Domenichino's Saint John the Evangelist, which was painted for either Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani or his younger brother Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, is a key masterpiece of the Italian seicento. Celebrated in the eighteenth century, it was subsequently acquired by two notable English collectors, but its full importance has only been widely understood since the picture was first exhibited in 1950.
Domenico Zampieri, il Domenichino, was the direct heir of Annibale Carracci, and, with Caravaggio, one of the two most influential painters who worked in Rome in the early seventeenth century, reaching his full maturity with the Last Communion of Saint Jerome and the frescoes of S. Luigi dei Francesi in l614-5. While Domenichino was most celebrated for his religious compositions, he was also a key protagonist in the evolution of the tradition of the classical landscape, influenced by Annibale Carracci, but himself a powerful influence on both Claude and Poussin. He left Rome in 1617, but was summoned back in March 1621. A year later he was chosen to paint frescoes for the major new church of S. Andrea della Valle: his pendentives of the Evangelists and Scenes from the Life of Saint Andrew there have rightly been recognised as among the signal masterpieces of the age. A flood of Roman commissions followed, notably for the pendentives of another new church, S. Carlo ai Catinari. In 1631 Domenichino moved to Naples, to work on the great chapel of S. Gennaro in the Cathedral. He died there in 1641.
The relationship of the Saint John the Evangelist with the fresco of the saint at S. Andrea della Valle has long been recognised, but there is in fact no direct correspondence between these. Young considered this picture, then at Leigh Court, to be the earlier of the two, while Pope-Hennessy, when publishing the two preparatory drawings in the Royal Collection, one for the whole composition (Spear, pl. 326), the second for the putto, thought this to have been contemporary with the Naples frescoes, and thus by implication to have postdated the fresco. Salerno's publication of the 1638 Giustiniani inventory established an absolute terminus ante quem, and while Borea (1972) favoured a date of 1625-8 and Pepper - who noted that Domenichino 'appears at his most Baroque' in the picture - considered that it must have been painted at the same time as the S. Andrea frescoes (i.e. 1624-8), Spear placed the picture circa 1627-9. If Danesi Squarzina's analysis of the Giustiniani inventories is accepted, however, the picture's inclusion in the 1621 inventory of Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani, the evidence for which is circumstantial, would establish that this was indeed the earlier of the artist's two large-scale treatments of the subject. In view of the artist's recorded movements this might imply a date no later than 1617. Spear points to stylistic parallels in the Allegory for Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy (Turin; Spear, no. 90), in the Mahon Magdalen (Spear, no. 90) and in the small Saint John the Evangelist (Greenville, Bob Jones University; Spear, no. 93). While in no sense a variant of the design of the picture, the life-size figure of the saint in the major altarpiece of 1626-9, the Madonna and Child with Saints John the Evangelist and Petronius, from the church of the saints in question at Rome (Milan, Brera) expresses related artistic preoccupations, albeit in a less dramatic and structurally compelling fashion.
The arresting composition of the Giustiniani picture demonstrates the artist's deep interest in classical sculpture. The head of the saint in the S. Andrea della Valle fresco was based on a specific prototype, but the picture pays a less direct homage to the Laocoon in the dynamism of the pose of the saint. While the Windsor drawings establish that Domenichino planned the composition with characteristic care, the evidence of the picture shows that the artist made numerous last minute alterations. The most radical of these is in the background: the architecture originally extended further to the right, as far as a vertical line that can be seen under strong light; therefore the head of the saint would have been silhouetted almost precisely at the centre of the wall. The left section of the landscape postdated this compositional revision. More minor adjustments can be seen in the book on the right, in the open book, in the fingers of the right-hand putto, in the passages in the red mantle of the saint, where initial brushstrokes can be seen in raking light, and in the contour of the larger hill in the landscape.
In the 1638 inventory the picture is listed with a Saint Matthew by Niccolò Renieri (Nicolas Régnier) and a Saint Mark by Francesco Albani, and all are stated to be of the same size ('alto palmi 10 lar. 9 in circa') as a Saint Luke by Guido Reni: none of the three other Evangelists survives, but it is logical to assume that the four canvasses were planned as a series. The biographer Giovanni Pietro Bellori, who is on the whole a reliable authority, states in his life of Caravaggio that the Saint John the Evangelist with the companion pictures by Reni and Albani was commissioned to hang en suite with Caravaggio's canvas of Saint Matthew, which had been painted for the Contarelli Chapel, but was rejected by the patrons:
...il Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani si mosse à favorirlo [i.e. Caravaggio]...e per honorare maggiormente il primo [version of the Saint Matthew] portatolo à casa, l'accompagnò poi con gli altri trè Vangelisti di mano di Guido, di Domenichino, e dell'Albano, trè di più celebri pittori, che in quel tempo havessero fama. (1672, loc. cit.).
