Sunday 15 December 2013

My Love Affair with Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto Begins

Although the intellectual life of the artist is crucial, my focus this weekend has been on the patron and his concerns. I'm coming round full circle to my initial essay idea which focused purely on the Montalto Madonna - this would embrace all the thoughts I was having regarding the renewal of the church, private devotion, poetry, music, innovations in the creation of art and so on. The other paintings are interesting but I think I will end up using them as guest appearances to support the main feature. One of the reasons for this is we can only be certain of one of the commissions - I have been unable to find out who commissioned the other paintings and this would lead to a very unbalanced essay. These are my musings about the man who commissioned the Holy Family so far.

Alessandro Damasceni Peretti di Montalto (1571 – 1623) was an Italian Roman Catholic Cardinal Deacon. He received the title as a fourteen year old by his uncle, Felice Peretti, after the latter was elected Pope Sixtus V on April 24, 1585. Bellori saw Carracci's Holy Family sometime before 1672, when it had already passed from the Montalto family into the collection of Lorenzo Salviati, but he confirms Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto as its first owner.1 This cardinal's patronage proved to be extravagantly wide ranging and as John Walter Hill elaborates, 'he gave financial support to scholars of sacred literature, and to jurists, philosophers, poets, painters, singers and instrumentalists, ecclesiastics, and translators and kept a large number of the same at his court'.2 

Two large scale studies have primarily examined his contribution to music, however scholars have rightly included discussion about the public and private decoration of his villas and gardens, the content of his vast library, and his even more vast household expenditure. Given that his precise belongings and Roman villa have now disappeared, to assess his collections we are relying heavily on written accounts and unpublished catalogues and manuscripts produced after they were dispersed. For instance Bellori, Fioravante Martinelli and others were writing in the 1660s.3 The erudite records and detailed insider knowledge of these near contemporary antiquarians and ecclesiastical historians, nonetheless, provide evidence enabling insight into the mind of this cardinal patron and many others. 

The choices of images with which Alessandro chose to decorate the public parts of his Roman villa were extremely apposite, for instance, he chose princely virtues as illustrated in scenes from the life of his namesake, Alexander the Great. Hill notes the extraordinary arrogance where visitors to Palazzo Montalto 'could not escape the reflection that, just as Alexander the Great strove to unite all the Greek Alessandro Peretti, as Pope, would unite the civilised world under the aegis of the true, universal, and Catholic Church, healing the rift caused by the Reformation and extending the churches reach two newly discovered lands and people. And, given the readiness with which Popes and Cardinals liken themselves to Roman emperors and senators, it would not be unexpected that Cardinal Montalto would also use the symbolism of ancient Greece in presenting himself to his colleagues and clients'.4 Despite the seeming bombastic nature, any arrogance was apparently due to an appropriately studious melancholy. 

He was described by close friend Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio at the time as having an appearance 'more rough than gracious; grave in personal comportment and hardly less in speaking and in habits, quite reticent in speaking and full of a certain external melancholy, which many judged to be concealed arrogance'.5 These public rooms reflected a certain expectation and appropriate artistic reflection of a prince of the church who wanted to establish authority. Given his relative youth and the expectations of his uncle, who wanted to establish a familial successor to the papal crown - which never happened - it was necessary to persuade the great families of Rome that he was a serious contender; a maker and breaker of church careers.

It is not known whether the Holy Family was part of a collection of small sacred images in his private apartments, which were intimately decorated with biblical and mythological scenes; or placed in the palace chapel, or indeed, anywhere else in the vast palace. One of many manuscript guides to the libraries, churches, palaces and art collections of Rome, written between 1660-1664, mentions about eighty Montalto paintings and sculptures providing evidence that Alessandro was a keen collector and patron of contemporary Italian artists of the late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century.6 Though Annibale is not mentioned, Antonio Carracci is, which is rather surprising but the painting may have already left the family's collection by this date and Fioravante Martinelli was writing some years after the events of 1590s. Though the list is helpful, it does not tell us the location of the art works in the palace so we can only speculate. 

There would certainly have been a chapel because 'cardinals, bishops, and regular prelates were entitled to chapels by virtue of their status'.7 Bellori maintains that the Carracci piece was copied from the moment it was completed so perhaps it was positioned somewhere semi public such as a chapel. Although I haven't found any descriptions of the private chapel at the Palazzo Montalto, Stephanie Walker et al offer a description of a chapel for a palatial non-church household, that is to say, not belonging to a cardinal; 'it was a small, simple room, invisible within the palace unless the door should happen to be open...[t]he household gathered in the anteroom observed the mass within and the prince would hear the service privately, a small window opening from the chapel to another room. The painted and stucco decorations and, especially, the precious liturgical articles signalled the importance of the chapel'.8 It is conceivable that these plans would be similar to other religious spaces in grand palaces of the same type and period but the scale of Montalto's household and sophisticated musical requirements must have required something more than a 'small, simple room'.

From here I want to examine his music collection and extensive library. Work on his musical influence has been studied and a catalogue of composers and poets has been produced which should enable me to connect the arts of music, poetry and painting. As a contrast to other Renaissance, Alessandro seems to have been more interested in history and the liberal arts, rather than the natural and practical sciences. I like to imagine that the dreamy nature, compositional elegance and harmony of the Montalto Madonna inspired him in his private spiritual devotions, but importantly provided an intellectual focus for him and his friends. 

Painters and poets have always had equal power of inventive imagination, or of poetic licence. And taking Horace's views further, I'd like to consider the musician's power of invention not to imitate nature but to enhance, evoke and better it. We even talk about the colour, tone and rythm in art, music and poetry. The different narratives within the painting cross over, harmonise and play with one another in a way which was being explored by revolutionary contemporary composers like Monteverdi. Yes, Carracci's Madonna and child are there to worship, but Joseph and St John the Baptist are oblivious to Christ in the depths of their literary/philosophical/religious disputations - the power of the written word and underlying imagination of poetry and music in all these images is paramount. 

1L. Keith, L, 'Annibale Carracci's "Montalto Madonna"'. National Gallery Technical Bulletin Vol 29, pp 46–59.  

2John Walter Hill, Roman Monody, Cantata, and Opera from the Circles Around Cardinal Montalto, Volume 1, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997), p4

3For a complete discussion about these guides, see Margaret Daly Davis, 'Giovan Pietro Bellori and the "Nota delli musei, librerie, galerie, et ornamenti di statue e pitture ne' palazzi, nelle case, e ne' giardini di Roma" (1664): Modern libraries and ancient painting in Seicento Rome', Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 68. Bd., H. 2 (2005), pp. 191-233

4John Walter Hill, p15

5John Walter Hill, p20

6Cesare D'Onofrio, Roma nel Seicento (Florence, 1969)

7Stefanie Walker and Frederick Hammond, ed, Life and the arts in the baroque palaces of Rome = Ambiente barocco, (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 1999), p30

8Stefanie Walker and Frederick Hammond, p29

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