A Velázquez in the Museum

A Velázquez in the Museum

From March 26 to June 23, Galleria Borghese presents the exhibition A Velázquez in the Museum, in which the work Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus – one of the first known works by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and from the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Ireland – is presented in the Sileno Room, which displays the paintings by Caravaggio.

The exhibition is conceived as a research focus in which the very choice of display automatically opens a dialogue between the work of two absolute masters of the Baroque: in fact, the comparison between Velázquez‘s work and Caravaggio’s paintings in the room lends itself to readings that reveal unprecedented perspectives of criticism and insight, placing the exhibition in that strand dedicated to the gaze of foreign artists on the Eternal City to which the museum has long devoted a substantial part of its research. Velázquez was an international artist, visiting Rome twice in his lifetime, and like Rubens, whom he met in Madrid in 1629, he had a privileged relationship with Rome and Italy, which in fact places him in that ranks of foreign artists who drew teaching and inspiration from the city and its Masters.

 The painting of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was revolutionary for the artistic fortunes of the entire seventeenth century. From the very first canvases unveiled to the public in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome in 1600, the “noise” (as Baglione wrote) around his work was striking, prompting numerous artists to imitate his style and copy his paintings. Hence was born the phenomenon of Caravaggism, which within a few years became European in scope, and whose highest achievements often flourished far from Italy, thanks to Flemish, Dutch, French and Spanish painters.

These foreign artists came to Rome and other Italian cities to see and learn, including Caravaggio’s painting, practicing reproductions of their masterpieces, in a training trip that anticipated the Grand Tour by a century.

In Seville, in the hot and sunny Andalusia, perhaps the brightest light of this artistic current was shone, with the work of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), whose long-distance connection with Caravaggio is of great fascination and intensity: the exceptional loan of Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus from the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, set up in the same room as Caravaggio’s paintings, is therefore a valuable opportunity to deepen this intense cultural dialogue between masters.

Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus is among the Spanish painter’s earliest works, painted around 1618-1620 when he had recently left the workshop of Francisco Pacheco, a Sevillian painter whose daughter Juana he married in 1618. The painting is part of the bodegón genre, a strand of Spanish painting that depicted people from the humblest social conditions in the kitchen or near food and poor objects. The painting’s protagonist is a young maid busy in the kitchen, appearing to have just finished tidying up after a dinner, as evidenced by the upturned jug and bowls to drain and the white cloth in the foreground. The still life of the objects is painted with great realism and vividness, the light shining in the copper pot and mortar, caressing the straw basket hanging on the wall, and lighting up the ceramic jugs that already bring to mind the works of Giorgio Morandi. In the background on the left, as if it were a picture within a picture, we see from a window a scene with the biblical scene episode of the Supper at Emmaus, which had been concealed by repainting and resurfaced thanks to a restoration in 1933.

This is the moment when two disciples recognize the risen Christ who had presented himself to them as a beggar, at the exact moment when he breaks the bread and blesses it. The young maid is motionless and dreamy, seeming to have sensed the sacredness of the event, as if she were listening to the words spoken at the table in the background. This work has been related to a passage from St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th-century Spanish mystic, who is said to have said to her nun sisters, “My daughters, do not be discouraged if obedience leads you to occupy yourselves with outward things; know that even in the kitchen the Lord is to be found, and among the pots and pans he helps you in inward and outward things.

What might appear to be a usual and simple genre scene takes on higher and more spiritual meanings, much like Caravaggio‘s early works, such as Self-Portrait as Bacchus, among Merisi’s earliest known works, kept since the 17th century in the Galleria Borghese. Allegorical and moral meanings have been seen in the flourishing bunch of grapes resting on the plane and in the one held in the hand in which withered grapes can be glimpsed, in the parched leaf as in the green leaf of the serto. The Spanish painting with the reserved young maid also shows an extraordinary still life, and both, although the Caravaggesque one is biological (“humble biological drama” according to Longhi) and the other inanimate, are strongly dramatic.

Velázquez stayed in Italy twice, the first time in 1629, for about a year and a half, and the second time from 1649 to 1651. Both trips were of enormous importance for his painting, which was nurtured by the great masters from Veneto, Lombardy, and Emilia. Like only Raphael before him, the great Spanish painter was able to assimilate everything he saw, make it his own and reinterpret it in a unique way. Titian, the Carracci, Caravaggio, Guido Reni and even Bernini come alive in Velázquez’s portraits and large historical and mythological canvases, holding classicism and naturalism together. It should be noted, however, that Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus was executed more than a decade before his Italian sojourn, and it is therefore fair to wonder how this strong Caravaggesque echo reached him. One can easily imagine that Caravaggio’s works had arrived in Spain by way of some copies, which were then circulating in large quantities, and that he may have seen a replica of The Supper at Emmaus long kept in the Galleria Borghese and now in the National Gallery in London.

In any case, it is certain that from the very beginning his pictorial beginnings were under the sign of Caravaggio; both sought truth in the slums of their respective cities, in the streets, taverns and inns, placing the sacred within humble, everyday settings.



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