Caravaggio's picture, formerly at Berlin, was, however, of different size. It was, moreover, not placed with the other Evangelists in the Palazzo Giustiniani, but in another, and more prominent, room, the 'Stanza Grande de Quadri Antichi', at the time of the 1638 inventory (Salerno, op. cit., Part II, 1960, p. 135). The Saint Matthew was rejected on completion in 1602. Whether or not the commission for the Domenichino and its erstwhile companions was inspired by the Giustinianis' ownership of the Caravaggio, the four pictures recorded together in 1638 must have been supplied at a considerably later date. It is perhaps relevant that Albani left Rome in 1617, some two years after the arrival there of Renieri, who was in Venice by June 1626.
Of the Giustiniani brothers, the younger, Marchese Vincenzo, is more celebrated as a patron and collector than his elder brother Cardinal Benedetto. Their father Giuseppe Giustiniani, the Genoese ruler of Chios, settled in 1566, after the Turkish occupation of that island, in Rome. He secured a cardinalate for his elder son in 1586 and four years later obtained what was to remain his family's palace opposite the prominent church of S. Luigi dei Francesi. Giuseppe Giustiniani died in 1600. In 1603 Vincenzo began work on his great palace at Bassano di Sutri, where both Domenichino and Albani were employed soon after their arrival in Rome in 1603, while Benedetto served as Papal Legate at Bologna in 1607-11, which may in part explain the number of pictures by Bolognese masters which are recorded as his property in the posthumous inventory of the Palazzo Giustiniani taken in 1621. Until the Cardinal died, the brothers continued to live together in the palace, and it was there that their remarkable collections were concentrated. Their taste was complementary and can now be elucidated in the light of the inventories. Both were patrons of Caravaggio, by whom there were no fewer than fifteen works in the collection at the time of the Marchese's death, including a lost portrait of the Cardinal. Both collected above all religious pictures. It is surprising, in view of the Marchese's early recognition of Domenichino implied by the Bassano di Sutri commission, that the Saint John was the only work by the artist in the Roman palace.
The importance the Marchese Giustiniani attached to the collection is indicated by the terms of his will enjoining his heirs not to break it up (see L. Salerno, l960, p. 25). The collection remained in the Palazzo Giustiniani, and although a large proportion of the classical sculptures were sold en bloc to Thomas Herbert, 8th Earl of Pembroke in 1720, the pictures were evidently readily viewable. The Domenichino is mentioned as one of the outstanding works there in the main eighteenth-century guidebooks to Rome, and was copied by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in 1761. In 1759-61 the young artist travelled with the abbé de Saint-Non, a distinguished connoisseur with a serious interest in pictures, who employed him to make copies of those he considered to be of most signal importance. As Perini notes, Fragonard drew no fewer than eleven works by Domenichino. Ten of these were of public commissions, both in Rome and Naples: the only privately owned picture was the Giustiniani Saint John: this was evidently drawn at the same time as the Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, which rather surprisingly Fragonard recorded as by Domenichino (the drawing is in the Albertina, Vienna, no. 12720). Other artists no doubt saw the Saint John, but although Merz's suggests that this, rather than Michelangelo's Isaiah, inspired the design of Reynolds' Mrs Siddons as the Muse of Tragedy, this view is rejected by Perini. The greater accessibility of the S. Giovanni Evangelista e Petronio altarpiece may explain why Batoni referred to this rather than the Giustiniani picture, reversing the head of the saint, in his half-length Saint John the Evangelist from the Merenda series (Basildon Park, the National Trust, Iliffe Collection).
Like so many distinguished Italian families the Giustiniani were adversely affected by the French invasion and occupation of Italy. As a celebrated masterpiece, the Domenichino was among the first works to be sold. Rumours circulated that the picture was for sale as early as March 1801 (Brigstocke, p. 52) and on 30 June 1804 the Scottish agent James Irvine reported to the opportunistic Scottish dealer William Buchanan that he had offered 5,000 crowns (scudi) for the picture, that the agent of an unspecified English nobleman had offered 6,500 and that Lucien Bonaparte, later Prince of Canino, Napoleon's cultivated brother, was negotiating for its purchase at 7,000. The negotiation failed and the picture was despatched as Realpolitik dictated with the bulk of the collection to Paris, where it was intercepted by the energetic dealer, Alexis Delahante (1767-1837), who according to Buchanan 'succeeded in obtaining its separation from that collection'. This may be true, but other major works, including the Honthorst Christ before Caiaphas (London, National Gallery) and Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents (Chantilly), were sold directly to Lucien Bonaparte. Most of the remaining pictures sent to Paris were bought, apparently in 1812, for a sum of between 120,000 and 150,000 francs by the dealer d'Est in partnership with the painter and copyist, Ferréol de Bonnemaison, himself a relation by marriage of Delahante. They sold the pictures en bloc to King Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia in 1815. Not all of these were deemed worthy of inclusion in the great Museum the king projected in Berlin, and many were therefore distributed among the various royal residences.
