The authorship of this remarkable picture has been the subject of considerable debate, and has played an important role in both re-shaping our knowledge of the oeuvres of Jusepe de Ribera and Luca Giordano, and in understanding artistic taste in mid-17th century Naples. When it was rediscovered and exhibited at the Trafalgar Galleries, London, in 1976, the picture was deemed by Eric Young to be a mature period work by Ribera, dating to circa 1648-50. The attribution was upheld when the picture was subsequently exhibited in the Ribera show at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, in 1982-83, when it was considered to belong to an earlier moment of his career, circa 1638-40. However, Nicola Spinosa, in his 1978 publication of Ribera’s Opera Completa, underlined the ‘altissima qualità’ of the picture, but raised a question mark over the apparent differences it presented with Ribera’s oeuvre, not least in the figure in the background, and he remarked on the similarities with Giordano’s tonal expression (op. cit., pp. 123-4). Later, in his revised 2006 catalogue raisonné, Spinosa confirmed his earlier feeling that this was not a late work by Ribera, but in fact an early masterpiece by Giordano, dating to circa 1656-57, an opinion he confirmed upon viewing the picture recently in person.
The details of this early period of Giordano’s life and career are not entirely clear. Born to an artist father, who may himself have worked under Ribera, his early biographers present a picture of a self-taught talent, who is not mentioned as being schooled in the workshop of a master, but who instead sharpened his skills by copying paintings, frescoes and sculptures in the churches and galleries around Naples, and then later in Rome. An apprenticeship under Ribera has, nonetheless, been hypothesised. His acquired sobriquet, Fa Presto, has given succour to the appealing idea of the self-educated genius or effortless dilettante, of a man blessed with innate skill, intuitive in design and capable of bravura in execution. Yet if this schooling suggested that he was to be an outsider, then his career told a very different story: he became an artist of the first rank, welcoming major commissions from his native Naples, from Venice and Florence, and also from Spain, where he executed decorative cycles in Toledo cathedral and at the Escorial.
In his formative years, Giordano’s debt to Ribera, whether he was indeed a pupil or not, is evident in both the style and substance of a number of his early works, especially those that depict philosophers and saints. Giordano’s series of highly realistic portraits of philosophers are strikingly similar to Ribera’s own compositions, which were in such vogue in early 17th-century Naples, and featured in numerous noble collections. And Giordano’s representations of saints, mythological scenes and martyrdoms followed Ribera’s mastery of the genre: clear parallels can be drawn between the latter’s Flaying of Marsyas and Giordano’s staging of the same subject, both in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, and between the present lot and Ribera’s Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. More specifically, the rendering of the skin and the torso in this current picture is highly comparable to that of Saint Philip, who also wears a similar loin cloth, in the scene of his martyrdom by Ribera of circa 1639 (Madrid, Museo del Prado). Yet there are subtle but telling differences to the present work, which contribute to create a work of markedly different impact to those listed by Ribera above: the body, for example, is not drawn out nor is the skin stretched to the same painful degree as Ribera’s Saint Bartholomew; and the horror of the impending flagellation is not rendered explicit, instead it is concealed by the saint’s downcast gaze. The most striking distinction is the manner in which a sense of heroic endeavour and steadfastness pervades the composition, displacing the overbearing graphic realism of Ribera’s most similar works. These differences not only identify Giordano’s hand, but point to a new way of representing sainthood in the post-Ribera world of Naples.
At the height of Ribera’s career, the taste for graphic images of martyrdom in Naples has been recognised as a ‘distinguishing characteristic’ of the time (see H. Hendrix, ‘The Repulsive Body: Images of Torture in Seventeenth Century Naples’, in F. Egmond and R. Zwijnenberg, Bodily Extremities. Preoccupations with the Human Body in Early Modern European Culture, Aldershot, 2003, pp. 68-91). Collectors of the period, such as the merchant Gaspar Roomer and Ferdinand van den Eijnden, indulged such a taste for depictions of pain and torture. But after 1650, this desire for an ‘aesthetics of horror’ began to fade, and such audaciously explicit representations of martyrdom started to disappear. The present canvas was painted on the cusp of that change of taste: while Ribera’s influence remains prominent, Giordano has moved in a new direction.
Looking through Giordano’s oeuvre, one can see how aspects of the modelling of Bartholomew, from his head to toe, are repeated elsewhere. The same facial type appears in the guise of Socrates in the work in the Molinari Pradelli Collection (see O. Ferrari and G. Scavizzi, Luca Giordano. L’opera completa, Naples, II, p. 540, no. 222); the vigorous torso is comparable to that of Saint Andrew in the Crucifixion of Saint Andrew, circa 1655 (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada); and the dynamic, rather idiosyncratic positioning of the left foot, raised on its instep, is interestingly repeated in at least three other works: in the Prometheus in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (see Luca Giordano, exhibition catalogue, 2001, p. 173, no. 46), in the Penitent Magdalene (Madrid, Museo del Prado) and the Magdalene with a Crucifix (Madrid, El Escorial) (Ferrari-Scavizzi, op. cit., p. 564, no. 270 and p. 839, no. 889).
Giordano’s distinguished touches of red in the brow of the face are almost signature strokes of the artist, a reminder of how he prized the material use of paint. Bernardo De’ Dominici recounts a discussion between Giordano and Raymond de la Fage, in which Giordano defended the primacy of the brush over the pen: ‘Monsù mio, vedi quanta differenza vi sia dall’esser pittore all’esser disegnatore, poichè ognuno che applica può disegnare bene, ma non tutti ponno dipingere bene, ed io mi contento piuttosto esser Luca Giordano, che monsù La Fage, e tutti i disegnatori del mondo.’ (B. De’ Dominici, Vite dei pittori, scultori, ed architetti napolitani, IV, p. 193). Though as Dawson Carr suggests, his legendary status as a painter of quicksilver production may well have been played up as a marketing tool (D. Carr, ‘Luca Giordano: Naples, Vienna and Los Angeles’, The Burlington Magazine, 143, no. 1181, August 2001, p. 518); in reality, many of his compositions were carefully staged and planned. Indeed, there is little of the present picture that suggests a hurried or careless brush: rather there is inventive design in the diagonal force of the body, great subtlety in the sublime hues of the flesh tones, and flashes of brilliance in the superb highlights in the face. It was, then, perhaps the lack of knowledge and full appreciation of Giordano’s earlier career that had led to this work, together with a number of his other pictures, being given to Ribera. But that in itself is also a measure of his stature: Giordano is an artist who regularly matches up to lo Spagnoletto in his mastery of southern Italian tenebrism. In the 2001-2 exhibition of Giordano’s work in Naples (which toured to Vienna and Los Angeles), a show that went a significant way to bringing Giordano’s extraordinary career to a wider public, the present lot was described as a ‘prova superba’ (Luca Giordano, exhibition catalogue, p. 160): indeed, for an artist whose very nickname suggests a quickening of the pulses, this is a picture of great beauty and theatrical drama.