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Art Historical Musings: An Artist, a Patron and a House

Possessing Strangeness:
Don Fernando Enríquez Afán de Ribera
and Jusepe de Ribera’s Bearded Lady

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Possessing Strangeness: Don Fernando Enríquez Afán de Ribera and Jusepe de Ribera’s Bearded Lady [1] from DFeller2 [2]

A most unusual painting (Fig. 1) hung among the portraits, landscapes and religious scenes decorating the walls of the room in the Casa de Pilatos (Fig. 2) where the Third Duke of Alcalá–don Fernando Enríquez Afán de Ribera–took meals with his family. Commissioned in 1631 and completed by February 11 of that year (though dated several weeks later), Jusepe de Ribera’s Magdalena Ventura with Husband and Child (The Bearded Woman) was hailed at the time of its creation by the Venetian ambassador to the royal court in Naples as “[…] a thing of wonder.”

Over six feet high, the startling image of what looks like a man in women’s clothing with a perfectly spherical bared breast, must have been an imposing presence in the palace dining room. Centrally located on the canvas, the object of wonder is flanked in the background shadows on her right by her husband, who turns his head slightly to look at his wife. With wide-open eyes, brows arched upwards and pulled together, arms pressed against his body, shoulders raised ever so slightly, he fidgets with his hat. Ribera, a master in portraying emotion through gesture and facial expression, here conveys a man’s apprehension about his wife as a target for the penetrating gaze of an artist.

Magdalena Ventura, with the raised, pushed out lower lip and knitted brows of angry contempt, resolutely looks straight ahead at the viewer. Broad-shouldered, symmetrical and echoing the impassivity of the nearby stone, she cradles her infant in large, masculine hands. The baby, swaddled in an orange-red blanket with white edging, looks impassively upwards, taking no notice of the proffered breast that looms over it. The three are posed in an undefined space devoid of furnishings, presented to the collector as specimens ready to be arranged among other, similar types of curiosities.

Magdalena’s lace-trimmed white apron and collar, the ring on her left forefinger and the decorative ornament on the child’s bonnet suggest the couple was of some means. This implausible-but-real family originated in a town in the Abruzzi, part of the viceroyalty of Naples, and according to the inscription on the stele pictured on the far right of the painting, moved to the capital city when Magdalena was fifty-two. As the story went, she suffered from a malady–peculiar to the southern latitudes–of excessive hair growth, which began for her at the age of thirty-seven and included the flourishing of a luxuriant black beard.

Having somehow learned of the proximity of this human rarity, Don Fernando went about acquiring her for his collection in the only way possible. He had her image captured on canvas. For his personal viewing, he placed her in one of the least public spaces in his palace in Seville, perhaps an indication of his attachment to the portrait and/or simply for the sake of propriety. Judging from many of the items listed in the 1637 inventory made after his death, the duke was quite fond of oddities of all kinds. In fact, a good case can be made for his having conceptualized his entire Casa de Pilatos as a cabinet of curiosities (Wünderkammer)–a setting where naturalia and artificialia could be flaunted. Possessing the hirsute mother of three must have been quite a triumph for him and perhaps the envy of his peers.

Both the subject of the painting and the duke’s collecting habits indicate his awareness of the proper pursuits for a man of his station. Born into a noble Sevillian family in 1583, the son of Fernando Enríquez de Ribera–a man who took for his own mentor Francisco de Medina, one of the great humanist scholars of the time, Don Fernando Third Duke of Alcalá (Fig. 3) could count in his ancestry the first kings of Castile and Leon. Left fatherless at the age of seven, the duke received an education reflective of that heritage and his father’s immersion in intellectual, literary and aesthetic pursuits.

His home, the Casa de Pilatos (Figs. 4 and 5), had its own grand history. Created in the late fifteenth century by the first Marquis of Tarifa Fadrique Enríquez de Ribera, stocked at its inception with books, paintings, tapestries, and souvenirs of the earliest inhabitant’s travels, the palace hosted as well the collection of antique sculpture and inscribed stones purchased by the Third Duke’s great-uncle Pedro Enríquez y Afán de Ribera during his tenure as viceroy of Naples (1559-71).

