fig. 1 
Sassoferrato

The National Gallery of Victoria has recently acquired a Madonna in prayer of exceptional beauty and quality by the seventeenth-century painter Giovanni Battista Salvi, ‘Il Sassoferrato’.1 Giovanni Battista Salvi was born in the Marches on 25 August 1609 and died in Rome on 8 August 1685. For biographical details, see esp. T. Mancini, ‘Sassoferrato’ in The Dictionary of Art, ed. J. Turner, vol. 28, London, 1996, pp. 864–5; F. Russell, ‘Sassoferrato and his sources: A study of seicento allegiance’, Burlington Magazine, CXIX, October 1977, pp. 694–700; F. Macé de Lépinay, Archaïsme et purisme au XVII siècle: les tableaux de Sassoferrato à S. Pietro de Pérouse’, Revue de l’art, XXXI, 1976, pp. 38–56; and F. Macé de Lépinay et al., in Giovan Battista Salvi,Il Sassoferrato’ (exh. cat.), Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici delle Marche, Commune di Sassoferrato, Provincia di Ancona, 1990, which contains an extensive bibliography. Datable to the 1640s, it belongs to a period when Sassoferrato was arguably producing his finest work (fig. 1) and is a new discovery not previously known to scholars, coming as it does from a private collection through the New York market. The acquisition enhances the NGV’s relatively poor representation of seventeenth-century Italian painting. This serious gap in our collection can be explained by the fact that the years of the Felton Bequest’s greatest acquisitive strength in the early to mid twentieth century coincided with an extraordinarydecline in the critical fortunes of the Baroque, with the taste for Baroque painting – and consequently its relative market value – falling to its lowest ebb. At a time, therefore, when great Baroque paintings could be readily acquired for modest prices, the NGV instead followed the prevailing fashion and concentrated on building up its strong holdings of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art. It could be argued that, even now with the interest in, and the market for the Italian Baroque at a new height, Sassoferrato has, until very recently, been neglected.

The reasons for this are not difficult to comprehend. Like his Tuscan contemporary Carlo Dolci, Sassoferrato specialised in producing a limited range of devotional pictures of great piety and almost excessive sweetness. The twentieth-century’s disdain for this style and subject matter reflected a modern unease with fervently religious imagery. This disquiet was not, however, shared by the nineteenth century, when Sassoferrato’s paintings were hugely admired and collected with enthusiasm, 2 On the nineteenth-century taste for Sassoferrato, see esp. S. Cuppini, ‘Il Sassoferrato e l’ottocento’, ibid., pp. 137–8. exerting a considerable influence on contemporary art of the time, Particularly in France. Sassoferrato’s nineteenth-century reputation, and certain links with the National Gallery of Victoria, forms a principal subject of this essay.

Sassoferrato can be regarded above all as the master of the prayerful Madonna. In the mid to late seventeenth century his works enjoyed widespread popularity, not only because they reflected a particular aspect of Counter-Reformation Mariology, but also because they were usually small and could be afforded by a broader range of patrons and pilgrims to Rome than was the case with many other contemporary painters, who depended upon ecclesiastical and aristocratic patronage for large-scale commissions. While some commissions to Sassoferrato are well documented, and while we can sometimes identify the sitters in his portraits (who are always painted with an appealing clarity and realism), by and large the names of those who acquired his works are unrecorded; they would have purchased ready-made pictures rather than commission them – making them clients, in fact, rather than patrons. Indeed, the only aristocrat who appears to have seriously patronised Sassoferrato was Donna Olimpia Pamphilj, Principessa di Rossano,3 On the patronage of Olimpia Pamphilj, see esp. F. Haskell, Patrons and Painters in Baroque Italy, London, 1980, p. 131. who paid for what is arguably his masterpiece, the Madonna of the Rosary (fig. 2), still in situ in the Capella di Santa Caterina at Santa Sabina in Rome, a work datable to 1643, and therefore almost exactly contemporary with Melbourne’s new acquisition; and it can be presumed that the works by Sassoferrato, most notably the Virgin in prayer 4 Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, inv. no. 225 (Breccia I). The composition is extremely close to Sassoferrato’s celebrated The Virgin in prayer in the National Gallery, London. There is another variant in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. still in the Doria-Pamphilj collection in Rome, were acquired at the same time.

