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Roman rendezvous for Spain’s royal art treasures

by Marco Carminati

“Caravaggio to Bernini. Italian Seicento masterpieces from the Spanish Royal Collections,” curated by Gonzalo Redín Michaus, is now on show in Rome, in the wake of the triumphant exhibition held in the Royal Palace of Madrid, which closed on October 16th, 2016.

The Roman rendezvous with Italian art lovers – which, featuring as it does the work of masters from both Italy and Spain, highlights the close political and cultural ties that connected the two countries in the 17th century – is a precious opportunity to admire the classic gems that have belonged to the Spanish monarchs.

These include, for instance, Caravaggio's Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist, ordinarily to be found in the Royal Palace of Madrid and fresh from restoration work that's further revealed its exceptional pictorial quality, and Diego Velázquez' Joseph's Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, from the Monastery of San Lorenzo, El Escorial.

The latter canvas – large in size – was realized by the artist right after his first trip to Italy, between 1629 and 1630, and show the signs of his encounter with ancient Roman art and modern Italian painting.

Controlling as it did the Viceroyalty of Naples and the State of Milan, 17th-century Spain had considerable political weight on the Italian scene; hence the Spanish sovereigns' pursuit of rich collections of Italian artwork, as well as their viceroys and governors, who often presented the House of Hapsburg with splendid gifts of artwork they'd acquired in the peninsula.

Such is the case for two of the exhibition's most spectacular paintings, Guercino's Lot and his Daughters and Guido Reni's Conversion of Saul, both donated by Prince Ludovisi to Philip IV to ensure Spanish protection for the tiny State of Piombino.

Many other masterpieces, like Bernini's Crucified Christ, on loan from El Escorial and rarely accessible to the general public, were commissioned or purchased directly by royal agents, while other work was bequeathed to the Spanish sovereigns by way of inheritance, as in the case of Caravaggio's Salome.

In 1819, King Ferdinand VII established the Royal Museum of Madrid (later renamed Prado Museum), which gathered work belonging to the royal collections. Those items that were not transferred to the museum remained in the royal residences, at the monarchs' disposal. In 1865, Queen Isabella II gave up her rights to personal ownership of the treasures she'd inherited from her forebears and relinquished their management to the State, laying the foundations for what has now become the Patrimonio Nacional, the “National Heritage.”

(“Caravaggio to Bernini. Italian Seicento masterpieces from the Spanish Royal Collections,” Rome, Scuderie del Quirinale, until July 30th)