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Guido Reni

1575 - 1642

Portrait of Cardinal Giacomo Sannesi
+33 (0)1 40 22 61 71


1609 Oil on canvas, 25 x 18 7/8 In. (65,3 x 50,5 cm.)
Rome, Cardinal Giacomo Sannesi (d. 1621); Rome, Sannesi family by descent until 1724; Rome, Marchese Emilio de’Cavalieri (d. 1754) by descent; Geneva, Jean de Sellon (d. 1810); Switzerland, private collection by descent; Sotheby’s, London,  December 2004, lot 174. This impressive painting was published for the first time in December 2004 when it was offered for sale by Sotheby’s, London. On the back of the picture is an inscription of the late eighteenth century which ascribes it to Annibale Carracci. This attribution, however, was rightly ruled out by the author of the London catalogue who considered the painting to be the work of an anonymous artist of the “Roman School, first half of the 17th Century”. The identity of the sitter also remained undisclosed, obviously because the painting shows a cardinal whose features were hitherto unknown from other representations. In fact, it shows one of the less prominent members of the sacred college, Giacomo Sannesi, who became cardinal in June 1604 and died in Rome in February 1621 at the age of 64. The identification is made possible by comparison with another portrait which is displayed in the town hall of Sannesi’s native Marchigian town, Belforte del Chienti.1 The painting is in poor condition and the features of the sitter are far less impressive. However, it is obvious that it is an early copy of the cardinal’s portrait presented here. In the upper right corner it bears the coat of arms of Cardinal Sannesi. It is most likely that this copy was commissioned either by the cardinal himself or by one of his relatives and sent to Belforte in order to leave a memorial to Sannesi who remained closely related to his origins although he spent the most of his life in Rome. The relation between the two pictures also clearly demonstrates that Sannesi considered the painting which is presented here as his “official portrait”. It may have served as model for other copies distributed by the Sannesi, but at present we know of only one other reproduction. This is a drawing in a volume of cardinal portraits which were executed and collected by Cardinal Celestino Sfondrato in about 1690.2 Obviously, Sfondrato had little talent as a draftsman, but with regard to the rendering of the drapery there can be no doubt that the drawing was copied after the official portrait of Cardinal Sannesi. In fact, while compiling his album, Sfondrato took great care to choose only those portraits which he considered important as regards artistic aspects. For instance, his album also contains a copy of Pulzone’s famous portrait of Cardinal Savelli (now in the National Gallery in London). Apart from the fact that the inscription on the drawing provides further confirmation that the portrait indeed shows Cardinal Giacomo Sannesi, we also have reason to believe that the portrait was always held in high esteem, not least because of its artistic value. In fact, there was good reason why Sannesi and his heirs valued it so highly. As will be demonstrated in detail in a forthcoming article, Giacomo Sannesi (c. 1557-1621) was renowned for his collection of art which he assembled in his palace in Rome.3 From the inventories of the Sannesi collection it can be established that there were only two portraits which were presented as companions and required particular attention: one represented Cardinal Giacomo Sannesi and the other his brother, the Marchese Clemente Sannesi (c. 1562-1625). The whereabouts of the latter are unknown. Both paintings had almost the same size of 3 x 2 palmi (c. 68 x 45 cm) and similar golden frames. In the early inventories only the portrait of Clemente Sannesi is connected to an artist, Annibale Carracci, while the cardinal’s portrait lacks any attribution. However, we find another trace in a later inventory of 1755, when the remaining goods of the Sannesi collection had passed by inheritance into the possession of the Cavalieri family. The entry in question is worth quoting completely: “Altro quadro in tela da testa con sua cornice dorata liscia rappresentante un ritratto di un cardinale di Guido Reno – scudi 100”.4 Apparently, the Cavalieri had precise knowledge of the author of the painting: Guido Reni. At that time the portrait was one of the most valuable paintings in the entire collection.5 But it seems that the name of the sitter had been forgotten. However, it is quite safe to assume that the entry refers to the portrait once kept in the Sannesi collection, because there is clear evidence that Guido Reni indeed painted a portrait of Giacomo Sannesi. This is testified by the account-book of Reni’s Roman workshop. On 17th November 1609 it registers the receipt of eight and a half scudi for a portrait of Cardinal Sannesi executed by Reni which had been finished recently: “otto scudi e mezzo per un ritratto fatto da Guido [Reni] et ritocato del Car[dina]le Sanesio”.6 This