Executed in 1655 when Giordano was barely 20 years of age, this picture is a faithful copy of Raphael’s Visitation, which was completed circa 1519, probably with studio assistance, now in the Prado, Madrid. Our picture corresponds with what we know of Giordano’s formative career: born to an artist father, his early biographers describe a self-taught talent, who is not mentioned as being schooled in the workshop of a master (though many have presumed an apprenticeship with Ribera), but who instead sharpened his skills by copying paintings, frescoes and sculptures in the churches and galleries around Naples, and then later in Rome. This practice of imitation was key in his attempt to forge a reputation as an artist of talent, one to match the masters of the sixteenth century. According to his friend and biographer Antonio Palomino, Giordano ‘copy’d many Originals of the most celebrated Painters, with so intense an Application that, making himself perfect Master of the different Stile and Manner of each, he attain’d to imitate them all so well, that People are every Day deceiv’d by his Paintings; now mimicking Raphael, then following Titian, sometimes keeping Tintoret in his Eye…’ (A. Palomino, An Account of the Lives and Works of the Most Eminent Spanish Painters…, 1739, pp. 151-152). It was a measure of his versatility that he was capable, from the very outset, of emulating the classicism of the high Renaissance, whilst at the same moment developing his own vein of southern, tenebrist realism, one that has been frequently compared to, and mistaken for, that of Ribera.
The dating of the present picture is significant. The year of 1655, inscribed by Giordano, not only marks it out as one of his earliest dated works, but also coincides with the year in which Raphael’s original canvas was removed from the church of San Silvestro in Aquila by García de Avellaneda y Haro (1588-1670), then the Viceroy of Naples, on the orders Philip IV of Spain. It was then taken to the Escorial, outside Madrid, where it remained until being moved to the Prado in the 19th century. Giordano, then, must have seen the picture either shortly before, or around the time of, its removal from Aquila. Indeed, it is plausible that he may have been commissioned to paint this replica, whose dimensions precisely match those of the original, by the viceroy himself before Raphael’s picture left Italy definitively. We know, in fact, that Giordano was commissioned in Naples, at around this same time, by García de Avellaneda y Haro to produce at least two large scale compositions, Saint Augustine and Saint Monica (Madrid, Monastero de la Encarnación) and Saint Raphael Archangel and Tobias (untraced), the former signed and dated 1657 (O. Ferrari and G. Scavizzi, Luca Giordano. L’opera completa, Naples, 1992, II, p. 259, under A51). These two canvases were sent immediately to Madrid, to the Marquis de Cortes. Though no supporting documents have yet come to light, one might speculate that this present lot too found its way to Spain in the same manner.