The journey of four centuries of a stolen painting that reflects the violence of the Baroque

Was 1612. Artemisia Gentileschi, the great Italian painter of the 17th century, was on trial after being raped by the artist Agostino Tassi, her teacher and close friend of her father, the also painter Orazio Gentileschi. According to the proceedings, Tassi was sentenced for the crime of rape, but not for the theft of a painting by Orazio entitled Judit and her servant with the head of Holofernes . That piece, which inspired later works by the painter and which was her way of representing the terrible episode of the rape with the fury of her brush, now hangs in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum after being donated by the lawyer, politician and professor of Constitutional Law Óscar Alzaga Villaamil.

The work has arrived at the museum after a long journey that began on the day of the robbery at Gentileschi’s house. Orazio wrote to Pope Paul V to denounce the rape of his daughter and the disappearance of a large painting whose measurements correspond to the one just donated by Alzaga, who acquired it in 1995 at an auction in London for an amount he prefers not to disclose. On the canvas there is a date: . “Many historians say that it is the year of the invoice, but from the studies we have done we see that it is an earlier work,” explains José Luis Merino Gorospe, curator of ancient art at the Bilbao Fine Arts. “It is of a clear Caravaggio style, typical of his period in Rome. It has a very marked tenebrism and a very contrasted chiaroscuro ”, he continues. “It would then be the first time that he has painted this subject, but we are prudent and rigorous and we admit the range between 1605 and 1612. We are going to continue studying the work. ”

De izquierda a derecha: 'Judit y su sirvienta con la cabeza de Holofernes' (c. 1605-1612), de Orazio Gentileschi; otra versión de Orazio Gentileschi de 'Judit y su sirvienta con la cabeza de Holofernes' (1608-1609), en el Museo de Oslo. Y una de las obras de Artemisia Gentileschi con la misma temática (1618-1619), en el Palacio Pitti.
From left to right: ‘Judith and her servant with the head of Holofernes’ (c. 1605 – 1612) by Orazio Gentileschi; another version by Orazio Gentileschi of ‘Judith and her servant with the head of Holofernes’ (1608 – 1609), in the Oslo Museum. And one of the works of Artemisia Gentileschi with the same theme (1618-1619), in the palace Pitti. ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

The myth of Judith with the head of Holofernes , represented hundreds of times in the history of art and one of Caravaggio’s great works, links the work of father and daughter in a very special way. It is not only an example of the influence between the two artists and their admiration for the great Baroque painter, it is also a way of understanding Artemisia’s work, which was deeply marked after the rape she suffered. “She repeated the theme as artistic revenge,” says the expert from the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. “He has two versions of ‘Judith’ that are very raw, very gory, inspired by the Caravaggio original. One of them was exhibited in Bilbao in 2008 ″.

A journey of four centuries

Before reaching the halls of the Alzaga’s home, where he exhibits all his works, the painting was part of the collections of important Italian families. The first clue about his whereabouts that Merino Gorospe has found is in an acronym that appears on the canvas: GMR. “They refer to Giuseppe Marchese Rondanini (1725 – 1801), in whose collection there were works by important Italian artists ”, explains the expert, and recalls that this collector acquired, among other pieces , the last work of Michelangelo, which is known as Piedad Rondanini .

Inscripción en el reverso de la tela, hoy oculta por una tela de reentelado. La fotografía se publicó en el artículo publicado por Stephem Pepper en 'The Burlington Magazine', en mayo de 1984. Cortesía del Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.
Inscription on the back of the fabric, today hidden by a re-knit fabric. The photograph was published in the article published by Stephem Pepper in ‘The Burlington Magazine’, in May of 1984. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

The collection of this important family originated with Natale Rondanini (1540 – 1627) and passed on to his heirs until he reached Giuseppe Marchese, who left his mark on Gentileschi’s painting. “This version is surely the one that appears inventoried in 1662, when it belongs to Felice Zacchia Rondanini (1593 – 1667), like a Juditta che ha tagliata the testa ad Holoferne painted on an Imperatore canvas, that is, six spans high (132 cm), a measurement that matches our Judith ”, relates Merino Gorospe. Years later, the work was part of two exhibitions that were held in December 1694 and December 1710 in the cloister of San Salvatore in Lauro in Rome. “There it is mentioned as Una Giuditta di Orazio Gentileschi”, points out the expert.

Inscripción que alude a la colección de Bartolomeo Marchese di Capranica (1782–1864). Cortesía del Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.
Inscription that refers to the collection of Bartolomeo Marchese di Capranica (1782 – 1864). Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

There is a second inscription in the painting that alludes to another important collection, that of Bartolomeo Marchese di Capranica (1782 – 1864) , belonging to a family of theater patrons who were related to the Rondanini family and who, due to financial problems, ended up selling in 1841 his palace and almost certainly the art collection. From that moment, as is often the case with many pieces of this type, the track is lost until it appears in 1984 in an exhibition at the Colnaghi Gallery in London. Years later, it was auctioned in London and that is when it went to the Alzaga collection.

Thanks to this donation, the Bilbao museum has two works by the author, the Judith and Lot and his daughters , painted in 1620 at the court of Charles I of England. “The National Gallery of London has acquired in 2020 the Moses saved from the waters of Gentileschi, which would be a match with ours ”, recalls Merino Gorospe. Alzaga recalls that the painting was on the Prado’s radar (an institution to which he has made other donations). Finally, the agreement was not reached because the requirement requested by the professor could not be fulfilled. “I told the director: ‘I ask you to take what you can hang up.’ I didn’t want it to end up in a warehouse. ”

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