notice is remarkable for several reasons. At first it assures us that Reni executed the portrait himself, otherwise there would be a reference to one of his assistants who worked on his behalf. Furthermore the notice indicates that Reni not only ‘designed’ the portrait but also reworked and finished it. These retouchings or ‘pentimenti’ were traced during the recent restoration of the painting. There it was discovered that Reni at first planned to represent Sannesi with a red cardinal’s cap, but then he or the sitter decided to abandon this idea. The decision to pay more attention to the cardinal’s full black hair intensifies the impressive vitality of the portrait. In 1609 Sannesi was already fifty years old and he looks at the viewer with a forceful and determined gaze. The unusual choice to focus the representation on his life-size bust makes his appearance even more intense. Another aspect of the register quoted above requires some comment, and this is the apparently small sum Reni received in November 1609. It may be possible that he had already been given a payment in advance, but even if he did not receive further remuneration from Sannesi, the sum of eight and a half scudi would have been quite respectable for a single portrait. In fact, only one day before, on the 16th November 1609, Reni noted in his account-book that he was commissioned to paint two portraits of Cardinal Tonti for only three scudi. Thus, the price for the Sannesi portrait was almost six times higher. The entries in the account-book confirm that Reni and his workshop were actively engaged in commissions to execute portraits of members of the sacred college. His biographer Malvasia, on the other hand, reports that Reni himself ‘only’ undertook this task disliked by him on rare occasions. Malvasia lists a dozen portraits which in his time were still visible in public or private collections, and among these he mentions the portrait of Cardinal Sannesi.7 However, most of the portraits mentioned by Malvasia or in other sources seem to be lost; to this day only a few have been identified. These are the well known portraits of Pope Gregory XV (Corsham Court, Lord Methuen), of Cardinal Roberto Ubaldini (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and that of Cardinal Bernardino Spada (Rome, Galleria Spada). All these paintings were executed between 1621 and 1631, i.e. many years after Reni’s first stay in Rome which lasted (with short interruptions) from 1601 to 1614. It seems that the portrait of Giacomo Sannesi is the only portrait of this period that can be identified with certainty. This fact underlines the importance of the painting which has a unique place in Reni’s portraiture because the portraits of Cardinal Ubaldini or that of Cardinal Spada were executed fifteen to twenty years later when Reni had changed his style of painting considerably. However, the attribution, well established by documentary evidence, is confirmed by comparison with other works which Reni executed in the years around 1608. After he had entered the service of the powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1576-1633) in 1608, Reni was predominantly occupied with Borghese’s commissions to execute and supervise the fresco decorations in S. Gregorio al Celio, S. Sebastiano fuori le mura and the Vatican. Reni’s production of paintings on canvas, therefore, was reduced to a minimum during this period. The portrait of Cardinal Sannesi has its chronological place between Reni’s representation of St Peter and St Paul (Milan, Brera) dated around 1609, and the famous Massacre of the Innocents (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale) which Reni began to paint in April 1610 and finished in 1611.8 In fact, the features of the cardinal’s portrait are similar to the rendering of the head of St. Paul whose curly dark hair, however, is painted with greater accuracy. The vigour of Sannesi’s portrait reminds us that around 1609 Reni was still strongly influenced by Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci. Malvasia states that the style of Reni’s early portraits was very close to works of Carracci. This may have been the reason why the portrait of Cardinal Sannesi, despite of its former attribution to Reni, was considered to be a work of Annibale Carracci when it came into the possession of the Swiss collector Jean de Sellon (1736-1810). This transfer seems to have taken place around 1785 because there is no trace of the painting in the Cavalieri collection in 1790. About this time Sellon frequently travelled through Italy, and it is very likely that he bought many paintings directly from their former owners while staying in Florence, Naples and Rome. By 1795 he had acquired many valuable paintings. Some of them, for example Andrea Vaccaro’s Triumph of David, were later given to the Museum in Geneva by his son Jean-Jacques de Sellon (1782-1839). However, the cardinal’s portrait remained in the possession of the family. The following entry in a manuscript catalogue of the Sellon collection, compiled around 