Amongst the deeply pious, Sassoferrato’s work has never been out of fashion, because his imagery conforms to a particular visual religiosity favoured by the Catholic Church. In the late eighteenth century Luigi Lanzi wrote of Sassoferrato’s employment of a countenance peculiarly appropriate to the Virgin, in which an air of humility predominates, and the simplicity of the dress and the attire of the head corresponds with the expression of the features.5 L. Lanzi, Storia pittorica dell’Italia, 1795–96; English trans. ed. T. Roscoe, London, 1847, pp. 465–6.

It is notable that even today the National Gallery in London sells huge numbers of posters and postcards of its archetypal Sassoferrato, The Virgin in prayer, 1640–50 (fig. 3), more perhaps than Madonnas by any other artist. Sir Charles Holmes noted rather wryly in the 1923 London National Gallery catalogue that, ‘Our Madonna in prayer [sic] has been popularised in countless Reproductions, and is still the inspiration of countless devotional statuettes. The image-makers might have a worse model’.6 C. Holmes, The National Gallery: Italian Schools, Glasgow, 1923, p. 132. (Later Painters of Central Ital). The taste for the slightly cloying sweetness of Sassoferrato’s and Carlo Dolci’s images lives on in innumerable religious artefacts shops around the world. The Melbourne picture can be judged amongst the very best of this artist’s Madonnas at prayer. It is smaller than the London National Gallery’s painting and belongs to a group of works in which the picture frame cuts off the hands clasped in prayer, bringing a particular emphasis to the exquisite drawing and modelling of the fingers. It is closest in form and composition to pictures in Genoa 7 Virgin in prayer, looking downwards, Genoa, Galleria Brignale-Sale, Palazzo Bianco, bequest of the Duchessa di Galliera, 1889. and Bergamo 8 Virgin in prayer, looking downwards, Bergamo, Accademia Carrara (inv. no. 371), bequest of Conte Guglielmo Lochis, 1859. (fig. 4), although in both these works the artist has inscribed a halo above the Virgin’s head, absent in our version.

Sassoferrato has strongly contrasted the rich ultramarine blue of the Virgin’s cloak with her white veil, the pearly skin of the face and hands of porcelain-like smoothness. The drawing is confident and the forms firmly modelled, with an almost sculpturesque quality silhouetted against a dark background. Through a work like this it is easy to understand the degree to which Sassoferrato looked back to Raphael, and it was this rather classical Raphaelesque quality which set him apart in mid-seventeenth-century Rome, appealing not only to his contemporaries, but to subsequent generations, particularly in the nineteenth century. Haskell has noted his restrained and archaising style, producing devotional pictures ‘which were long taken to be by some follower of Raphael 9 Haskell, p. 130. and which in their austere simplicity directly opposed the most fashionable in the contemporary Baroque style.

We know from the eighteenth-century chronicler Lanzi that Sassoferrato produced large numbers of highly competent copies after earlier masters,10 For example, Sassoferrato’s very competent copy of Federico Barrocci’s Annunciation (now in the Vatican) was acquired by the Louvre in 1861; it is worth noting that the NGV possesses one of Barrocci’s preparatory ink drawings for the Vatican picture, acquired from the Ellesmere Collection in 1972. particularly Raphael, and it should not be forgotten that Donna Olimpia Pamphilji’s commission of 1643 for the Santa Sabina altarpiece was specifically to replace a supposed Raphael, the Holy Family, now demoted, which the Dominican monks had given to Cardinal Antonio Barberini in 1636 in the hope – in fact unrealised – of generous patronage. We can assume therefore that Sassoferrato was deemed a highly appropriate painter to work in a Raphaelesque manner. A major element of Sassoferrato studies is the identification, in both the paintings and drawings, of sources in the art of Raphael and even Perugino.

