The San Luca Academy’s Portraits

Caravaggio Blog

As you may have gathered, I have been caught up in a completely new ball game, played between pro and contra Caravaggio factions within the San Luca Academy. The hostilities came to a head in October 1606, just a few months after the Via di Pallacorda tennis match. It is through an acute analysis of the unsavoury hostilities that developed among the San Luca Academy members in late 1606, and again between 1617-1620, that I need to ferret out how the production of our Death painting may have been initiated. An exhibition held in 2010 served as an eye-opener for me as to how the painting may have gestated. I have only very recently come across the catalogue text, which enlightens our minds on how the San Luca Academy portraits originated.

Ottavio Leoni

Maria Cristina Terzaghi, in the 2010 Caravaggio, Mecenati e Pittori catalogue, points out that the exhibition was indirectly inspired by the event that sparked the Caravaggio – Baglione feud, and presents us with a new name whose artistic activities on behalf of the San Luca Academy we need to follow attentively. The exhibition folder text reads: “A trial held in Rome in the late summer of 1603 sees gathered almost all the painters who were active in the city. The accused is Caravaggio, claimed by his rival Giovanni Baglione to have composed verses offensive to him. From the voice of Caravaggio himself we learn who his friends and enemies were, and who could paint and who could not. The defendants included a young draughtsman, Ottavio Leoni”. Leoni is important in our inquiry because between 1615-1620 he was to portray all the painters present in the original 1603 libel suit. In addition, he made portraits of their patrons, who, with their acute feeling for artistic excellence, were able to offer opportunities to the artists gathered in that lawsuit room in 1603. In her catalogue essay, Terzaghi describes the way in which the drafts for the new Academy reforms gestated. In her view, Ottavio Leoni’s chalk drawing of Caravaggio, specifically relates to the heated debates about the new statutes. She points out that Cardinal Del Monte suggested to Leoni that an initiative be launched to portray academy painters during his directorship. The request should be seen as a statement of respect and homage to Leoni, the Academy’s principe (from 1614), and seen in the light of Del Monte’s protectorate of academy painters. The only visual evidence we possess of the relationship between Leoni and Cardinal Del Monte is a drawing Ottavio made of him, in about 1616. Del Monte is probably pictured here in relation to his position as Protector of the Accademia di San Luca.

The Caravaggio, Mecenati e Pittori catalogue text seems to underpin my perception that the Deathpainting evolved within Rome’s San Luca Academy. The exhibition aimed to tell the human story and art of Caravaggio, starting from an unusual point of view. It tried to revive the Rome of the seventeenth century, evoking the portraits of the characters that were close throughout Caravaggio’s life: friends, clients and patrons, but also rivals and detractors. The majority of these are preserved at the Academy of San Luca in Rome. It is a personal friend of Caravaggio’s, Ottavio Leoni, who as the Academy’s principe from about 1614 confronted the legacy of Caravaggio in this passionate and exciting homage. In Terzaghi’s view, Leoni’s portraits should be seen as a sincere tribute, but also as a painful, posthumous monument to Caravaggio.

Self Portrait of Ottavio Leoni, drawing.

Portrait of Caravaggio, chalk drawing, c. 1617, by Ottavio Leoni.

Preliminary Conclusion

At the present state of my inquiry I start wondering how some of the art scholars I contacted for their views on the Death painting had expressed doubts as to why a painting that is supposed to capture Caravaggio’s most tragic moment be produced at least a decade - the Death’s production being generally estimated at between 1615-1625 - after the 1606 killing and why someone viewing the picture at the time would have been inclined to associate it with an event that had taken place such a long time ago. I am certain the scholars were fully aware of the Baglione-Caravaggio hostilities at the San Luca Academy, as they are related in all the biographies. I have tried to make plausible the assumption that the Academy was an environment where the composition of Apollo and Hyacinth depicted with two rackets would be acutely appreciated, where the painting’s moral and biographical context would automatically be associated with Caravaggio’s fatal tennis match and his subsequent flight from Rome. The Death of Hyacinth constituted a much more worthy, posthumous tribute than a mere portrait of the rebel painter.

The subject of the 1606 papal pardon for Caravaggio’s crime ignited the acrimonious atmosphere that dominated San Luca Academy debates in late 1606, and again in 1617-1618 (while Baglione was principe) during the reform debates, when painters quarrelled and deceived one another, when resentments flared into violence, in particular between pro and contra Caravaggio factions. Francesco Bracciolini must have heard of the hostilities and subsequently decided to incorporate a Caravaggio biographical context in the Death of Hyacinth tennis theme for his Lo Scherno degli Dei of 1618 to puzzle and amaze his readers (see Ep. 10). As we saw, it was at the Umoristi Academy, the San Luca’s literary counterpart, where the Death of Hyacinth tennis theme gestated. Giambattista Marino, in 1614, was the first poet and Umoristi member to experiment with ball-related poetry. Four other members followed suit by providing their versions of the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme in their poems. They reflect how the topic circulated in literary circles outside the San Luca academy between 1615-1625.

The thread I am pursuing in my inquiry is becoming more and more pronounced: not only in the annus horribilis, 1606, but also from 1617-1620 Caravaggio’s dark image again started to hover over the new statutes that were drawn up within the San Luca Academy. One not unimportant matter still to be established: who painted the Death? Was it Carlo Saraceni, as Patrizia Cavazzini suggested? The work and career of another Caravaggist painter, Gérard Douffet, I still need to explore further. His Roman years are shrouded in mystery. According to the French art scholar Arnauld Bréjon de Lavergnée, it was Douffet who made the Death painting, not Valentin de Boulogne of Cecco del Caravaggio (for these two, see Ep. 18), or even Saraceni. His suggestion that we visit Cherbourg together to see the painting in situ has, unfortunately, not (yet) materialized.

There happens to be an international symposium organized in Utrecht next week, Caravaggio and Northern European Painting. One of the speakers will be John Gash, of the Art History Department of the University of Aberdeen. I have been in touch with him regarding the Death picture, but that was two years ago. The title of Gash’s paper looks tempting: ‘Gérard Douffet and Italy’. I wonder if he will discuss the picture of our inquiry.