1800, most likely refers to Reni’s portrait of Cardinal Sannesi which was at that time attributed to Annibale Carracci, as indicated on the back of the canvas: “Le portrait d’un Cardinal, vêtu d’un manteau rouge. Peint sur toile; haut 2 pieds. Large 1 pied 5 pouce”.9 It comes as no surprise that the identity of the sitter, once again, remained unknown. Also for this reason, we should say something more about Sannesi’s personality. Regarding the portrait of Cardinal Sannesi one has to bear in mind that the relationship between Sannesi and Reni’s patron, Cardinal Borghese, was somewhat tense. Although he came from humble origins, Sannesi made a brilliant in the Roman Curia. He was a close confidant of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini (1571-1621), the powerful nephew of pope Clement VIII, who gave rise to the steady ascent of Giacomo Sannesi and of his brother Clemente. Their progress, however, was seen with envy by the established nobility. Sannesi’s loyalty to his patron is expressed in his coat of arms which shows a dog following a star and, thereby, refers to the main heraldic element of the Aldobrandini coat of arms. Like an emblem, it illustrates that Sannesi would follow Aldobrandini as a loyal servant wherever his master might call him. However, Sannesi became a victim of this promise in 1605 when the newly elected pope Paul V Borghese tried to limit the powers of Aldobrandini and sent him into “exile” in his Bishopric of Ravenna. Around the same time Sannesi was sent to Orvieto, but in 1607 he was allowed to return to Rome on the grounds of his declining health. Meanwhile Giacomo’s brother Clemente Sannesi had done his best to reconcile relations with the Borghese family. That Giacomo Sannesi merited being portrayed by Cardinal Borghese’s favourite painter Guido Reni in 1609 has to be interpreted as an act of curial diplomacy. Reni himself probably accepted the task quite willingly because at the time when he painted the portrait in 1609, Sannesi was already well known as a distinguished art collector. He was in possession of important works by Caravaggio, and many artists tried to attract his attention by dedicating prints and other works of art to him. We can thus make important progress in improving our knowledge of Guido Reni’s career through the recognition of a long-lost work of his first Roman period, significant for its artistic quality as well as for historic reasons. Lothar Sickel Notes: 1- The painting was published by Mario Ciocchetti, Belforte del Chienti: cenni storici, Camerino 1982, following p. 80 (before restoration), and more recently by Luigi Maria Armellini, Una via belfortese e tre archi trionfali lungo il fiume Chienti, Belforte del Chienti 1997, p. 80. The present writer brought this copy to the attention of Erich Schleier who thus succeeded in identifying the portrait offered by Sotheby’s with the original painting; I am very grateful to him for generously informing me of his identification. 2- On Sfondrato’s album see the catalogue of the Roman exhibition Caravaggio e i Giustiniani: toccar con mano una collezione del Seicento, ed. Silvia Danesi Squarzina, Milan 2001, pp. 186-187, No A.2. 3- See Lothar Sickel, ”Caravaggio, Lanfranco und Reni in der Sammlung Sannesi: Geschicke einer Familie im Spiegel ihres Kunstbesitzes”, Römisches Jahrbuch der Bibliotheca Hertziana, 37, 2006 (forthcoming). 4- The expression “tela da testa” appears quite often in Italian inventories of the eighteenth century but the dimensions are not precisely defined. However, it becomes clear by comparison with other paintings described as “tela da testa” that the expression could refer to canvases larger than 60 x 40 cm. All inventories mentioned in this text and in the following entry on Lanfranco’s representation of Rinaldo’s Farewell to Armida will be discussed in detail in my forthcoming article on the Sannesi collection; see note 3 above. 5- 100 scudi was a considerably high sum for a single portrait. Lanfranco’s much larger Rinaldo’s Farewell to Armida, by comparison, was in the same collection and was valued at “only” 200 scudi (see the following entry). 6- Quoted from D. Stephen Pepper, “Guido Reni’s Roman account books”, The Burlington Magazine, 113, 1971, p. 315. 7- See Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Felsina pittrice: Vite de’pittori bolognesi, Bologna 1841, II, p. 47. 8- On the date of Reni's St Peter and St Paul see Daniele Benati in Pinacoteca di Brera: Scuola Emiliana, Mailand 1991, pp. 238 -241. On the Massacre of the Innocents see Stephen Pepper, Guido Reni, Oxford 1984, pp. 225-226. 9- Quoted from Mauro Natale, Le goût et les collections d’art italien à Genève du XVIIIe au XXe siècle, Geneva, 1980, p. 99. According to the London catalogue of 2004, the portrait already belonged to Jean’s uncle Gaspard de Sellon (1702-1785). However, this assumption has not been verified, and it is very unlikely that the painting could have entered the Sellon collection prior to 1785. In fact, Gaspard de Sellon is not known to have been an art collector.