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

Bulletin 26, 1975

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A Poelenburgh in the National Gallery of Canada

by Malcolm Waddingham

Résumé en français

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Unfortunately, few of the many Dutch and Flemish artists who visited Italy (even for several years) during the first half of the seventeenth century left behind many paintings from their stay unless, like Paul Brill, they spent most of their adult life in that country. One important exception was Cornelis van Poelenburgh (1586?-1667) (1) who lived in Italy for just under a decade, from 1617 to some time before 1627 when he was recorded back home in Utrecht. (2) According to Sandrart, Poelenburgh visited both Rome and Florence, and in Florence met Callot. (3) (If that information can be relied on, this meeting must have occurred before Callot returned to Nancy in 1621.) From other sources, however, it is evident that Poelenburgh spent much more of his time in Rome than in Florence.

Unlike many of his compatriots, who had also come to learn from the revered Italian tradition, Poelenburgh was not reluctant to attempt an ambitious religious theme or literary subject. To what extent he was capable of producing such pieces has become clearer now that his narrative works are distinguished from those of Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1599?-1657), who was in Italy in 1619 and in Rome for most of the 1620s. Several important pictures from Poelenburgh's Italian period were incorrectly attributed to Breenbergh during the nineteenth century, a mistake generally accepted until Eckhard Schaar, in an excellent article published in 1959, (4) returned some of them to the proper artist. One false attribution Schaar did not mention, however, concerns one of Poelenburgh's most striking Italian-period creations, Clorinda Saving Olindo and Sofronia from the Stake (fig. I), now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

I first saw this copper panel in 1952 when it was on loan from the collection of Captain Eric Palmer and included as a Breenbergh in that massive show Dutch Pictures 1450-1750 (cat. no. 22), at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. (5) My notes from that time record only its colouring and contain no reference to the attribution. Several years later, in February 1958, I was invited to study Palmer's collection of paintings at Wooburn Green, near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. On the back of the photograph which he gave me of his so-called Breenbergh I noted, "figures by Poelenburgh." When it was included in the 1965 exhibition in Utrecht, Nederlandse 17e Eeuwse Italianiserende Landschapschilders (cat. no. 31), it was encouraging to see that although this picture was again shown as a Breenbergh (probably out of respect to the owner), A. Blankert, the scholar responsible for the catalogue entry, treated it as certainly by Poelenburgh. And this it is: a chef-d'oeuvre from his Italian period, as will be seen from comparisons with other early works.

Poelenburgh's choice of subject was taken from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, the epic poem of 1574 which covers the capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. (6) King Aladine, the Mohammedan ruler of Jerusalem, had stolen an image of the Virgin Mary from a Christian church and placed it in the Royal Mosque. The statue was again mysteriously stolen and, in anger and fury, Aladine decided to massacre the Christians. In order to placate the king's rage and save her friends, Sofronia, a young woman of great beauty, falsely admitted to having stolen the statue. As a result she was condemned to death by fire. Olindo, her lover, tried to save her by claiming, also untruthfully, that it was he who had taken the image. Both were tied to the stake and saved only by Clorinda who arrived mounted on a proud and rearing horse, looking more like a heroic warrior than a young Saracen woman.

Though ambitious, this panel nonetheless remains independent of this style and iconography manifested in the twenty-one engravings produced by Agostino Carracci and Giacomo Franco (after Bernardo Castello's drawings) for a 1590 edition of the same poem. (7) Poelenburgh does full justice to the drama of the story, underlines the physical beauty of the half-naked Sofronia, (8) and carefully records his affection for some of the recent innovations in architecture as well as for monuments of Roman antiquity. Confidence was needed for a northern artist in Italy not to produce a religious piece too obviously derived from Renaissance tradition. Quietly and independently Poelenburgh creates an individual, imaginative location which is a revealing statement of his own responses to Rome.

Placed in their new situation in 1583, the two antique Roman Dioscuri on broad classical bases stand out against the sky. As in real life, La Cordonata (the recently built, shallow ramp leading from the Campidoglio) cuts down between them. Several richly garbed riders descend from the top. Beyond this staircase a circular, temple-like building commands the upper centre of the picture; its roof lightly refers to that of the Pantheon, and its shape and design allude in a more general and vague fashion to the dome of St Peter's. Supporting this edifice is a powerful wall-like base which has been interpreted as a "paraphrase of Maderno's facade to St Peter's of 1607-14." (9) But no less important, in my view, is to recognize how the central background buildings are delineated with acute sensitivity to their delicacy of tone. With the exception of the column on the right of the cupola, which intentionally looks like a version of the Column of Marcus Aurelius or that of Trajan, there are no literal transcriptions of particular buildings. The references, like the one to the monument on the far right (which resembles the Arch of Constantine) or the huge simple columns on the left, are broad and are evocations of magnificence and power.

Poelenburgh was far from being the first Dutchman to depict a Roman background; but new was the way he described (pursuing the late manner of Brill) the ruins and architecture with fresh realism and a marked feeling for their idyllic aspect. However, he did not want to convey a contemporary scene too literally, for the story was set in the Middle Ages. This in itself was not without challenge in iconography. One problem concerned the style of dress for the characters and their deportment and behaviour. (In Tasso these incidents are merely used allusively in medieval style, and so in some ways it constituted less of a problem to the writer than to the artist.) Like most painters of his time, Poelenburgh was not interested in portraying the visual character of a specific historical period. For him the past connoted a classical or Renaissance style, so no effort is made to convey a touch of Romanesque colour or atmosphere. (Distinctions of period in costume were so much less important in art during this time than in romantic and later times when painters were keener to record historical fashions correctly.) Clorinda, mounted on her rearing horse, springs out of the Renaissance, for the animal is inspired by the horse in Raphael's Expulsion of Heliodo in the Stanza d'Eliodoro. Similarly, the general shape and structure of the back of the servant to the right of Sofronia is influenced by the almost naked figure of the servant who suspends the baby by its legs in Raphael's Judgement of Solomon in the Stanza della Segnatura. Equally dependent on a Renaissance world are many of the characters standing behind the condemned couple. This is also true of the three slaves who prepare the wood around them; they are statements of respect for the physical and classical beauty of a male body, but a body revitalized by the muscularity inspired by Michelangelo. Compared with them, however, the rider in the lower-left corner is obviously an early seventeenth-century man. No attempt is made to disguise his assured elegance and virility - understandable when it is known that this is a self-portrait of the artist. (10)

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