Richard Hart Davis (1766-1842), who bought the picture from Delahante, was, by 1813 reported by Joseph Farington to have spent £100,000 on his picture collection. He was a Bristol self-made merchant, trading with the West Indies, and in 1794 became a partner in the Bristol banking house of Harford. No doubt his ability to buy pictures was helped by such coups as cornering the market for Spanish wool in 1810: this brought him £200,000. A Member of Parliament for the notoriously corrupt borough of Colchester in 1807-12 and for Bristol in 1812-31, he was a political associate of Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister who was instrumental in the foundation of the National Gallery. Davis's collection was by any standard remarkable. This ranged from such early Italian pictures as Raphael's Way to Calvary and the Giorgione Adoration of the Magi (both London, National Gallery), by way of the Saint John and a clutch of other Bolognese works, to Sweerts' Plague (then given to Poussin; Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Dughet's Colonna Calling of Abraham (London, National Gallery) and the Altieri Claudes (Anglesey Abbey, the National Trust, Fairhaven Collection). The latter had been bought from William Beckford for the unprecedented sum of 10,000 guineas by Harris, who as the provenance of the Saint John suggests understood Hart Davis's potential as a collector. News of his purchase of the Claudes from Harris for 12,000 guineas, reached Farington on 1 July 1808. On 26 June 1810 Farington records that two days earlier Hart Davis told Benjamin West that 'having now nearly completed his collection of pictures by Old Masters he should make a collection of pictures by the best Modern Masters' (Farington, pp. 3675-6). He quickly acted on the suggestion that he should buy Stothard's Canterbury Pilgrims (London, Tate Gallery), paying £250. Hart Davis also acquired Hogarth's Shrimp Girl (London, National Gallery). Although he has been said to have sold his pictures about 1813 and had certainly done so by 1816 when the Claudes were lent to the British Institution by their purchaser, the nadir of Hart Davis's financial career was only reached later in the decade: in 1818 he speculated with disastrous results, and as a result was forced to withdraw from his own businesses and from the Harford bank in March 1819.
Phillip John Miles, to whom the collection was sold en bloc, was a close business associate of Hart Davis, the son of a Jamaica merchant, whom Dr. Waagen characterised as 'a very wealthy merchant and manufacturer'. After an hour and a half's visit he stated that Miles's 'capital works of the most eminent Italian, Flemish, Spanish, and Italian masters would have done the highest honour to the palace of the greatest monarch in Europe' (l838, III, p. 134). Leigh Court, which Waagen thought to be 'in the Italian style' was designed, apparently in 1814, by Thomas Hopper expressly to house the Hart Davis pictures, to which Miles only made a very few additions, including a Murillo of Saint John the Evangelist. The collection was relatively unusual in not being dominated by dynastic portraits. Miles arranged his pictures with considerable care. The Domenichino, with the Claudes and works by Rubens, was one of only six pictures in the Saloon. While Waagen's is the most spirited account of the collection, the definitive record of this was the catalogue, illustrated with engravings, which was published in 1822 by John Young, the Director of the British Institution, to which Miles lent generously in that year. Of the five collections of which Young prepared such records, the others were all kept in London.
Both Young and Waagen understood the distinction of the Domenichino. For the former it was 'the finest single figure painted by' the artist: 'The purity and grandeur of the design, the inspired expression of the countenance, the splendour of the colouring, with the harmony of the accompaniments, all tend to fill the mind with awe and admiration.' To Young, Domenichino was indeed 'for expression' inferior only to Raphael. Waagen, who noted the 'excellent state of preservation' of the picture and knew rather more about the artist, was equally enthusiastic: 'The elevated character, the careful drawing, the glowing colouring, and the admirable impasto, make this picture...one of the most beautiful of this rare master'(1838).
Miles must have hoped that he had established his family. He became a Member of Parliament for Bristol, and his heir was awarded with a baronetcy in 1859. But soon there were financial strains, as the diary of the latter's eldest daughter Alice suggests. Evidently entailed, the collection was among the first to be sold under the terms of Gladstone's Settled Lands Act, and was sent to Christie's in 1884. By then Ruskin's sustained attack on the painters of the seicento had conditioned the views of a new generation of collectors and curators. The Domenichino remained unsold, to return to these Rooms as a result of the death of Sir Cecil Miles, 3rd Bt. Only with the revival of interest in the Italian seicento was the distinction of the artist recognised. The Saint John is mentioned in Pope-Hennessy's pioneering catalogue of the great collection of drawings by Domenichino at Windsor, published in 1948, and was first exhibited in 1950.