By the turn of the 17th Century, Orazio Gentileschi had begun to make a name for himself in Roman artistic circles, although as a late bloomer and an artist of still somewhat mannerist tendencies. But in about 1600, a shift in the artist’s style began to take place. A greater sense of drama and naturalism appears in paintings such as the Saint Francis Supported by an Angel (known in at least four variants)1 as well as in altarpieces such as the Baptism of Christ for the Olgiati chapel in Santa Maria della Pace, Rome. This marked change can be partially explained in relationship to his growing appreciation of the style of Caravaggio. While the story of their close friendship is inextricably tied to the famous story of their somewhat sophomoric high-jinx at the expense of their fellow artist Giovanni Baglione, their artistic relationship reveals a more elevated and enduring connection between the two men, and it is not an overstatement to say that Gentileschi can be regarded as the most poetic and elegant painters that embraced Caravaggio’s revolutionary style.
The Fall of the Rebel Angels exhibits an already sophisticated shift by the artist towards a fully Baroque idiom. It is painted on a piece of alabaster with a rounded top, and depicts the moment when the Archangel Michael and his army succeed in hurling the rebel angels from heaven. The youthful figure of Michael is shown in the upper center of the composition, surrounded by his band of adolescent angels. Gentileschi achieves a sense of their lightness of being by using the patterning in the stone to suggest that they are floating on clouds. He uses the same technique to suggest the flaming chasms into which the newly damned angels have been condemned. The area behind the archangel is washed in with a brilliant lapis blue, lightening into an earthy green, where the faint figures of other angels can be seen battling in the distance. The whole image is a tour de force of detail and deft balance, reliant on the natural veining of the stone for structure.
The production of small and highly finished paintings on stone support had become the specialty of a small group of artists in Florence and Rome in the late cinquecento and the trend continued in the following century. Painters used the supports to attain a high level of finish, and adapted the color and natural inclusions in the stone to enhance their compositions, sometimes to witty effect. Orazio Gentileschi appears to have had a particular talent for this type of painting, despite the relatively small number of works of this type by him that have survived. His contemporaries noted his assiduous production and skill at painting on alabaster in particular. It was unusual enough to elicit comment, even from unlikely witnesses. Bernardino, the barber who sometimes came to clean Orazio’s teeth and sometimes to serve as a model, noted that when he visited “l’ho visto anco che faceva certi quadretti di alabastro e quant’altro.”2 More seasoned observers also took note. In a letter dated 27 March, 1615, Piero Guicciardini, the ambassador of Cosimo II de’ Medici in Rome, wrote to the Grand Duke’s secretary, Andrea Cioli, reporting on the work of Gentileschi, and – despite sniffily dismissing much of the artist’s ability—singled out the small works on stone for praise: “[i]n quello che lui vale è la diligenza per non dire stento, et in queste pietre d’Alabastro, e cose piccole, ha fatto qualche operina diligente…”3 The previous Florentine ambassador in Rome, the connoisseur Giovanni Niccolini, had no reservations about Gentileschi’s work at all. He ordered a number of paintings specifically on alabaster, including an Assumption of the Virgin and an Agony in the Garden (both now lost).4 Although no early record for the present painting has survived, it would have been destined for an equally sophisticated collector.
As Riccardo Lattuada and Erich Schleier have noted,5 the central figure of Michael in this painting anticipates a much starker and tenebrist work of the same subject by Gentileschi, painted for the church of San Salvatore in Farnese, near Viterbo (see fig. 1). That painting depicts just two figures, Saint Michael and a fallen angel. But the torso of Michael, which lunges down to the right of the composition, his right hand raised with a weapon while he kneels on a cloud, is analogous in both paintings, as is the oval shield charged with a bold red cross. That painting has generally been dated to circa 1608, and would seem to be later than the present alabaster by a few years. Indeed, Erich Schleier has suggested a dating for this Fall of the Rebel Angels on alabaster of circa 1601-2, and Lattuada concurs, placing it then or very slightly later (see literature, p. 23). Lattuada, furthermore, connects it to another small painting on alabaster representing the Annunciation, which is of similar dimensions, but of rectangular format, which he dates to the same formative moment in Gentileschi’s career.
Erich Schleier, in an unpublished essay about this Fall of the Rebel Angels, has independently confirmed the attribution of this painting to Gentileschi. Examining the arc of the early works of the artist, including the still mannerist frescos at Farfa and the “Baglionesque” Saint Francis paintings ings of the initial years of the 17th century, he considers the painting to date to 1601-2. In this painting, rather than an overriding Caravaggistic influence which he considers to be seen in Gentileschi’s work only from about 1605, Schleier proposes instead an awareness of the northern painter Adam Elsheimer, newly arrived in Rome in spring of 1600. Elsheimer’s meticulous style certainly informed other small paintings by Gentileschi of the early 1600s, such as the later Saint Christopher in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (inv. 1707), itself once attributed to Elsheimer himself. He notes that this painting on stone is unique amongst all the small format paintings from throughout Gentileschi career as having a multifigural composition. Indeed, the complex composition, the numerous figures in the background interwoven and in relationship with those in the foreground is a hallmark of Elsheimer’s influence.
