Thence by family descent until sold, Monaco, Christie’s, 3 December 1988, lot 24, where acquired by the present owner.
Fetti’s prime original of this design is generally considered to be that in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice, to which Safarik assigns a date of around 1618 (fig. 1).1 A second version, with variations in the setting and generally of extremely high and possibly autograph quality is to be found in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.2 The mood in each case, as here, is deeply meditative. Fetti presents a Magdalene-like figure, richly and voluminously attired, kneeling in contemplation with a skull within a bricked grotto. She is surrounded by objects symbolic of man’s intellectual and creative activities, including books, dividers, a sculpture, a globe and an armillary sphere, and a palette, canvas and brushes. The presence of the skull, however, together with the hour glass that stands just behind the kneeling figure, hints at the ultimate futility of all man’s endeavours of this type, rendering the painting closer in spirit to a traditional Vanitas allegory. The facture, with its creamy concentration upon the folds of drapery and the artist’s delight in the contrasting textures of fur, paper and marble, is distinctively Fetti’s own, and the composition became extremely popular. Safarik lists no fewer than twenty eight further extant or recorded versions repeating both of the two principal versions.3
As Safarik points out, the sources for Fetti’s design may very well have been a Roman 2nd-century bas-relief entitled Germania capta which he might have seen in the garden of his great patron Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga in Rome. Fetti had already painted a highly contemplative Mary Magdalene (Rome, Galleria Doria-Pamphilij) a close version of which he himself gave to Ferdinando Gonzaga in Mantua and which later formed part of the Mantua collections acquired by King Charles I of England. The inclusion of so many vanitas and creative symbols suggests that Fetti was influenced by Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving Melencolia of 1514 (fig. 2). In medieval philosophy melancholy was the least desirable of the four ‘humours’ that were thought to govern each individual, but Renaissance thought also linked melancholy with the angst of creative genius. Thus Fetti meditates upon the intellectual situation not only of mankind, but by extension of the artist himself.
The large number of repetitions and copies of this design has led inevitably to much discussion as to the organisation of Fetti’s workshop and the degree to which he himself participated in many works. When he settled in Mantua in 1614 after Ferdinando Gonzaga became Duke, Fetti brought his family with him, of whom his father Pietro, sister Giustina and brother Vincenzo were all painters. His most important pupils were Giovanni Battista Barca (c. 1594–1650), Dionisio Guerri (1601– c. 1630) and Camillo Motta. The present canvas seems to take as its prototype the picture in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice, although there are notable differences in the absence of the plants growing in the walls, the arrangement of the pages on the book, and the rags holding the paintbrushes. At the time of the Monaco sale in 1988 Eduard Safarik suggested that this canvas might be the work of Dionisio Guerri, adding that, in his opinion, only the Accademia painting could be considered fully autograph, and in the exhibition catalogue of 1996 he cites this canvas as 'buona copia di bottega'. More recently, however, Keith Christiansen has pointed out following first-hand inspection of the original that the extremely high quality of certain passages in the present painting, for example the folds of the white sleeves or the dog and objects in the right hand corner, suggest that Fetti himself must have played some part in its creation.
1. Inv. n. 671, canvas, 179 x 140 cm. E. Safarik, Fetti, Milan 1990, pp. 271–75, cat. no. 123.
2. Inv. 281, canvas 171 x 128 cm. Safarik 1990, cat. no. 123(a).
3. To these may be added a further five versions listed in Safarik 1996, under no. 16. The inventory number 55 visible on the present canvas does not match any of those included in his lists.
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