At the very moment that the NGV was negotiating to acquire its Madonna in prayer in New York, a photograph of a young woman at prayer by O. G. Rejlander (1813–1875), dated to around 1858–60, appeared on the London market and was acquired by our Department of Photography (see p. 50). Rejlander, though born in Sweden, studied painting and sculpture in Rome, eventually settling in England where he undertook photography from 1853.11 Published in this volume by Dr Isobel Crombie, the photograph is directly inspired by the London National Gallery’s The Virgin at prayer by Sassoferrato, and Rejlander’s photographic homage to the artist focuses attention on his strong, mid-nineteenth-century reputation. Rejlander sought to create photographic ‘equivalents’ taking their inspiration from ‘high art’. In the mid nineteenth century Sassoferrato’s painting was indisputably seen as ‘high art’ and private and institutional collectors throughout Europe competed to purchase his pictures that began to command very high prices.

A number of separate but related issues need to be considered in understanding this mid nineteenth-century taste and enthusiasm. The first concerns the revival of interest in Raphael, and Sassoferrato was certainly admired as a highly competent seventeenth-century painter in the Raphaelesque manner. In France in the 1840s to 1860s, the work of fashionable artists such as Ary Scheffer, Ingres, Flandrin and Bouguereau reflected the taste for Raphael, and the simplicity and clarity of Sassoferrato’s style, his simplified drawing and intense religious emotion, at times appear even more influential than Raphael’s. All of this coincides with the considered revival in the Roman Catholic Church of the cult of the Virgin Mary, culminating in the promulgation by Pope Pius IX in 1854 of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. At this moment of reinforcing and reinterpreting the Mariology of the Catholic world, the art of Sassoferrato seemed peculiarly appropriate as a source of visual focus. The fortunes of just one work by Sassoferrato, his Immaculate Conception, 1640–50, (fig. 5), can illustrate the point forcefully.12 For an analysis of the picture, see Macé de Lépinay et al., Sassoferrato, cat. no. 42, 1990. The subject of the picture has been much debated. It was published in 1990 as the Assumption of the Virgin, but in the nineteenth century the subject was always seen as the Immaculate Conception. As both religious themes depict full-length, prayerful Madonnas borne on clouds in the heavens, the interchanging of the title is understandable.

