Carlo Bononi (Ferrara 1569-1632)
Carlo Bononi (Ferrara 1569-1632)

Saint Barbara

Carlo Bononi (Ferrara 1569-1632)
Saint Barbara
oil on canvas
90 1/8 x 58½ in. (229 x 148.1 cm.)
Chiesa dell'Annunciazione di Maria Vergine in Fortezza, Ferrara, until circa 1805.
Private collection, Germany.
with Matthiesen Fine Art, London, 1979.
The Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection, 1986.
C. Barotti, Pitture e sculture che si trovino nelle chiese, luoghi pubblici, e sobborghi della citta di Ferrara, Ferrara, 1770, p. 47.
G.A. Scalabrini, Memorie storiche delle chiese di Ferrara e de' suoi borghi, Ferrara, 1773, p. 79.
C. Cittadella, Catalogo istorico de' pittori e scultori ferraresi e delle opere loro con in fine una nota esatta delle più celebri pitture delle chiese di Ferrara, Ferrara, 1783, vol. III, p. 158.
A. Frizzi, Guida del Forestiere per la città di Ferrara, Ferrara, 1787, p. 101.
London, Matthiesen Fine Art, From Borso to Cesare d’Este: The School of Ferrara 1450-1628, June-August 1984, no. 60.
London, Matthiesen Fine Art, Around 1610: The Onset of the Baroque, 14 June-16 August 1985, no. 29.
Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale; Washington, National Gallery of Art; and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Age of Correggio and the Carracci, 10 September 1986-24 May 1987, no. 124.
New York, Newhouse Galleries (in association with Matthiesen Fine Art), Paintings from Emilia 1500- 1700, 11 March-16 April 1987, no. 20.
Warsaw, The Royal Castle, Opus Sacrum, 10 April-23 September 1990.
Monaco, Musée de la Chapelle de la Visitation, Opus Sacrum. The Collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, 1995.

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Lot Essay

Carlo Bononi has been seen as the last great artist to come from the school of Ferrara, which produced such a rich, inventive and idiosyncratic line of painters under the Este Dukes, from Cosimo Tura through to Garofalo. Apprenticed first to Giuseppe Mazzuoli, il Bastarolo, and then to Scarsellino, Bononi travelled widely to the major artistic centres of the peninsula, but received most of his commissions in the towns and cities of Emilia: notably Modena, Reggio and his native Ferrara.

This great devotional canvas, probably executed in the early 1620s, was originally displayed in the side altar of the church of the Annunciazione di Maria Vergine of the fortress of Ferrara; an Annunciation by Scarsellino was commissioned for the high altar (now untraced). The fortress itself was conceived by Pope Clement VIII as a means to protect the city from the perils of foreign invasion, but the building work, of both the church and the fortress, was only completed under the reign of Paul V, the former finished in 1618 and the latter in 1632. When the church was de-consecrated in 1805, the pictures were removed, and the fortress was partly demolished though it remained operational. It was restored and occupied by Austrian troops during the early to mid-19th century and subsequently became a symbol of oppressive foreign rule. As a result, when Ferrara became part of the newly unified Italy during the Risorgimento, the fortress was razed to the ground in 1859-60. The church had re-opened in 1830 but was later destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. This picture, which demonstrates Bononi’s talents as a colourist, is full of allusions to the life of Saint Barbara and the story of her martyrdom. The tower in the background, next to the fortress – undoubtedly a reference to the neighbouring fortezza – is her most common and recognisable attribute: it alludes not only to her role as patron saint of architects, constructors and artillerymen but also to the story that she was kept imprisoned in a tower by her possessive father, Dioscorus. Following her conversion to Christianity, she was tortured and her faith put to the test, before she was executed by her own father. As divine punishment, Dioscorus was struck by lightning: the flash in the sky can be seen in the distance.

The choice of the subject was not unique at the time: the cult of Saint Barbara was in fact quite actively promoted in the Duchy of Ferrara in the 16th and early 17th centuries, perhaps because of Alfonso d’Este’s predilection for artillery, of which Barbara was the patron saint. The present picture can probably be dated to circa 1618-20, though an early source records the picture as unfinished (Cittadella, op. cit.). Bononi treated the subject again in 1621, for a commission for the church of Santa Teresa, Reggio Emilia and previously had made a copy of Bastarolo’s Santa Barbara, then in Santa Maria della Rosa, a significant work as it confirms the link between master and protégé.

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