The rediscovery of this monumental canvas, which has been part of the same Spanish noble collection for nearly three centuries, returns one of Giulio Cesare Procaccini’s most important works to his extant oeuvre. Procaccini belonged to a brilliant dynasty of artists who settled in Milan from Bologna in the late sixteenth century. Originally trained as a sculptor, he soon turned to painting and quickly became one of the most important exponents of what Hugh Brigstocke has referred to as the ‘extraordinary explosion of artistic activity’ that took place in Lombardy in the first three decades of the seventeenth century, formulating a unique and compelling synthesis of the mannerist tradition while anticipating the theatricality and the emotional intensity of the baroque (see H. Brigstocke (ed.), Procaccini in America, exhibition catalogue, London and New York, 2002, p. 11).
It was a testament to Procaccini’s talent that the artist attracted the patronage of the most discerning collectors of the day, both in Milan, receiving commissions from Scipione Toso, Pirro and Fabio Visconti, and beyond, from the brilliant Genoese connoisseur Giovanni Carlo Doria. Doria’s posthumous inventory recorded over 25 pictures by the artist and in his correspondence, Procaccini is described as his ‘amicho commune di molto vallore’ (‘our mutual friend of much value’). His fame extended outside of Italy, and with large parts of present-day Italy then under Spanish rule, many of Procaccini’s pictures found their way to the Iberian peninsula. The humanist and art historian Carlo Cesare Malvasia noted, as early as 1678, that Procaccini’s work ‘met with […] an unparalleled warm reception […] and he came to be held in high esteem by his Catholic Majesty and his reputation spread rapidly in that kingdom’.
The history of Christ Carrying the Cross exemplifies this enduring Spanish taste for Procaccini’s art, and remarkably, for a picture of the early seventeenth century, its unbroken provenance is fully traced. It was certainly commissioned by Don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo Osorio y Colonna, 5th Marquis of Villafranca del Bierzo (1546-1627), a highly successful military commander, diplomat and close advisor to Philip III of Spain. He was named Governor of the duchy of Milan from 1616 to 1618 and it is undoubtedly during that time that he came into contact with Procaccini and became his patron. In that way, Don Pedro was continuing a tradition of artistic patronage that he may have inherited from his mother’s aunt, Vittoria Colonna, the celebrated friend and protector of Michelangelo. Don Pedro’s heirs later also stood out as discerning patrons, being portrayed by Juan Battista Maino (Don Fedrique de Toledo in Juan Battista Maíno’s The Recovery of Bahia de Todos los Santos; Madrid, Museo del Prado) or Francisco de Goya (José Álvarez de Toledo, marquis of Villafranca y duke of Alba; Madrid, Museo del Prado). At an unknown date, the present picture travelled from Milan to Spain, and was displayed at different times in some of the grandest palaces in Madrid, including the Palacio de Buenavista (fig. 1) and the Palacio del Marqués de Villafranca. As the picture was handed down by descent, the artist Antonio Ponz must have seen it in the collection of José Álvarez de Toledo Osorio y Gonzaga, 11th Marquis of Villafranca, and later Duke of Alba. In Ponz’s renowned account of his epic artistic journey through Spain, Viaje de España, which ran to some eighteen volumes, he remarked on the Marquis’s notable collection of pictures by Procaccini: ‘Tenía ya el Excelentísimo Sr. Duque de Alva, como Marqués de Villafranca, una buena colección de quadros de Julio Cesar Procaccini, y son asuntos de devoción, y otra quantidad de pinturas pequeñas de asuntos Militares con figuras de David Teniers’ (A. Ponz, Viaje de España, Madrid, 1782, V, p. 306).
Between the years 1616 and 1620, the precise moment when Don Pedro was in Milan, Procaccini produced a number of large and powerful depictions of the Passion of Christ. These include The Betrayal of Christ (fig. 2; private collection); The Scourging of Christ (fig. 3; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) – both of which are signed with the initials ‘GCP’ like the present lot; Ecce Homo (Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts); The Raising of the Cross (Edinburgh, National Gallery); The Deposition (with Matthiesen Gallery, London); and The Agony in the Garden (formerly Spain, Vizcondes de Roda Collection). Despite the very similar canvas sizes, and the coherence of the subjects, no documentary evidence has surfaced to suggest they were intended as a single Passion cycle, or were commissioned by the same patron. However, our picture may hold an important clue to further research, given that its early provenance, and the circumstance of its commission, is secure.
As with these other treatments of episodes from the Passion, Christ Carrying the Cross displays the mannerist taste for serpentine designs and contrapposto positions, such as that of the soldier in the right foreground. The composition is dynamic, organised around strong diagonal lines such as that of Christ’s body, as he buckles beneath the weight of the cross. The sense of drama is heightened by the nocturnal light and the number of figures populating the shallow space, while each portrait is remarkably characterful. The picture is a demonstrably powerful example of Procaccini’s ability to capture personality, communicate emotion and captivate the viewer.