This signed, arresting work by Jusepe de Ribera was first brought to the attention of modern scholars by Matías Díaz Padrón in 1972 (loc. cit.), who suggested that it could be the prototype for a composition which was then known only from a copy (Spinosa, 1978, op. cit., no. 238, New York, Emile Wolf collection), and two eighteenth-century engravings of a painting in the celebrated collection of the duc d'Orléans, where it was considered a self-portrait by Caravaggio (fig. 1). The vigour and quality of the execution, and the authentic signature, formed the basis of Díaz Padrón's strong support for the work's primacy: 'Por fortuna, el original puede hoy darse a conocer', he wrote. 'Su reciente restauracíon puso al descubierto la firma ... Vigor de factura y de plasticidad, recuerda obras como el San Andrés del Prado (núm. 1078). Su calidad no desmerece con las piezas de Ribera del mayor rango, en la época primera. La caligrafía delata su personal manera. Los andrajos no restan grandeza a la imagen, de espaldas al espectador, denuncia el desenfado y el inconformismo de su vigorosa personalidad' (op. cit., p. 320).
Writing twenty years earlier, Elizabeth du Gué Trapier had published one of the engravings (Ribera, New York, 1952, fig. 155), suggesting that the subject was an Allegory of Sight, and that the lost painting completed the set of Five Senses which belong to Ribera's early period in Rome (circa 1611-1615), only four other compositions from the series having then been identified. However, the publication by Roberto Longhi of a complete set of copies of the lost series ('I Cinque sensi de Ribera', Paragone, CXCIII, 1966, pp. 74-8) demonstrated conclusively that the Allegory of Sight was of a different composition, showing a man holding a telescope (Mexico City, Museo Franz Mayer). An alternative theory, published by Delphine Fitz Darby ('The wise man with a looking-glass', Art in America, XXXVI, July 1948, pp. 113-26; and 'Ribera and the Wise Men', The Art Bulletin, XLIV, 1962, pp. 279-307), identified the subject as a philosopher - first as Seneca and then as Socrates - a reading which Díaz Padrón preferred in 1972.
With the exception of its appearance in a short-running exhibition in the Parque del Retiro, Madrid, in the winter of 1981-1982, the picture has remained inaccessible to other scholars until the present day. Despite the enthusiastic reaction of Díaz Padrón, its subsequent obscurity has led to its often being listed as one of numerous copies after a long-lost original, one of a set of twelve philosophers painted for Ribera's major patron in the period 1629-1631, Don Fernando Enríquez Afán de Ribera, 3rd Duke of Alcalá, Viceroy of Naples (and later of Sicily, 1632-1636).
The 3rd Duke of Alcalá (fig. 2) belonged to one of the most important collecting families of Seville, at a time when the city was one of Europe's greatest centres of learning and wealth, the gateway for all Spanish trade with the American colonies. His forebear, Fadrique Enríquez de Ribera, 1st Marqués of Tarifa, had filled the family palace, Casa de Pilatos (a celebrated Sevillian landmark to this day), with an extraordinary collection of tapestries, holy relics, ancient coins and books relating to alchemy and magic. Per Afán de Ribera, nephew of Fadrique Enríquez and 1st Duque de Alcalá, Viceroy of Naples from 1558, cultivated a circle of humanists who included the poet Bernardino Rota (1509-1575), and added to the family collection one of the important groups of antique sculpture assembled in the sixteenth century. From 1604, Fernando Enríquez, the 3rd Duke, expanded the Casa de Pilatos to include a new library and picture gallery, with ceiling decorations by Francisco Pacheco. Sent to Rome in 1625 as Spanish Ambassador to the Papacy, Fernando Enríquez may have become aware of Jusepe de Ribera's art in Roman collections such as that of the Giustiniani. On his arrival in Naples in 1629, he became one of the artist's main clients, commissioning amongst other works the remarkable Portrait of Magdalena Venturi (The Bearded Woman), now in Toledo (Palacio Lerma, Fundacin Casa Ducal de Medinaceli), and the series of Twelve Philosophers to which the present work may have belonged.
The reconstruction of the Alcalá series poses one of the most fascinating problems of Ribera scholarship. Amongst the pictures which probably formed part of the series, Spinosa lists the magnificent Democritus (fig. 3; Madrid, Museo del Prado); Aesop (New York, private collection); Euclid (Santiago de Chile, Apelles collection); Plato (Amiens, musée de Picardie); Thales (Paris, private collection); Heraclitus (Christie's, New York, 6 April 2006, lot 69); or a Heraclitus of different composition, with its pendant, Pythagoras (both Valencia, Museo San Pio V); and a number of identified philosophers, including the fine works in Tucson, University of Arizona Art Museum and Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum (see Spinosa, 2006, op. cit., nos. A82-95). The candidate paintings are all of similar dimensions, ranging from 115 to 130 cm. high, and from 80 to 100 cm. wide. That the series included the present composition is confirmed by the existence of a set of six copies, formerly in the collection of Count Matarazzo di Licosa, Naples, including one of the Philosopher holding a mirror (sold Christie's, London, 21 July 1972, lot 180). In 2006 (loc. cit.), Spinosa suggested that the prototype could be the autograph but damaged version in the Algur H. Meadows Museum, Dallas; however, the fact that the present version is signed makes it more likely to be the original painted for Alcalá: several of the best philosophers are similarly signed, with variations of the formula 'Jusepe de Ribera español F' (Plato, Democritus, Pythagoras and the Philosophers in Tucson and Los Angeles).
