M. Gesù Fra I Dottori << Retour

Maestro del Gesù fra i dottori
(active in Naples during the 1620’s and the 1650’s)

The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew.
Circa 1640-1645.

Oil on canvas – 150 x 200 cm.

Naples, Astarita collection, 1st half of the 20th century.

– F. Bologna, Francesco Solimena, Naples, L’Arte Tipografica, 1958, p. 33.
– R. Causa, ‘La pittura del Seicento a Napoli dal Naturalismo al Barocco’, in Storia di Napoli, Cava de’ Tirreni, Di Mauro, 1972, p. 965.
– F. Bologna, in Battistello Caracciolo e il primo naturalismo a Napoli, exhibition catalogue, Naples, Electa Napoli, 1991, p. 151, fig. 161; p. 164.
– N. Spinosa, ‘Aggiunte a Hendrick van Somer’, in Napoli, L’Europa. Ricerche di storia dell’arte in onore di Ferdinando Bologna, Catanzaro, Meridiana Libri, 1995, p. 224, note 7.
– V. Farina, ‘Intorno a Ribera: Nuove riflessioni su Giovanni Ricca e alcune aggiunte ai giovani Ribera e Luca Giordano’, www.ilseicentodivivianafarina.com, p. 31, note 44.
– G. Porzio, La scuola di Ribera, Naples, Arte’m, 2014, p. 40, note 87 ; p. 50, fig. 14.
– V. Farina, ‘Riflessioni e nuove proposte per il Maestro del Gesù tra i dottori’, in Paragone, anno LXVI, n° 121, may 2015, pp. 57-68, fig. 38.

This beautiful painting, which was in the Astarita collection in Naples at the beginning of the twentieth century, holds a significant place in art-historical literature. It was first mentioned by Ferdinando Bologna in 1958, with an attribution to Hendrick van Somer based on comparison with the Baptism of Christ formerly in the church of Santa Maria della Sapienza in Naples (now housed in the local Prefettura). The authorship of Van Somer, not accepted by Raffaello Causa in 1972, was once again proposed by Bologna on the occasion of the great exhibition on early Neapolitan Naturalism in 1991 (p. 151, fig. 161, p. 164). The importance of the painting and the scholar’s justified intuition as regards Van Somer were subsequently confirmed by Nicola Spinosa, while Viviana Farina rejected the attribution.

The canvas reappeared recently, and has gained greater legibility after conservation – no small matter since until now it could only be judged by a black and white photograph published by Bologna in 1991. Its quality is very high, and the picture displays the influence, absorbed and well-developed, of not only Battistello Caracciolo (the treatment of drapery in the foreground seems demonstrative to me, as do the breeches and sleeve of the executioner on the left) but Ribera (clearly recognizable in the saint’s flesh and in the figure of the man about to flay the martyr). A further characteristic – this too probably coming from the language of Caracciolo – is the slightly ashen tonality (especially in the flesh passages), accentuated by the dark preparation of the canvas.

In my opinion, a search for the authorship of such an important work should abandon the Van Somer track, instead moving towards the two pictorial entities that have recently caught the attention of scholars of Neapolitan Naturalism. I am referring here to the body of work assembled around the figure of the Master of Fontanarosa (identified with a high degree of certainty as Giuseppe di Guido) and now consisting of a not insubstantial oeuvre; more than once this has been associated with a much smaller group attributed to the Maestro del Gesù fra i dottori – the Master of Christ among the Doctors – whose catalogue consists solely of the eponymous masterpiece (Turin, private collection) and a Saint Jerome formerly owned by the public holding company IRI, attributed by Stefano Causa in 1992. The question of the possible separation of these two groups – evidently closely related in style – has twice been addressed by Giuseppe Porzio, who expressed this opinion in 2007: « Given the striking similarities of figure type connecting the Christ among the Doctors with the putative output of Di Guido, I believe that one should strongly consider the possibility that there was only one master at work here ». This was a far from unexpected conclusion, put forward once again in an entry written for an equally intriguing picture ascribed to Di Guido, a Martyrdom of Saint Blaise in a private collection in Florence. Porzio noted the « striking analogies of style and typology, not to mention e high quality » that connected the work with the Christ among the Doctors, indeed enough to suggests « the serious possibility that these originated in the same atelier ». For example, the tormentor to the left of Saint Blaise is based on the same model and pose as the Doctor with a turban who addresses Jesus in the Christ among the Doctors.

I am also of the opinion that a good working hypothesis would establish that this was a single body of work, in different phases, with the artist showing his penchant either for Battistello or Ribera. In this context, the Martyrdom of Saint Blaise is a very interesting work, and while it shows more points of contact with the Di Guido/Fontanarosa group, it seems to truly be bridging the gap, connecting with the other master’s two works; and the same role appears to be played by the Saint Jerome in the Koelliker collection – unfortunately very damaged and hard to read – which I gave to the Master of Christ among the Doctors in 2004, and which Porzio shifted into the Fontanarosa group in 2007.

After this lengthy introduction, I believe that a study of the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew leads to its attribution to the Master of Christ among the Doctors, precisely because of the Ribera-inspired refinements perceptible here, and in view of the parallels one can draw with the key work in the group, that is, the Christ among the Doctors. The clearest evidence lies in the sophisticated treatment of light, especially on the face of the youth tying the saint’s legs: he is immersed in shadow, but there are subtle touches of light on his cheek, nose and lower lip, just like the ones on the face of the bespectacled Doctor in the middle ground of the Christ among the Doctors – perhaps a self-portrait of the artist. The paintings are also alike in their dense, saturated atmosphere, with surfaces and flesh looking worn, and both pictures recall another protagonist of Ribera’s circle in Naples, the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds. The face we have just mentioned, with its sophisticated shading, is very similar to that of Judas, who is also steeped in shadow, in the foreground of the Last Supper in the parish church of Fontanarosa, the name-piece of the group that was identified as the work of Giuseppe di Guido. Another parallel appears in the loincloth of Saint Bartholomew, the white draperies in the Death of Saint Joseph (attributed by Bologna to the Master of Fontanarosa in 1991) and the cloth in the foreground of the work discussed here. I would thus hardly be surprised if our painting were further proof (as in the case of the Martyrdom of Saint Blaise) of the proximity – and very possibly unity – of the two groups. However, for the time being, as we await more conclusive evidence, I would propose that the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew was painted by the Master of Christ among the Doctors, for the greater presence of Riberesque style that most clearly connects it to the group of works described above. A plausible date for the work would be the first half of the 1630s.

Gianni Papi