Born in Florence around 1570, Donato Mascagni was not yet fifteen when he entered the workshop of the great Counter-Reformation painter Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1627), who had arrived in the city in 1576 at the behest of the Medici. In the ensuing years, Ligozzi was made capomaestro of the Florentine granducal artistic workshop, superintendent of the Medici gallery, and first painter to the court, serving Dukes Francesco I, Ferdinando I, Cosimo II, and Ferdinando II. Mascagni is documented as Ligozzi’s assistant and collaborator from 1584, working on numerous Medici commissions both in fresco and on panel. Mascagni’s talents were quickly recognized, and in 1593 the young artist was admitted to the prestigious Accademia del Disegno, after which he began to work more independently.
In the following years, Mascagni carried out a number of important projects for the monks of the Camaldolese order, including a prestigious commission for the lunettes of the cloister at Santa Maria dei Angeli in Florence. In 1605, Mascagni took the vows of the Servite Order, assuming the name “Fra Arsenio”; he lived afterwards in the monastery at Monte Senario, about twenty kilometers north of Florence, until 1609 when he was given a special papal dispensation to relocate to the Santissima Annunziata in the city center. Mascagni’s artistic career continued to thrive in Tuscany, and he eventually earned commissions outside of Italy as well, bringing him as far as Spain (Valladolid) and Austria (Salzburg). He may also have traveled to Rome, where some have suggested he worked with Guido Reni. By 1632, Mascagni had resettled in Florence at the Santissima Annunziata, where he would remain until his death in 1637.
This intimately-sized, coolly-hued picture exemplifies Mascagni’s crisp brushwork and observational acuity, notably in the carefully depicted pages and bindings of the books on the ledge at right; the minutely-observed features of the skull; and the meticulously described town in the distance. The dramatically-posed figure at center, shown in bold red Cardinal’s robes, epitomizes Mascagni’s ability to capture the severe Counter-Reformation spirituality prevalent in the Florence of his day. St. Jerome, an early Christian scholar who produced the first Latin translation of the Bible, lived as an ascetic in the wilderness for four years while praying to rid himself of worldly desire. Here we see the saint as an aging scholar, beating his breast in penitence as he contemplates Christ’s sacrifice. Mascagni’s experiences as an ascetic at Monte Senario – where he too spent four years – drew him close to Jerome’s experience, and amplified his ability to render the saint with such sensitivity of feeling and expression.
Although Mascagni’s style has sometimes been confused with that of his teacher Ligozzi, recent scholarship has shed greater light on the younger artist’s oeuvre. Lucilla Conigliello, to whom we are grateful, has studied both artists extensively and confirms the attribution to Mascagni on the basis of photographs.