The painting was commissioned, probably in the 1640s, by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of San Pietro in Perugia. Looted by the French in 1812, it was transferred to the Louvre (at that time known as the Musée Napoléon) in whose collection it remains today. Baron Vivant-Denon wrote in 1812 that ‘this painter produced only a few individual compositions, preferring mostly to paint heads of Virgins. This composition is worthy of being displayed in the Musée Napoléon, in terms of both its quality and its state of preservation’.13 Listed in Lavallé’s inventory of the Italian pictures which remained in Paris; see ‘Tableaux laissés au Musée Royal par les puissances étrangères sur les observations de M. Lavellé’, histoire de l’art in F. Boyer, ‘Le Musée du Louvre après les restitutions d’oeuvres d’art de l’étranger et les musée des départements’, Bulletin de la société de l’histore de l’art français, 1971, pp. 79–91. Valued at 4000 francs, it can be compared with similar values for lesser known masters, but must also be compared with the 40,000 franc valuation of Guido Reni’s Purification of the Virgin, or the 300,000 franc valuation of Titian’s Crowning with thorns. It is important to note that this painting was not amongst the thousands of works of art returned to Italy in 1817 after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. It can be concluded that the picture’s retention in Paris was not necessarily because it was regarded as unimportant, but rather because it was admired by Louis XVIII, for we find that it was soon removed from the Louvre and installed in the royal palace of the Tuileries. It was returned to public view under the Orleans dynasty, and the archives of the Département des Peintures of the Louvre14 Sassoferrato files, Département des Peintures, Musée du Louvre. record applications by students and professional artists for permission to copy Sassoferrato’s Immaculate Conception in the public galleries; there is a very noticeable increase of interest in the picture in the 1840s and 1850s,15 It is also worth noting that in 1955 the picture was considered by the Louvre as of such limited interest that it was deposited in the Musée Massey in Tarbes, close to the Marian centre of Lourdes. with copies commissioned in particular for churches and religious institutions. All of this coincides with the debate in France on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception initiated by Pope Pius IX in the 1840s. The Marian revival in the Catholic Church was particularly concentrated in France, given that the three nineteenth-century visions of the Blessed Virgin officially recognised by the Church all took place there; the vision of St Catherine Labouré in Paris in 1830, that of La Salette in 1846, and finally, that of Lourdes in 1858.16 It should be remembered that, according to the testimony of the visionary Bernadette, the Blessed Virgin commenced her conversation of the apparition of 25 March 1858 with the words: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’. See esp. T. Kselman, Miracles and Prophecies in 19th Century France, New Jersey, 1983. The description of the appearance of the Virgin, unsurprisingly, conformed to the Baroque type created by artists like Reni, Murillo and Sassoferrato. It is hardly coincidental that in 1855 Napoleon III paid the highest price ever recorded for a work of art at the time, to acquire Murillo’s Immaculate Conception for the French nation, and for the Louvre, from the collection of Maréchal Soult: see J. Tinterow, Manet/Velasguez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting (exh.cat.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003. It is entirely explicable, therefore, that Sassoferrato’s Immaculate Conception enjoyed a high reputation in France in the mid century. Writing in 1884 Charles Blanc observed dryly of Sassoferrato: ‘Priests, the devout and religious orders have promoted his world reputation as a Raphael of prayer rooms’.17 C. Blanc, Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles. École ombrienne et romaine, Paris, 1884, Appendix, p. 39.

In England, too, the 1840s and 1850s saw a focusing of interest on the art of Raphael, and also on Sassoferrato. We often think of the period as the moment of Pre-Raphaelitism, a time when the members of the stylistically radical Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood looked back to the late Middle Ages, to Italian art before Raphael and to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in particular.

It is all too easy, however, to allow our twentieth-century enthusiasm for Pre-Raphaelitism to obscure the fact that the movement struggled to find acceptance and an audience, and that the most popular and fashionable contemporary artists, from Winterhalter to Landseer and even Queen Victoria herself, were adopting models that reflected an interest in Raphael and post- Raphaelite art. For all of Sir Charles Eastlake’s innovative purchases of Italian art before Raphael for the London National Gallery’s fledgling collection, it has to be admitted that he spent infinitely more money on adding sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pictures. The truth is that Italian Baroque art was admired and collected in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, notwithstanding John Ruskin’s fierce denunciations of Eastlake’s purchases of Baroque painting, and especially his preoccupation with Guido Reni, whose pictures he described as ‘devoid alike of art and decency’.18 See esp. M. Warner, The Pre-Raphaelites in Context (exh. cat.), Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, Calif., 1992, p.6. The large number of critical attacks on the Pre-Raphaelites provide an interesting indicator of prevailing views on the merits of Raphael and what we might describe as a post-Raphaelite aesthetic.  The London National Gallery’s Virgin in prayer by Sassoferrato, the model for Rejlanders photographs, was bequeathed by Richard Simmons in 1846. In 1864 Eastlake purchased in Venice, for the very high price of £380, a much larger and more complex picture by Sassoferrato, The Virgin and Child embracing,19 See esp. D. Robertson, Sir Charles Eastlake and the Victorian Art World, New Jersey, 1978, p. 322. but it has never achieved the popularity of the smaller and simpler painting. In England, too, the 1850s was a decade of intense religiosity, with Anglo-Catholicism promoting a return to the religious rituals and visual culture of pre- Reformation England, resulting in an openness to things medieval and medievalising, including the art of the Pre-Raphaelites.20 On this phenomenon, see esp. G. Vaughan, Art Collectors in Colonial Victoria (unpublished BA thesis, The University of Melbourne,1976) and A. Galbally et al., The First Collections: The Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s (exh. cat.), University of Melbourne Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1992.

The restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales by Pius IX in 1850 also saw a revival of Roman Catholicism, but it was a church unable to return to pre-Reformation ecclesiology because it had to reflect the Pope’s ultramontanist ideas, and which was obliged to absorb the theology and religious practices, including their visual manifestations, of the Counter-Reformation. An openness to things Italianate, and to the Baroque, fitted neatly. Given all of these issues, it is not surprising to find Oscar Rejlander, who had studied in Rome in the 1840s, creating a photographic image directly reflecting Sassoferrato’s prayerful Madonna.

 

The mid-nineteenth-century enthusiasm for Sassoferrato was also reflected in the early exhibitions history of the National Gallery of Victoria. In the first years of collecting, with Sir Charles Eastlake, Director of the National Gallery, London, acting as adviser, the NGV elected to concentrate on contemporary British art. Eastlake made no attempt to induce Melbourne’s seriously under-resourced museum of art to imitate his collecting interests in the field of the masters. Precisely because of this, the trustees of the NGV organised, from time to time, loan exhibitions when the Melbourne community offered from their private collections works which covered a much broader range of artistic practice.21 Catalogue of the Works of Art, Ornamental and Decorative Art Exhibited by the Trustees of the Public Library and Museum in March, April, May and June 1869, Melbourne, 1869. There was a notable concentration on copies of old masters, particularly the Italian Baroque, and it is interesting to observe that, on more than one occasion, very competent copies of the London National Gallery’s Sassoferrato, The Virgin in prayer, were included. Thus, in the huge loan exhibition of 1869, 22ibid., p. 17. we find T. B. Payne contributing copies of Claude, Poussin, Guercino, Reni and Dolci, and in particular, a ‘Virgin of Sorrows – after Sassoferrato’. A series of photographs of the 1869 installation survive (figs 6 & 7) showing at least three copies of works by Sassoferrato on view at the National Gallery of Victoria. Figures 6 and 7 clearly display copies of the London The Virgin in prayer, and another photograph (not reproduced here) shows The Virgin of sorrows mentioned above.

It is interesting to reflect, therefore, that our acquisition of Sassoferrato’s Madonna in prayer in 2002 has completed a process of interest in the artist which began at the NGV in the 1860s when international enthusiasm for his work had reached its apogee.

Dr Gerard Vaughan, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria (in 2003)

Notes

1      Giovanni Battista Salvi was born in the Marches on 25 August 1609 and died in Rome on 8 August 1685. For biographical details, see esp. T. Mancini, ‘Sassoferrato’ in The Dictionary of Art, ed. J. Turner, vol. 28, London, 1996, pp. 864–5; F. Russell, ‘Sassoferrato and his sources: A study of seicento allegiance’, Burlington Magazine, CXIX, October 1977, pp. 694–700; F. Macé de Lépinay, Archaïsme et purisme au XVII siècle: les tableaux de Sassoferrato à S. Pietro de Pérouse’, Revue de l’art, XXXI, 1976, pp. 38–56; and F. Macé de Lépinay et al., in Giovan Battista Salvi,Il Sassoferrato’ (exh. cat.), Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici delle Marche, Commune di Sassoferrato, Provincia di Ancona, 1990, which contains an extensive bibliography.

2       On the nineteenth-century taste for Sassoferrato, see esp. S. Cuppini, ‘Il Sassoferrato e l’ottocento’, ibid., pp. 137–8.

3       On the patronage of Olimpia Pamphilj, see esp. F. Haskell, Patrons and Painters in Baroque Italy, London, 1980, p. 131.

4       Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, inv. no. 225 (Breccia I). The composition is extremely close to Sassoferrato’s celebrated The Virgin in prayer in the National Gallery, London. There is another variant in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.

