by Anna Orlando
Let’s close our eyes for a moment and imagine a port in the Mediterranean with galleys that are arriving and setting sail. They were great ship owners and able seafarers and merchants who, from North to South and from East to West, brought spices, silks and precious materials. They brought tapestries and paintings, too. And some of them were artists. Some also came to Italy on horseback, this is true. Pietro Paolo Rubens came for the first time on the back of a horse in the Jubilee Year of 1600. However, it was easier to arrive in Genoa by sea and see before their eyes a city of towers sitting around the bay with hundreds of houses huddled together and a sequence of princely residences both inside as well as outside the city walls. The city was at the height of its wealth at the beginning of the Seventeenth century thanks to a ruling class that was made up of aristocrats who did not look down their noses at the mere handling of money either for purely commercial reasons or on account of such heightened financial activity that soon made them the creditors to Europe’s most powerful kings and queens.
A pictorial genre soon started and swiftly developed that skilfully depicted – as a sort of figurative equivalent – that very climate of effervescence, enthusiasm and opulence that the Superba experienced at least up to the terrible plague of 1656. Only from that moment onwards did Genoa suffer from a slow decline that the art of the time was able to resist with an explosion of Baroque in all its triumph. These were the last few wondrous moments of the golden century that we are able to conjure up today thanks to the architectural and artistic texts that the city still jealously preserves.
Let us open our eyes then and look at this large canvas. Over seven square metres of pictorial jubilation, made up of glances being exchanged; gesturing, flowers, fruit and precious metals; lights and flashes of colour; shadows and colours.
Four, maybe even six separate hands worked upon this extraordinary painting that depicts a pagan sacrifice according to those typical methods that I have chosen to define as “animated Genoese-Flemish still-life”. In all truth, this painting has to be one of the most amazing examples of such a style in terms of pure quality.
In that melting-pot of Genoa, during the first half of the Seventeenth century, a time in which other Flemish artists arrived in the city apart from Rubens (1604) and Van Dyck (1621), there started a pictorial genre that resembled the market scenes painted by painters in Antwerp. To these scenes of daily life, the artists in Italy added a more Italian – in terms of taste – depiction of mythological, biblical or allegorical subjects. The result was a previously unseen and highly worthy cultural document. The painters were indeed Flemish but they became Genoese. Local painters from Italy learnt their skills from the most talented of the Antwerp painters. These latter had become successful in Genoa and had opened up studios without ever returning to their native city of Antwerp.
A symbolic figure of this artistic and cultural phenomenon – an absolutely unique phenomenon among all other regions in Italy – was Jan Roos (Antwerp 1591 – Genoa 1638). He appears in historical sources and documents as Giovanni Rusa. He was the author of the “Cyrus Sacrifices to Bel the Idol”, which was presented to the public for the first time on the occasion of the exhibition, “Van Dyck. Great Painting and Collecting”, at the Ducal Palace in Genoa in 1997. Jan Roos was the son of a merchant from Antwerp and was a schoolmate of Cornelis and Lucas de Wael in the studio of Jan, their father. The artist’s biographer, Raffaele Soprani (1674), said that, in comparison to the brothers, he was “much better at imitating all that the world has to offer in the sharpest of colours”. Jan Roos was twenty-three years old when he arrived in Genoa in 1614. The De Wael brothers were also in Genoa in that period but Roos’ final destination was to be Rome where he longed to become inebriated in the Classic style. In Genoa – the Superba – he would return after a couple of years, intending to depart for the long trip home, but was unable to leave since he was “held back by some gentlemen who commissioned him to paint”.
The large canvas tells the rare episode of the biblical book of Daniel that recounts the conversion from idolatry of the Persian king, Cyrus. The prophet demonstrates to him that it isn’t the warmongering Bel who eats everything that is brought to him every evening but the high priests who feast every evening. Some elements within the composition are indeed references from history itself: the dog on the left since Herodotus says that Cyrus was brought up by a she-dog; the sunflower on the right in the foreground and depicted very clearly as it is the symbol of adulation and devotion; the weapons that allude to Bel’s bellicose character. All of these subjects were intended as an explicit invitation to embrace the true Faith against any forms of idolatry in a historical moment in time when the church of the Counter-Reformation was at war against heresy.
Grandiose works such as this show all the artistic mastery of Jan Roos that has since been much praised in subsequent documentation: “a talented creator of colour when painting fruit in such a highly natural manner and flowers that were depicted with such tender attention”, wrote Soprani. According to the latter, Roos was also able to paint “highly natural portraits”, to such an extent that his fame soon reached the courts of the Medicis and to Rome, France and Spain. His portraits are today kept at the Prado and the Galleria Corsini in Rome and one of the most famous “storied” scenes is the “Drunken Silenus” at the Museums of the Strada Nuova in Genoa that shares, with this “Sacrifice”, the jubilation of the still-life to which the whole right side of the composition is dedicated. On the left, there are figures – the four standing in the centre were painted by Roos himself – but others were painted by Domenico Piola (Genoa 1628-1703) like the figures on the portion of added canvas on the left (approximately fifty centimetres) as well as the baby partially in the shade beside King Cyrus. When did Piola work on Roos’ canvas? Roos died when Piola was just twenty so we have to suppose that any intervention took place after the first half of the century.
In this fascinating interlacing of paintbrushes we might even be able to identify a third hand in the depiction of the flowers. This area is chromatically different from the rest of the composition since it employs the use of delicate shades and colours and is characterised by a light appearance with a subtle patina which was typical of Roos who learnt this style by closely observing the paintings of Van Dyck. The painter from Antwerp might have left this particular area to his Genoese pupil, Stefano Camogli (Genoa 1610 – circa 1690) who, before becoming both brother-in-law and colleague of maestro Piola was also a painter of “flowers”. He learnt this skill in Roos’ Flemish–cum-Genoese atelier. Thus, this painter from Camogli also became a key-figure in this fascinating cultural web and such mutual exchanging of talents further enriched an artistic period that was both unique as well as unrepeatable and that still today continues to award us the jubilation of these great masterpieces.