The earlier provenance of this work is difficult to establish. A work of nearly identical composition is recorded in the collection of Ribera's Roman patron, marchese Vinecenzo Giustiniani, by 1638, paired with a laughing philosopher; however, this included a still life of scientific instruments, including an armillary sphere, on the ledge in the foreground ('Dui quadri Simili con due mezze figure Una d'un Villano che ride, et tiene una carta in mano scritta, con diversi liberi sopra una tavola L'altro d'uno che si Specchia, e hà una sfera sopra la tavola dipinto in tela d'Imperatore', see S. Danesi Squarzina, ed., La collezione Giustiniani, Turin, 2003, I, p. 354, inv. no. 1638, no. 200, fig. 149). The Giustiniani picture is recorded in a print of 1812 (fig. 4), and may have been amongst the pictures purchased by Frederick William III, King of Prussia, or possibly later in the Corsini collection, Monte Carlo. The work in the collection of the duc d'Orléans may have been part of the large purchase from the Odescalchi collection; after the sale of the Orléans pictures, it passed as The Dream of Carvaggio to the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne in 1807, amongst whose pictures it is no longer recorded in 1897. However, insofar as one can trust the engravings, this picture seems to have included the additional element of a skull on a book at the lower left (fig. 1). Alternatively, a number of the Alcalá Philosophers identified by Spinosa (2006, loc. cit.) emerged from the collection of Cardinal Fesch, subsequently entering Spanish collections, and it is not impossible that the present picture followed a similar route.
The precise meaning of this mysterious, moving image, showing a middle-aged man, dressed in ragged and tattered garb, gazing pensively into a mirror -- the murky reflection in which gives us our only understanding of his features -- has given rise to a number of interpretations, as has been seen, ranging from an allegory of sight to a putative self-portrait by Caravaggio. The daring and unusual composition, with the figure effectively turning his back on the viewer, is comparable to Ribera's early, Roman-period Saint Gregory the Great (circa 1613-1615; Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini). The picture recorded in the Giustiniani inventories has been described as an Archimedes, whose many technological advancements included experiments with mirrors (including, according to legend, the use of an enormous array to set fire to Roman warships with the intensified heat of the reflected sun). The studious contemplation of the mirror held by the sitter in this work can certainly be read as that of a scientist assessing the potential applications of one of his instruments, and the Archimedes reading is particularly convincing with the conjunction of the armillary sphere and other instruments. However, perhaps the most convincing interpretation is still that of Delphine Fitz Darby in 1962 (op. cit.), identifying the depicted philosopher as Socrates. The searching look reflected by his mirror embodies the quest for self-knowledge prescribed by Socrates, summarised by the phrase 'Gnothi seauton' ('Know thyself'); in the words ascribed to Socrates by Plato in Phaedrus, 'I am not yet able to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things'. The imperfect appearance of the reflection by comparison to the real nature of the object it reflects also serves as a second metaphor for the Platonic Theory of Forms, famously expressed as the 'Allegory of the Shadows in the Cave'; in Saint Paul's Christian interpretation of Socratic philosophy, 'For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known' (First Epistle to the Corinthians, 13). These associations would not have been lost on either the learned Ribera, or his patron, the Duke of Alcalá. In an astonishing illustration of his classical erudition, Ribera even seems to have based the features of this philosopher on the celebrated ancient sculpted portrait of Socrates, the domed forehead and snub-nosed features of which record the philosopher's famously satyr-like physiognomy; Ribera could have seen examples of the bust in the antique sculpture collection of the Giustiniani (fig. 5; Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme), the Farnese (now Naples, Museo Archeologico) or indeed of Alcalá himself - it was the Duke who commissioned Ribera's erudite Teoxenia (partially destroyed; fragments in Madrid, Museo del Prado) which may have been influenced by a Hellenistic relief in the Alcalá collection (now Córdoba, duquesa de Cardona).
We are grateful to Professor Nicola Spinosa for confirming the attribution on the basis of photographs, describing this work as 'di buona qualità e con una firma autografa di Ribera' (private communication, 8 February 2013). Professor Spinosa does not exclude that this painting was originally part of the series of twelve philosophers commissioned by the Duke of Alcalá, and subsequently dispersed.