Valuable Documents

Written by  Francesca Cappelletti

The cardinals in Ferrara in the first half of the 17th century and the success of paintings from Ferrara in Italian collections.

The document entitled “Depository accounts of the journey to Ferrara, 1598”, kept in the Vatican’s Secret Archive, if read from beginning to end, gives us a detailed account of the months in which a part of the papal court was moved to Ferrara, after the allocation of the Estensi city to the Church State; this was an event that Pietro Aldobrandini, the pope’s nephew, had been preparing for some time, and symbolised for him a diplomatic victory. Being under Roman rule was a situation deplored locally, seen as a dramatic end to a glorious past, that of the House of Este. The removal of Titian’s paintings Baccanali from Alfonso I’s private studies in the Castle took on a great significance, especially when they reappeared in Pietro Aldobrandini’s Roman inventory, drawn up by his steward Giovan Battista Agucchi, in 1603. The stories of the journey to Ferrara and the letters of Giovan Francesco Aldobrandini, cardinal Pietro’s cousin and brother-in-law, which are preserved in the Aldobrandini Archive in Frascati, give us a fascinating insight into the mind of the invader, so to speak. In this case the invader was of a decidedly peaceful nature and, as often happens, was soon bewitched by his new surroundings. There is no doubt that in moving to Ferrara, Pietro Aldobrandini is able to choose the closest members of his team, Girolamo Agucchi, Giovan Battista’s older brother, and artists such as il Cavalier d’Arpino to accompany him. Pietro is captivated not only by the Baccanali series but also by the discovery of other examples of Renaissance painting made possible by his stay in the area. Giovan Francesco, commander of the papal troups, made a most significant move in this period, when he bought another small Titian entitled Crocifissione, (its whereabouts are unknown at the moment), as well as Noli me tangere by Correggio. These two works were added to Pietro Aldobrandini’s collection right at the beginning of this diplomatic mission: thereby showing Ferrara to be an ideal base from which this intermediary for well-connected painters could also launch his enterprising proposals to acquire works in nearby cities. Correggio’s masterpiece took the same course as the Baccanali: after the Aldobrandini collection, it was included in that of Ludovico Ludovisi, and subsequently as a gift by Niccolò Ludovisi to the king of Spain, Naples and Madrid.

This painting was undoubtedly a great source of enlightenment for the artists working in Rome at the beginning of the 17th century, at least as important if not more so, than the work of Titian which was greatly admired by Annibale Carracci, Domenichino, Rubens, and Nicolas Poussin, all painters who travelled through Rome. Both Correggio and Titian, along with the style used by Raffael and Michelangelo, known as disegno romano, will become the cornerstones of Renaissance painting. Yet to come at this point is the success of Dosso Dossi, who’s work was much admired by his fellow painters and begins to appear in some of the most important collections in Rome at the beginning of the century. Pietro, who had many of Dossi’s paintings in his collection began to hang them in the most prominent areas of his residences during the 1620s: at times alongside Titian’s and at others, according to the “genre”, together with the landscapes or in the series of portraits believed to be members of the House of Este, a type of gallery showing the cardinal’s choice ancestors. These paintings will probably have been observed by Carlo Saraceni, Orazio Gentileschi and Agostino Tassi, as well as by Annibale Carracci, all artists who will have appreciated their bizzarre vein and inventivness. For cardinal Pietro the tie with Ferrara was the result of a key event in the history of the Aldobrandini family, commemorated in etchings and medallions as well as in the long inscription to be found in the family villa in Frascati. Here the devolution of Ferrara is recounted as the most important event in the cardinal’s life. But paintings from Ferrara soon begin to appear in other art collections where the connection with the House of Este is less direct: that of Paolo Savelli comes to mind with paintings by Garofalo and Scarsellino in it as early as 1610; one obviously thinks of Scipione Borghese’s, where even the decorative friezes of Dossi’s tall thin paintings from the castle have been restored, or of Jacopo Serra, papal ambassador from 1615 to 1622, who promoted Guercino in Genoa and Rome.

At the beginning of the 1620s Enzo and Guido Bentivoglio leave Ferrara to take lodgings in Rome too, in the building next to the Quirinale, which had previously belonged to Scipione Borghese; here their role will be that of agents employed to aquire art works on behalf of the court of Este, which has by now moved to Modena; they most certainly take a part of their 16th century collection to Rome and dip into it every so often when making diplomatic gifts. It is a well known fact that many of the collections mentioned here were soon to break up, the paintings from them moving on to enrich other collections not only in Italy but also in the rest of Europe.

Most of the Savelli collection was already on the market in Rome by 1650; a painting by Garofalo, Matrimonio mistico di Santa Caterina, and one by Scarsellino, Diluvio universale, were bought by Camillo Pamphilj and are still to be found in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj today. Jacopo Serra died suddenly during the conclave of 1623 and at the moment there is no inventory or other documentation showing the extent of his collection. Most probably a document search through the corrispondence between the Estensi court and the ambassadors in Rome, like the one between the cardinals, which could then be cross-checked with the letters, inventories and accounting documents contained in the archives in Rome, would throw much light on the workings of the art market between Emilia, Rome and the other Italian cities. The phenomenon of collecting art in the 17th century can be studied by reading the Estensi correspondence, both private and official; this completes the more traditional analysis of inventories showing goods and wealth, up until now one of the preferred means of investigation, where, for a second, the collection is frozen in time.