5       L. Lanzi, Storia pittorica dell’Italia, 1795–96; English trans. ed. T. Roscoe, London, 1847, pp. 465–6.

6       C. Holmes, The National Gallery: Italian Schools, Glasgow, 1923, p. 132. (Later Painters of Central Ital).

7       Virgin in prayer, looking downwards, Genoa, Galleria Brignale-Sale, Palazzo Bianco, bequest of the Duchessa di Galliera, 1889.

8       Virgin in prayer, looking downwards, Bergamo, Accademia Carrara (inv. no. 371), bequest of Conte Guglielmo Lochis, 1859.

9       Haskell, p. 130.

10      For example, Sassoferrato’s very competent copy of Federico Barrocci’s Annunciation (now in the Vatican) was acquired by the Louvre in 1861; it is worth noting that the NGV possesses one of Barrocci’s preparatory ink drawings for the Vatican picture, acquired from the Ellesmere Collection in 1972.

11       Published in this volume by Dr Isobel Crombie, the photograph is directly inspired by the London National Gallery’s The Virgin at prayer by Sassoferrato, and Rejlander’s photographic homage to the artist focuses attention on his strong, mid-nineteenth-century reputation.

12        For an analysis of the picture, see Macé de Lépinay et al., Sassoferrato, cat. no. 42, 1990. The subject of the picture has been much debated. It was published in 1990 as the Assumption of the Virgin, but in the nineteenth century the subject was always seen as the Immaculate Conception. As both religious themes depict full-length, prayerful Madonnas borne on clouds in the heavens, the interchanging of the title is understandable.

13       Listed in Lavallé’s inventory of the Italian pictures which remained in Paris; see ‘Tableaux laissés au Musée Royal par les puissances étrangères sur les observations de M. Lavellé’, histoire de l’art in F. Boyer, ‘Le Musée du Louvre après les restitutions d’oeuvres d’art de l’étranger et les musée des départements’, Bulletin de la société de l’histore de l’art français, 1971, pp. 79–91. Valued at 4000 francs, it can be compared with similar values for lesser known masters, but must also be compared with the 40,000 franc valuation of Guido Reni’s Purification of the Virgin, or the 300,000 franc valuation of Titian’s Crowning with thorns.

14       Sassoferrato files, Département des Peintures, Musée du Louvre.

15       It is also worth noting that in 1955 the picture was considered by the Louvre as of such limited interest that it was deposited in the Musée Massey in Tarbes, close to the Marian centre of Lourdes.

16       It should be remembered that, according to the testimony of the visionary Bernadette, the Blessed Virgin commenced her conversation of the apparition of 25 March 1858 with the words: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’. See esp. T. Kselman, Miracles and Prophecies in 19th Century France, New Jersey, 1983. The description of the appearance of the Virgin, unsurprisingly, conformed to the Baroque type created by artists like Reni, Murillo and Sassoferrato. It is hardly coincidental that in 1855 Napoleon III paid the highest price ever recorded for a work of art at the time, to acquire Murillo’s Immaculate Conception for the French nation, and for the Louvre, from the collection of Maréchal Soult: see J. Tinterow, Manet/Velasguez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting (exh. cat.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003.

17      C. Blanc, Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles. École ombrienne et romaine, Paris, 1884, Appendix, p. 39.

18       See esp. M. Warner, The Pre-Raphaelites in Context (exh. cat.), Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, Calif., 1992, p.6.

19      See esp. D. Robertson, Sir Charles Eastlake and the Victorian Art World, New Jersey, 1978, p. 322.

20      On this phenomenon, see esp. G. Vaughan, Art Collectors in Colonial Victoria (unpublished BA thesis, The University of Melbourne, 1976) and A. Galbally et al., The First Collections: The Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s (exh. cat.), University of Melbourne Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1992.

21       Catalogue of the Works of Art, Ornamental and Decorative Art Exhibited by the Trustees of the Public Library and Museum in March, April, May and June 1869, Melbourne, 1869.

22      ibid., p. 17.