Following in the steps of his forebears, the Third Duke sought service to his king, Philip III, though not without encountering self-erected stumbling blocks along the way. Having lost his father early on and then four years later his grandfather (the First Duke of Alcalá), Fernando came into his inheritance of wealth and responsibilities before he was twenty, at which time he had already been married for four years. In exercising one of those hereditary duties, that of constable of Seville, he found himself brought up on charges of abuse. Two years later, he was again in trouble, facing steep fines after his servants assaulted a municipal officer whose lack of sufficient deference to Alcalá triggered the violent reaction.

Not surprising then that it was a while before Don Fernando earned his first major royal appointment, that of Viceroy to Catalonia in 1618, where his lack of political acumen made him a poor representative of the crown. After overseeing for three years a friction-plagued administration, he was recalled. In a 1622 letter, he described how the misery of his time in Barcelona had been relieved by the chance to look at art and examine manuscripts, and by little else.

Schooled in Latin, logic, philosophy and theology as a teenager, the young Alcalá demonstrated a keen interest in the liberal arts, learning to write music and play the guitar, and to draw and paint. It was documented that he was especially adept in coloring and though little by his hand has survived, the sketches that do–of archaeological subjects–testify to the accuracy of the reports. His easel of diverse inlaid woods, whether or not acquired at the outset of his artistic activities, was later kept in the camarín grande, a large space frequented by many visitors. The easel painted its user as a member of a special class of “cultivated Baroque gentleman” who participated actively in the study and practice of the liberal arts.

Don Fernando’s career as a connoisseur began in those early years, as did his role as sponsor of an Academy where Sevillian scholars and other intellectuals met to discuss literature and the arts. Common among the nobility throughout Spain, these gatherings were not formally organized like their counterparts in Italy and France. Instituted by his grandfather in 1589 and attended by Fernando despite his tender age, it met in the camarín grande–the gallery built by the First Duke to display antiquities, and later expanded by the Third Duke to accommodate his collection of small ancient and contemporary bronzes, classical busts, urns and an assortment of other objects that would come over time to constitute a major section of his cabinet of curiosities. Large enough to accommodate the four thousand books accumulated by the First Duke, which were later augmented by Don Fernando with a single purchase of another five thousand, a library that large would have been quite a resource for the visiting discussants.

Esteemed as “[…] one of the most cultivated nobles in Spain” by no less than Francisco Pacheco (author of Arte de la pintura and father-in-law to Diego Velázquez), Alcalá invested the good fortune of his inheritance in his palace, initiating in 1603 much needed repairs, along with new construction. As part of the renovation, Pacheco–Alcalá’s friend, advisor and artist–executed paintings for the ceilings (Figs. 6 and 7), the centerpiece of one of which was The Apotheosis of Hercules (1604, Fig. 8), designed to provide direction for a nobleman in need of a virtuous path.

The most noteworthy architectural additions (Figs. 4 and 5), the set of rooms on the upper floor between the patio overlooking the courtyard and the Jardín Grande (large garden), provided room for the duke’s collections to grow. Included here were the library and armory, reception room and cabinet of paintings–all essential ingredients for any Wünderkammer. Undoubtedly aware of the marvelous Sevillian museum of Gonzalo Argote de Molina (Pacheco authored that earlier collector’s biography), Alcalá might have felt both inspired by, and challenged to compete with, his compatriot.

Though relatively modest, Argote’s assemblage, begun in the middle of the sixteenth century and lasting till its dispersion sometime before 1586, was noteworthy for its stable of fine horses, armory filled with arms old and new, library of rare books, picture gallery of mythological scenes, and portraits commissioned from Alonso Sánchez Coello (Philip II’s painter). He also laid out within his cabinet a stash of stones, coins, antique gems, and what seemed to be a natural history museum of taxidermic animal heads and birds.

