A Spanish copper by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi

Giuseppe Porzio (from Nuovi Studi 26, 2021 anno XXVI)

A hitherto anonymous and unpublished copper painting offers new evidence of Bartolomeo Cavarozzi’s stay in Spain

Over the last few decades, studies on the figure of Bartolomeo Cavarozzi have increased considerably, leading to a substantial bibliographic flourishing. The research on the physiognomy and corpus of the painter from Viterbo, especially those works for private collections, has become better defined in the context of the new mechanisms of the increasingly open and liberalised art market of the 17th century. Alongside traditional forms of commission – the mediation of consultants and promoters, such as the Roman patrician Giovanni Battista Crescenzi, protector and agent of the painter, plays a central role in this scenario.

Within the European Caravaggesque movement, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi’s historical significance appears today, therefore, quite remarkable: both as a protagonist of those Italian-Spanish figurative trends at the basis of the training of masters such as Velázquez, Zurbarán and Murillo, and as a propagator of devotional images of touching emotional intensity, built on the update of Raphaelesque prototypes, and as an original interpreter of Caravaggio’s lesson, of whom he offered some impressive reinterpretations in a hyperrealist key, with fundamental implications for the still life genre, from the Supper at Emmaus at the Getty Museum of Art in Los Angeles to St. John the Baptist in the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral (the latter long believed to be by Merisi himself) to the extraordinary Basket that appeared a few years ago in a private collection.

Bartolomeo Cavarozzi
Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, La Madonna del Pilar appare a san Giacomo Maggiore. Madrid, Real Monasterio de la Encarnación

The transfer of Bartolomeo Cavarozzi and his protector to the court of Philip III of Spain, where Crescenzi was engaged – among other things – as superintendent of the construction of the so-called Panteón de los Reyes in the monastery of the Escorial, is a crucial fact in the history of cultural exchanges between Italy and the Iberian peninsula. The reason for the departure – the translation to Madrid in 1617 of the mortal remains of the future saint Francis Borgia, led by Cardinal Antonio Zapata y Mendoza -, partially recalled by Giovanni Baglione in his the Lives dedicated to Crescenzi himself, has only recently been thoroughly clarified. 

In considering the figurative repercussions of the episode, studies have also emphasised the report of the sources, which also record the painters Gerard Seghers and Domenico Viola following the expedition, with an initial and no less decisive stopover in Genoa. 

It is generally believed that Bartolomeo Cavarozzi accompanied Crescenzi on his first return to Italy, documented in the spring of 1619, and that he then settled definitively in Rome, where he is attested to have stayed continuously from mid-1621 until his death.

At the moment, the alternative hypothesis, re-proposed by Gianni Papi, remains only a suggestion. Papi argues that the painter, following a break in the relationship with his patron, stayed in Spain instead and perhaps undertook further travels between 1620 and early 1621, either to Naples or for a second time to Genoa.

Whatever the actual duration of Bartolomeo Cavarozzi’s Spanish interlude, it is now possible to point to a new piece of evidence. It is a copper painting of Our Lady of the Pilar, hitherto anonymous and – as far as we know – lacking in literature, conserved in the Real Monasterio de la Encarnación in Madrid; the subject, then, represents one of the founding and identifying myths of Hispanic religiosity, that is, the miraculous translation of the Virgin, still alive, to Zaragoza, where – on an alabaster column (the pilar, in fact) – she is said to have arrived to comfort Saint James the Greater in his difficult work of evangelisation in the territories crossed by the Ebro. The prodigious event, which bursts over a quiet countryside from a gap of light between the clouds, recalls in its solemn serenity certain visions of Raphael, from whose perennial lesson also seem to draw the grace of the faces and the balance of the gestures, as in the major angels who without apparent effort support the Madonna to lay her before the kneeling apostle in adoration.

Bartolomeo Cavarozzi
Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, Madonna and Child crowned by angels, St. John (?), St. Joseph and St. Catherine of Alexandria. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

In the Caravaggesque context, the metal support, preferably adopted by late Mannerist artists who were more sensitive to a precious and enamelled rendering of surfaces such as Orazio Gentileschi and Carlo Saraceni, is, as far as we know, unique in the Viterbo master’s catalogue. However, the fact that the unpublished painting, so finely executed, is certainly his is proven by a comparison with the artist’s typical Marian images, whose success – as is well known – gave rise to serial production.

As far as the accuracy of the evidence is concerned, among these are undoubtedly the stupendous Madonna and Child crowned by angels, St. John (?), St. Joseph and St. Catherine of Alexandria from the Prado Museum (from the collection of Elisabeth Farnese), often – but improperly – interpreted as a mystical marriage of the martyr saint, and above all the no less noble Holy Family with St. John the Baptist formerly Spinola today at Robilant + Voena, where the identical style – even taking into account the difference in scale – is joined by the reproposition of physiognomic types, such as the dishevelled heads of the Child and the Baptist, which are seen again in the carol of angels encircling the Virgin in the copper.

Bartolomeo Cavarozzi
Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, Holy Family with St. John, (detail), Robilant + Voena

The sweetness and luminosity of the new Madonna del Pilar certainly show a component of Reni’s style, which is also evident in the Prado canvas, not by chance attributed in ancient times to the Bolognese artist himself, and in the former Spinola canvas. However, this aspect appears to be part of Bartolomeo Cavarozzi’s training and not subsequent to his return to Italy, as it has also been proposed, which would date the Holy Family after 1620. Moreover, the fact that there is a replica of the latter, perhaps from an atelier, attested in Madrid around the beginning of the 19th century and now in the Fundación Focus in Seville, is only further evidence of the common Spanish origin of such works.

September 19, 2023