According to invaluable Mattei documents brought to light by Gerda Panofsky Sörgel in 1967 (G. Panofsky Sörgel, op. cit.), Cortona was given initial payments for the paintings on the 1st February 1624, “dati a ms. Pietro Berettini per le tele delle doi quadri che mi deve fare in pittura, a portatura a casa scudi 3 e 10” (“due to Mr. Pietro Berettini, for canvases of the two pictures which he must paint for me, 3 and 10 scudi to take home”) (Ibid., p. 149, note 147). It seems the canvases were never purchased, however, for over a year later another entry states that on the 7th April 1625 Cortona was provided with “un quadro grande per dipingervi dentro la Natività di Nostro Signore” (“a large canvas upon which to paint the Nativity of Our Lord”) (Ibid.). It would be almost another year before Mattei would receive the finished Adoration, on the 3rd February 1626.
The delay does not appear to have dampened Mattei’s enthusiasm and within four days he gave orders for another canvas to be dispatched to the artist upon which to execute the present painting. He received Christ and the Adulteress, with which he was even more gratified, within a few short months, “m’ha servito bene, e sotto li 7 febraro 1626 consegnatoli un’altro della medesima grandezza, e esecuto sottoli 15 luglio 1626, m’ha servito meglio del primo”, (“it served me well, and on the 7th February 1626 he was given another [canvas] of the same size, and executed it on the 15th July 1626, it served me better than the first.”) (Ibid.).
Mattei paid Cortona 30 scudi for the Adoration and a further 40 scudi for his Christ and the Adulteress, reflecting his enthusiasm for the latter. The turnaround for this painting was swift compared with the protracted process for production for the Adoration. The delay in starting the first picture was due to his simultaneously working on frescoes for the church of Santa Bibiana, alongside Agostino Ciampelli. The artist had been engaged by the Barberini to paint scenes from the life of the church’s eponymous saint and the decorative cycle was his first public commission. The project for Santa Bibiana finally came to a close in the spring of 1626, at last freeing Cortona to finish the present painting. The Mattei gallery ceiling may be Cortona’s first mature work, but it is in the frescoes for Santa Bibiana that his painting truly flourished. His style moved away from the slightly rigid, classicism of the gallery decorations, developing the richness, energy and drama that is encapsulated so beautifully in this picture.
For Mattei, the pair of paintings was worth the wait and from what we read in the documents, he appears to have been unperturbed by Cortona’s tardiness. His patience may also have been due to the artist’s fees. Even taking into account the additional 10 scudi paid for the present painting, the amounts offered in exchange for Cortona’s works are remarkably low by contemporary standards. A very devout man, Cortona produced work at reduced rates, or even without any payment at all, for religious institutions throughout his career. In his youth, however, Cortona’s fees were low for public and private patrons alike. For his work in the church of Santa Bibiana, the artist was paid a mere 320 scudi, compared to 850 scudi paid to Ciampelli for his share of the cycle (A. Lo Bianco, 1995, op. cit., p. 152). At this early stage in his career, Cortona appears to have deliberately kept his fees low as a means of drumming up interest and attracting patrons.
Until the 19th century both the Adoration and the Christ and the Adulteress remained in the Mattei collection, appearing in the each of the surviving family inventories of 1631, 1676, 1729 and 1753 (Francesco Cappelletti and Laura Testa, op. cit., p. 152). By the turn of the 19th century, however, the Mattei family found themselves in financial strife and were forced to sell off items from the collection. Among them was the Christ and the Adulteress, which was acquired by the English collector, William Hamilton Nisbet, in 1802 for 1403 scudi and 62 baj (Ibid.). From there the painting passed through several hands before eventually being acquired at auction by the late owner and lent to the Detroit Institute of Art. The fate of the Adoration meanwhile was very different. The pendant passed from the Mattei family collection into that of Conte Pierluigi Donini Ferretti who attempted to sell it in 1934 (A. Lo Bianco, 1995, op. cit. p. 150). When the painting eventually went unsold, it was acquired by the Italian State in 1939. It remained in the palazzo, by now home to the Centro di Studi Americani, until 1980, when it was moved to Palazzo Barberini where it remains today (Ibid.).
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