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Memento mori: Death comes to the table

Memento mori: Death comes to the table
oil on canvas, unframed
32 ½ x 40 ½ in. (82.5 x 102.8 cm), including additions, measuring 2 in. along the upper edge, and 1 in. along the left, right, and lower edges
with P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London, by 1959, as Angelo Caroselli.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 29 November 1961, lot 100, as Pietro Paolini (220 pounds to Arcade Gallery).
with Arcade Gallery, London.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 5 July 1996, lot 42, where acquired by the present owner.
The Illustrated London News, Christmas issue 1959, 235, 6274A, p. 82, as Angelo Caroselli.
B. Nicolson, 'Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions', The Burlington Magazine, CI, no. 674, May 1959, p. 199, as 'attributed with excellent reason to Caroselli'.
B. Nicolson, ''Figures at a Table' at Sarasota', The Burlington Magazine, CII, no. 686, May 1960, p. 226, as 'an artist, probably Flemish, of the type of Finson' (in connection with a related picture).
R. Spear, Caravaggio and His Followers, Cleveland, 1971, pp. 88 and 89, fig. 19, as attributed to Jean Ducamps.
B. Nicolson, The International Caravaggesque Movement, Oxford, 1979, p. 47, as Jean Ducamps.
B. Nicolson, Caravaggism in Europe, ed. L. Vertova, Turin, 1990, I, p. 104, and II, fig. 365, as Jean Ducamps/Giovanni Martinelli.
F. Baldassari, La Pittura del Seicento a Firenze. Indice degli Artisti e delle loro Opere, Turin, 2009, p. 525 (though with erroneous ex-Fonteguerri provenance).
(possibly) S. Bellesi, Catalogo dei Pittori Fiorentini del 600 e 700: Biografie e opere, Florence, 2009, p. 194.
G. Cantelli, Repertorio della Pittura Fiorentina del Seicento. Aggiornamento, Pontedera, 2009, p. 141, as 'replica' and with erroneous 1996 sale date.
G. Papi, ‘Giovanni Martinelli, fra Artemisia e Vouet’, in Giovanni Martinelli, da Montevarchi pittore in Firenze, Florence, 2011, pp. 35-36, 47, footnote 9, illustrated fig. 4.
London, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., 14 April-15 May 1959, no. 2, as Angelo Caroselli.
Sale Room Notice
We are grateful to Diego Salazar Antique Frames, for loaning the present frame in which the painting is displayed. The frame is available for purchase, for more information, please contact the Old Masters department.

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Lot Essay

This allegorical painting is a fine work by Giovanni Martinelli, an enigmatic painter active in Tuscany during the first half of the seventeenth century who is mysteriously absent from the Notizie by the Florentine biographer Filippo Baldinucci and has only re-emerged as a significant artistic figure in recent decades. As noted by Gianni Papi, in a collection of essays published to coincide with the first monographic exhibition dedicated to the painter in 2011, ‘Giovanni Martinelli is to this day a painter too little known with respect to his true worth and that of contemporary painters who are held in far higher esteem’ (Papi, op. cit., p. 33).

Elegantly dressed figures are gathered around a table laid with food and wine – a crusty tart, roasted quail and red grapes are on display in silver (or more likely pewter) plates. The party has been abruptly disturbed, its guests caught by surprise by a skeleton holding out an hour-glass; a symbol of the passage of time and inevitability of death. What moments ago must have been a scene of merriment has taken a sudden turn for the worse: the skeleton has disrupted their meal to remind them that Death can strike anyone, at any time, even in a moment of joyful recreation (‘memento mori’ meaning literally ‘remember you must die’). The impending doom is underlined by the reaction of the youth in the foreground who impulsively unsheathes his sword. The figures’ gestures underscore the sense of unease: the two women whisper conspiratorially as they look towards the intruder, one of them pointing to the young man who looks over his shoulder at the skeleton while grabbing the edge of the table. He seems astonished and draws his other hand to his chest in recognition of the fact that he is the intended recipient of the skeleton’s warning – the young man’s time is, literally, up. Eloquently described by Benedict Nicolson, the great twentieth century scholar of Caravaggesque painting, this ‘group of young lovers [are] tiresomely reminded of the transitory nature of youth and pleasure’ (Nicolson, op. cit., 1959).

This painting’s composition clearly enjoyed considerable success, for it exists in a number of autograph variants and copies (nine are listed in Nicolson, ed. Vertova, op. cit., p. 104). The finest, and the most ambitious, is in the New Orleans Museum of Art (known as The Isaac Delgado Museum of Art prior to 1971) and broadly repeats the composition of the present work though with some differences and including two additional figures at left (see fig. 1). The attribution of this inter-related group of paintings has been the subject of much debate among scholars, with various names being attached to one or other of the variants. Over the years the New Orleans canvas has been ascribed to Bartolomeo Manfredi, Cecco del Caravaggio, Jean Le Clerc, Nicolas Tournier and Rutilio Manetti, while the names of Pietro Paolini and Angelo Caroselli have been attached to the present variant (the latter ‘with excellent reason’, according to Nicolson, op. cit., 1959). Not only did the identity of the painter baffle scholars, but also his nationality: Nicolson posited that the painter was Flemish and Richard Spear noted that ‘numerous features reveal the northern training of the artist of this picture’; namely the marked care with which the still-life details are described and the vanitas subject matter that was more commonly found in northern Europe than in Italy at this time (Spear, op. cit., 1971, p. 88).

A further clue was provided by the initials ‘DC’ found on two paintings of Gamblers by the same hand as the author of the Memento Mori group. These initials were interpreted as representing the signature of Jean Ducamps, or Giovanni del Campo (1600-1648), a pupil of Abraham Janssens in Antwerp who became a founder member of the Bentvueghels in Rome and died in Spain sometime after 1628. Although the attribution to Ducamps was taken up by Spear and Nicolson, an alternative identification with Domenico Carpinoni, a Bergamasque follower of Palma il Giovane, was put forward by Ruggeri (see a summary of attributions in Nicolson, ed. Vertova, op. cit., p. 104). It was not until the comprehensive study of Florentine paintings in 1980s, by Giuseppe Cantelli and others, that the name of Giovanni Martinelli was associated definitively with the composition; an attribution that subsequently found favor among other scholars of Florentine Seicento painting, namely Sandro Bellesi and Francesca Baldassari (op. cit.). A formal and stylistic comparison between the figures in this painting and those in other recognized works by Martinelli provides compelling evidence for this attribution. In particular, the two women in the centre of this composition are directly comparable in pose and type to the gesturing female and violinist in Martinelli’s Youth with Violin in the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (fig. 2).

The numerous variants of this composition attest to the popularity and demand for pictures of this type in seventeenth-century Italy. Falling somewhere between a genre painting and a still life, the image carries a moralizing message: life is short and not to be frittered away, particularly since Death can strike at any moment. The picture probably dates from the 1630s, by which time Caravaggesque painting was falling largely out of fashion, but the dramatic nature of its subject is all the more vivid owing to the stark lighting and tightly cropped composition, both of which ultimately derive from Caravaggio.

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