National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 14, 1969

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Andrea Sacchi's "Portrait of a Cardinal"

by Ann Sutherland Harris

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  

The attribution to Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661) of the Portrait of a Cardinal in the National Gallery of Canada (fig. 1), first made in 1924 (1) and reiterated as recently as 1964, (2) has not seemed satisfactory to a number of scholars who have suggested a variety of other attributions. (3) The catalogue of the Gallery prefers caution and the label "Italian School, 17th Century." (4) The attribution to Sacchi is, however, certainly correct, and the painting is, moreover, the only one by this rare master of the Italian seicento to be seen anywhere on the American continent. (5)

The correct attribution is far easier to establish than the identity of the sitter. Research is handicapped by the absence of the identifying marks common to portraits of this kind, namely inscriptions on the papers held by the sitter and a coat of arms on the back of the chair, both clearly visible in Sacchi's portrait of Cardinal Angelo Giori (fig. 2). Their absence in the Ottawa portrait, together with the sketchy appearance of most of the surface, suggests that the picture is unfinished, as does comparison with Sacchi's portrait of Monsignore Clemente Merlini in the Borghese Gallery (fig. 3), where only the background is handled with comparable bravura. In the Ottawa portrait the head alone has the degree of finish found in Sacchi's other portraits.

A connection with Sacchi is implied by the close similarity of the composition of the Giori portrait to that of the Ottawa picture. The former was painted in, or shortly after, 1643; (6) stylistic parallels for the latter suggest a date around 1630. The latter seems, in fact, to have served as a modello for the former, and as the Ottawa portrait is unfinished, it might well have remained in the artist's studio and been available for such use. (7) It is even possible that the Ottawa picture can be identified with a portrait of an identified cardinal which is known to have been in the artist's house in 1661. (8) This portrait is not described as abbozzato (sketched out) or non finito (unfinished), but then neither is the portrait of Francesco Albano, now in the Prado (fig. 4), which appears in the same 1661 inventory and of which only the head has been completed.

There are striking stylistic parallels between the Ottawa portrait and Sacchi's two sketches for the Collegio Romano fresco of 1629 (fig. 5). (9) The hand of St Ignatius with a book and that of St Cosmas with an ointment jar should be compared with the left and right hands respectively of the Ottawa cardinal. The ridged, textured impasto of the cardinal's left sleeve and of the surplice below it, crumpled against the arm of the chair, is found again in the robes of St Ignatius and St Francis of Loyola in the Collegio Romano sketches, as are very similar drapery forms. The treatment of the Ottawa cardinal's head can be compared with the heads of Francesco Albano in the Prado and Clemente Merlini in the Borghese Gallery (figs. 4, 3). All three have the same vivid and sympathetic presence of character, while the detailed handling of all the features, which are drawn with the minimum of fuss, is very close.

The identity of the sitter is less certain than the identity of the artist. Apart from members of the Barberini family, none of whom resemble the Ottawa cardinal, there are three cardinals who were old men in the later 1620s and early 1630s and with whom Sacchi is known to have had contact. One of these was Cardinal Domenico Ginnasi (1551-1631), for whom Sacchi worked briefly in 1628. (10) Sacchi is not known to have painted Ginnasi's portrait, however, (11) and the resemblance between the Ottawa cardinal and Ginnasi as he appears in Algardi's portrait in the Borghese Gallery or in Giuliano Finelli's monument to Ginnasi in Santa Lucia de' Ginnasi is not convincing. Another possibility is Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who was Sacchi's chief patron between 1621 and 1626, when he died at the age of seventy-seven. (12) A portrait of him by Sacchi hung in Sacchi's front room in 1661 along with portraits of all his other important patrons. (13) The recent discovery of a portrait drawing of Cardinal del Monte by Ottavio Leoni (fig. 6), (14) made in 1616, shows that his features are not those of the Ottawa cardinal, even allowing for the effects of increased aging in the painting which, for stylistic reasons, can hardly have been made before 1625-6; (15) consequently the Ottawa portrait cannot be identified as an image of one of the most interesting art patrons active in Rome during the seicento. (16)

The remaining candidate is Cardinal Lelio Biscia, a less influential character than either Ginnasi or del Monte but a man who nevertheless had an important if small part in Sacchi's career. Biscia (c. 1573-1638) was Vice-Protector of the Camaldolese Order and it was almost certainly he who in 1631 commissioned Sacchi's most famous altarpiece, The Vision of St Romuald, formerly on the high altar of the Camaldolese church in Rome and now in the Vatican Picture Gallery. (17) Sacchi certainly painted Biscia, for a "ritratto (portrait) con il Card. le Biscia" hung in the same room of Sacchi's house as a small version of the St Romuald (18) and was presumably painted at about the same time as the altarpiece. That date - 1631 - also suits the stylistic parallels for the Ottawa portrait cited earlier. As there is unfortunately no known record of Biscia's appearance, (19) the identification of the Ottawa cardinal as Biscia must remain tentative, even though the circumstantial evidence in favour of Biscia is good.

The unfinished state of the Ottawa portrait may perhaps be explained by Biscia's circumstances in 1631. After a successful and honest career in the Vatican bureaucracy in the second decade of the century, (20) Biscia seems to have made political enemies shortly after his elevation to the purple in 1626 by seeming too ambitious to the cliques who decided who was papabile. As a result he was kept off the important Congregations and, since he had not enriched himself during his earlier career, found himself in financial difficulties compared with his more astute or less scrupulous colleagues. He was also going deaf. (21) Reading character into a portrait image is a risky business, but I can see the Ottawa cardinal as a disappointed and lonely old man who has not entirely come to terms with his failure to manage Vatican politics to his own advantage and with his forced early retirement. At all events, it is a face that engages our sympathy, and perhaps also our pity, for it hints at the decline in mental powers that comes with old age. Perhaps Biscia found that he could not afford the portrait after paying for the altarpiece, and this explains why the unfinished work remained in the artist's studio and why it served as a model for the portrait of Cardinal Giori in the 1640s. Still, even a poor cardinal could probably afford 50 scudi for a portrait. A better explanation for the picture's unfinished state is that Sacchi found such an image sufficient for his historic collection of patron's portraits. For a modern audience, the bravura handling of the underpaint and the almost Venetian colour scheme, (22) with the warm red cape set off by the brilliant white surplice, have an immediate appeal. For students of the seicento, the colour scheme and technique are also fascinating evidence of the "baroque" aspects of the artistic character of this "classical" artist.

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