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Rubens in Genoa. Awe and wonder

Interview with Anna Orlando
Exhibition curator

How did the project for the exhibition ‘Rubens a Genova’, running at Palazzo Ducale until 5 February 2023, come about?

The exhibition, curated together with Nils Büttner, President of the Rubenianum in Antwerp, is a story about the fundamental relationship between the Flemish master and the city, and investigates the patronage, personal relationships, and not least the germinal place of the Baroque. It brings an important number of the artist’s autograph works to Genoa, which had been missing since the fall of the aristocratic Republic in 1797, when the dispersion of private collections began. What has been rendered in this exhibition, also through the layout curated by Giovanni Tortelli, is the feeling of amazement and wonder aroused by Genoa in Rubens, who found it very special: modern, enterprising, rich, cultured, an architectural, urban and cultural model. This is confirmed by the volume Palazzi di Genova (Palaces of Genoa) that Rubens published at his own expense in Antwerp in 1622 – the exhibition falls precisely on its fourth centenary – which is explained by his conviction that Genoa was an example for him, a reference to look up to, also with respect to the many places, the many buildings, the many courts, the many personalities he had certainly met at the age of 45. And it was precisely to underline this special relationship that the project ‘Genova per Rubens. A Network’, which was conceived with the intention of linking the artist not only to the Ducale exhibition but also to the city, through collaborations and one hundred and fifty cultural events, including concerts, extraordinary openings, and conferences. And then twelve collateral exhibitions and a Rubensian itinerary in forty-two stages. Never had the city been so involved in an exhibition project. The intention was to bring together different types of audience, from the specialist to the more heterogeneous public of enthusiasts.

But how is the visitor guided through the exhibition?

Different types of panels were designed to introduce the theme of the exhibition and the works, more than 120 of which are on display, including 25 paintings by Rubens. A large figurative family tree occupying an entire wall, for example, is highly appreciated by the public, useful to explain the intricate branches of kinship and their relations with the Flemish master. In fact, archive research has led to the discovery that more than half of the works Rubens executed in Genoa, be they portraits or religious commissions, are mainly attributable to two families: the Pallavicino and the Serra.

What about publications on the occasion of the exhibition?

The publishing house Electa, part of the Mondadori Group, is a partner in the project. The editorial part consists of three publications: the more specialised catalogue edited together with Nils Büttner, which presents all the latest studies and involves various Italian and foreign scholars; the guide through the rooms of the Ducal Palace which illustrates the exhibition itinerary; finally, the guide ‘A Genova con Rubens’ , to discover the artist’s life and the masterpieces that by curatorial choice we wanted to remain in the places that conserve them, thus the Portrait of Giovan Carlo Doria on horseback of the National Museum in Palazzo Spinola, Venus and Mars of the Strada Nuova Museums in Palazzo Bianco, as well as the altarpieces of the Circumcision and the Miracles of St. Ignatius in the Chiesa del Gesù. Finally, for Abscondita, I edited a critical edition of Rubens’ Palazzi di Genova, where all the plates of Rubens’ 1622 edition of the book are reproduced.

What innovations have emerged as a result of the studies leading up to the exhibition?

There are several scientific innovations that require an update and addenda to the Corpus Rubenianum volume: works that have never before been catalogued and published. Some, precisely because of their relevance, had already been anticipated before the exhibition. For example, the discovery that the signatory of the contract to Rubens for the tapestry cartoons with the stories of the Roman consul Publius Decius Mure was a young nephew of Geronimo Di Negro, Nicolò Pallavicino’s business partner, Franco Cattaneo. The unpublished reconstruction of the various family genealogies, together with other sources already known, has put a significant dent in the identification of the Genoese partners for the 1616 commission.

How important were the archival investigations?

The study of archive sources has also revealed other interesting interpretative elements, for example that the portraits referring to the Pallavicino and Serra families were actually gifts from the Duke of Mantua Vincenzo I Gonzaga, for whom Rubens worked as court painter, to pay homage and please his major creditors, the bankers Geronimo Serra and Nicolò Pallavicino. These discoveries are the result of years of archive research, which have made it possible to give a name to the Genoese nobility portrayed by Rubens and still unknown, and in many cases related by marriage, such as the double portrait of Geronima Spinola and her niece Maria Giovanna Serra in the large painting in the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie. Among the previews of the exhibition is the discovery of the model for the altarpiece of the Miracles of St. Ignatius, for the chapel of Nicolò Pallavicino at the Gesù Church, which had been missing for two hundred years: in all respects it coincides with the one mentioned in an inventory of 1811 and is therefore the one that Rubens sent from Antwerp in 1619 to his Genoese patrons. For the first time it is reunited with the other known sketch, on panel, kept at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Who was Rubens when he arrived in Genoa in 1600?

When Rubens arrives in Genoa, he is 23 years old. According to Bellori’s description of him, he is cultured, elegant, good-looking, and pleasant to talk to. He grows up in an exclusive environment, his father is a jurist, he receives a humanistic education, is fluent in seven languages, and from his correspondence we know that he writes in Italian, French and Latin.

According to my reconstructions, as early as October 1600, a few months after his arrival at the court of Mantua, Rubens was on his way to Genoa in the retinue of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, who had come from Florence and was on his way to the lands of Monferrato. The marriage of Maria de’ Medici to Henry IV, King of France, had just taken place in Florence. We know from documents that the duke arrived in Florence with his court accompanied by Rubens, so it is likely that he travelled with him.

How important is Genoa for Rubens?

The Genoese chapter is important for Rubens, we knew this, but the new research clarifies a great deal of what was known. Emphasis had never been placed, for example, on the sparkling cultural and intellectual environment, very high at the time: aristocrats, rich and powerful, but with artistic and literary interests, who dabbled in poetry, who founded academies, with whom Rubens was in absolute harmony. Giulio Pallavicino, owned a library of 2,000 volumes, and financed with his brothers the new building of the Chiesa del Gesù; Gian Vincenzo Imperiale, a brilliant young man, art connoisseur and refined collector, poet and writer, was Rubens’ first patron in Genoa; and then the Serra, Doria and Spinola families. Genoa is a dynamic city, and this dynamism pleases Rubens. It is not Rome, complex in its relationships, complex in its commissions. The buildings, palaces, and villas, which he would later describe, are the mirror of a prosperous and cultured society. It is a city that Rubens feels is stimulating, in constant artistic ferment. He would frequent Genoese painters such as Bernardo Castello, and Flemish painters working in Genoa in those years. It is this economic and cultural humus that I wanted to bring out in the exhibition. And if Rubens anticipates and invents the Baroque in Italy, he does so in Genoa with the Circumcision of 1605. It was in this city that he drew the master lines of his innovative art in just a few years.