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Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (Viterbo c. 1610-1662)
Property from the Collection of Chauncey D. Stillman sold to benefit the Wethersfield Foundation
Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (Viterbo c. 1610-1662)

The Choice of Hercules

Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (Viterbo c. 1610-1662)
The Choice of Hercules
signed 'I·F·ROMANELLVS / VITERB~ / F' (lower left)
oil on canvas
30 ¼ x 39 ½ in. (76.8 x 100.4 cm.)
with Heim Galleries, London, by 1966.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, 4 April 1973, lot 8.
with Leone Cie & Sons, Florence, where acquired in 1975 by
Chauncey Devereux Stillman (1907-1989), New York.
London, Heim Galleries, Summer Exhibition, 7 June-31 August 1966, no. 6.

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Lot Essay

Giovanni Francesco Romanelli moved to Rome at a young age. He is first recorded in the studio of Pietro da Cortona in 1631, assisting the master with one of his greatest commissions, the decoration of the Palazzo Barberini, a project that lasted seven years. Romanelli must have quickly distinguished himself, for by 1636 he was independently commissioned by Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VII, to paint a fresco for an overdoor in St. Peter’s of St. Peter Healing the Sick (in situ). For the next decade, Romanelli enjoyed substantial Barberini patronage, executing frescoes, altarpieces, and tapestry cartoons for the Vatican and churches throughout Rome. In the 1640s, he collaborated with Gianlorenzo Bernini, then among the most important artists in Italy, painting chapel decorations according to Bernini's designs. After the death of Urban VIII, Romanelli found himself out of favor with the new pope, Innocent X, and left for Paris in 1646 at the invitation of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, chief adviser to Anne of Austria. The ceiling frescoes he executed there helped introduce the latest Italian artistic trends to France and would be considerably influential on the development of the Classical Baroque styles of Eustache Le Sueur and Charles Le Brun. Romanelli’s mature work is characterized by elegant figures and graceful and harmonious compositions, which can be seen in decorations of the summer apartment of the Queen in the Palais du Louvre (1655), the high altarpiece of St. Lawrence for the cathedral of his native Viterbo, and the present work, which was likely painted either during Romanelli's first stay in France or just after his return to Rome.

The story of Hercules at the cross-roads, also known as the Choice of Hercules, was invented by the Greek sophist Prodicus, a friend of Socrates and Plato. Prodicus’s tale is recorded by Xenophon (Memorabilia 2.1:22 ff.), who tells that when Hercules was on the brink of adulthood, the demigod took it upon himself to decide whether he would henceforth take the path of virtue or vice. While he was pondering his future, two figures appeared before him. The first, a voluptuous woman wearing makeup and 'dressed so as to disclose all her charms', identified herself as Happiness, though conceded that her enemies call her Vice. She urged Hercules to take the easy road leading to a life full of pleasure and free from toil, war or worries. The second, a noble and modest woman, urged Hercules to choose the more difficult road, full of hard labor and struggle, but that would ultimately lead to great fame and triumph. Romanelli represents the moment in which the hero is about to make his decision, presenting the figures as if arranged on a frieze, with Virtue dressed in blue and yellow, her head adorned with a laurel wreath. Sporting flowing strawberry blond hair, Vice wears a scarlet tunic and gestures toward three nymphs, one who reclines, one who plays the tambourine (a tradition symbol of vice), and one who serves wine. The righteous path is signaled by the circular temple in the background, which in the 17th century would have been understood to represent the Temple of Vesta.

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