the artist supervised the decoration of the Pope’s episcopal church, Saint John’s Lateran, and contributed a large fresco of the Ascension, for which Cesari earned the title of Cavaliere di Cristo. In 1603 the artist received the largest Papal commission of his career designing the mosaics for the copula of St. Peter’s, an immense project that would occupy most of the following decade.
In 1605 Pope Paul V succeeded Clement VIII, a change that would be of tremendous consequence for Arpino. Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of the new pope, had the Cavalier arrested in 1607. His collection of 105 paintings, including two early works by his former student Caravaggio, was confiscated and still hangs in the Cardinal’s villa, now the Galleria Borghese. The ordeal injured Arpino’s spirit, and seemingly his art, yet he continued to receive commissions to oversee major projects. The burgeoning of artistic activity in Rome under Urban VIII brought the humiliated artist back to prominence, but his talent appeared to slip. The confidence and richness of his earlier work gave way to rigid compositions and lifeless figures. Still Arpino’s work remained highly fashionable for the remainder of his life and he went on to serve three terms as president of the Academia di S Luca.
It has been proposed that the present painting is by Frederik van Valckenborch (Antwerp 1566 – 1623 Nuremberg) based on a similar picture attributed to the Flemish artist that hangs at the Borghese (Fig. 1). The painting is one of six sopra porte landscapes that were originally considered to be by the workshop of Paul Bril (Antwerp 1556 – 1626 Rome), but were argued to be by Valckenborch by Terèz Gerszi in 1990. The set of paintings came, in fact, from Arpino’s confiscated collection and could very likely be by one of his pupils, possibly Flaminio Allegrini, an attribution suggested by Herwarth Röttgen. Any way you look at the attribution it is clear that in our painting Cavalier d’Arpino was very much indebted to Paul Bril, Rome’s preeminent landscape painter of the period. Bril’s Saint Jerome in a Landscape (fig.2 ) on copper is dated 1592, and it already contains many of the same compositional principles as our painting.