While the choice of Saint Michael for the Farnese altarpiece was dictated by the patrons who commissioned it, the subject of this smaller painting on alabaster may have been the choice of the artist himself.6 In the records of Orazio’s own trial for libel brought by Baglione in 1603 against him and Caravaggio, his own testimony indicates that he had already painted a picture of that same subject early in his career, to show at the public exhibition of paintings in the cloister of San Giovanni Decollato in Rome.7 Here, painters could hang their works on the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist in late August, and it was here where the rivalry between himself and Caravaggio on one side, and Baglione on the other (the” concorrenza fra noi” as Gentileschi styled it), flared publically. Baglione showed his own Divine and Profane Love (probably the painting now in Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) which was taken as an affront to Gentileschi’s similarly themed Saint Michael. Cardinal Giustiniani then awarded a gold chain to Baglione, which acted as an accelerant to an already smoldering resentment. Given the facts as related in Gentlieschi’s own evidence, R. Ward Bissell has suggested that the likely year of that exhibition was 1601, well before the Farnese Saint Michael, and only a year or so later than Caravaggio’s own more earthy parallel image of the Amore Vincitore (1598-99). While this alabaster is too small to have been the picture shown at San Giovanni Decollato, it clearly demonstrates that the theme of Saint Michael triumphing over the Fallen Angels was one that Gentileschi was examining during these very same years, 1601-2. It is not unreasonable to think that the image of the archangel in this smaller, cabinet picture may have had strong analogies with the larger picture, now lost, that was so important to the life and reputation of the still developing Gentileschi.
We are grateful to Erich Schleier for making his essay on the Fall of the Rebel Angels available, and sharing his thoughts with us.
1. These have been dated from 1600-1607, and include examples in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini, Rome (R. W. Bissell, Orazio Gentileschi, and the Poetic Tradition in Caravaggesque Painting, 1981, cat. no. 8); Museo del Prado, Madrid (Bissell, op. cit., cat. no. 9); the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and a private collection (K. Christiansen and J. W. Mann, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, exhibition catalogue, 2001, pp. 53-55, cat. no. 3, reproduced, p. 55).
2. “I saw also that he made a number of small paintings on alabaster and other things…” This comment was made in Bernardino’s witness statement at the infamous trial of Agostino Tassi, who had been accused of raping Orazio’s daughter, Artemisia (cf. P. Cavazzini, “Appendix I Documents Relating to the Trial of Agostino Tassi,” in Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, exhibition catalogue, 2001, p. 440).
3. “In those things that require diligence and are even hard to achieve, and in those paintings on alabaster and small pieces, he has made some small meticulous works, Fondo Mediceo, 6028, cf. A. M. Crinò and B. Nicolson, “Further Documents relating to Orazio Gentileschi,” in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 103, no. 697, April 1961, pp. 144
4. R. Spinelli, Il fasto e la ragione, arte del settecento a Firenze, 2009, pp. 76-77; E. Goudriaan, Florentine Patricians and Their Networks: Structures Behind the Cultural Success and the Political Representation of the Medici Court (1600-1660), p. 103.
5. Lattuada (see literature, p. 22) notes that Erich Schleier and Umberto Giacometi had recognized the painting as by Orazio in 2009, and he had independently suspected the same from the auction catalogue illustration, which was later confirmed after seeing the painting cleaned. In an unpublished essay on the present painting, Erich Schleier has discussed the painting, its attribution, dating and iconography at length.
6. Erich Schleier discovered documents relating to the altar for which the Saint Michael was painted. The Society of St. Michael Archangel had taken responsibility for the space in May 1603, although construction was not yet complete. While Schleier first published this altar in 1962 (see E. Schleier, “An Unknown Altar-Piece by Orazio Gentileschi,” in The Burlington Magazine, CIV, 1962, p. 435), he discovered the related documents in 1969 and later published them in 1970 (see E. Schleier, "Panico, Gentileschi, and Lanfranco at San Salvatore in Farnese," in Art Bulletin, vol. 52, June 1970, pp. 171-180).
7. Cf. S. Samek Ludovici, Vita del Caravaggio dalle testimonianze del suo tempo, 1956; R.W. Bissell, op. cit., pp. 145-6).
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