A major afficionado of hunting, Argote penned a book on the subject that included a description of the picture gallery in the royal hunting lodge, the Pardo Palace, taking note of what he called its “wonders of nature.” One of the objects within that category, a bearded woman by Antonis Mor, probably perished in the blaze that destroyed much of the place in 1604. Mor’s painting might have been known to Juan Sánchez Cotán (the Spanish still-life painter), whose Brígida del Río, la barbuda de Peñaranda (1560, Fig. 9) depicted a well-known curiosity of the late sixteenth century.

An experienced and accomplished collector like the Duke of Alcalá would have surely been familiar with the stories and accompanying pictures of the bearded woman of Peñaranda and with the Mor painting in the Pardo. An avid devotee of the strange, he would eventually commission his own version of the subject for the Casa de Pilatos, where it joined many, mostly art-related, objects later listed in an inventory drawn up in advance of the estate sale to be held in Genoa. The document catalogued the contents of the nine major areas of the house, including those in the camarín grande–the location of some eye-catching items.

Exemplary of a cabinet of curiosities, objects present in that scholarly arena embodied the zeitgeist of the seventeenth century, when the opening of trade routes to the transatlantic west and exotic Far East brought novel products of human and natural design to Spain, Italy and elsewhere, enticing those with the inclination and means to attempt to possess the world in a room. That seems to have been what Don Fernando sought to accomplish when he accrued during his travels unusual objects like feather pictures from the “Yndias” (Spanish colonies in the New World), a package (or quiver) of Indian arrows, an ivory horn in one piece (Fig. 10), an astronomical ring–perhaps an astrolabe (Figs. 11 and 12), glass vessels believed to have been used by the ancients to store the tears of mourners (Fig. 13), a nail from the Pantheon portico in Rome, two thin branches and a flask of water from the Jordan River, an iron tool for opening bars/grills, a large gunpowder horn (Fig. 14), and many spherical pieces (marbles come to mind) of agate, amethyst and different colored jasper, and so on and on.

The potential for acquiring such curiosities increased considerably when the Third Duke of Alcalá returned to the royal court in Madrid in late 1624. With a new king, Philip IV, a new and anti-Spanish pope, Urban VIII (née Maffeo Barberini), an existing vacancy for an ambassador to secure diplomatic relations between Spain and the Vatican, and the recommendation of the royal favorite Count-Duke of Olivares, Alcalá was sent to Rome in hopes that his intellectual prowess would impress the similarly endowed pontiff. The Third Duke was in Rome by the summer of 1625, making a favorable impression on Urban VIII, but not enough of one to fulfill his charge to win over the pope to Spain’s agenda. It wasn’t until 1629, therefore, that Olivares and Philip IV saw fit to grant the duke another assignment. When they did, it was to replace the Duke of Alba as Viceroy of Naples.

Naples was not unknown to Don Fernando. There–the third stop on his 1626 tour of Italy that began with Genoa and Venice during the year of his ambassadorship–he acquired what was perhaps his first painting by Ribera. Securely identified from documentation as Christ Being Prepared for the Cross (ca. 1626, Fig. 15), in the 1637 inventory it merited an unusually lengthy description, signaling the importance of this canvas by the hand of “R[iber] Valenc[ian]” to at least the auditor if not the late Alcalá himself. Perhaps its singularity related to its having been a diplomatic gift from the Duke of Alba, Viceroy of Naples from 1622-29 and eventual nemesis of Don Fernando.

Hanging in the small chapel of the Casa de Pilatos–the first of the nine main sections described in the death inventory, Christ Being Prepared for the Cross belonged to a category of work for which Ribera had developed a reputation: paintings small enough to be conveniently moved, and hence perfect for private collections and chapels. Another line of the artist’s production–compositions of half-length saints, apostles and secular notables with their relevant accessories, in undefined, tenebristic spaces (Figs. 16 and 17)–apparently also served well Don Fernando’s program of decoration for his palace, part of which was the theme of beggar philosopher, fitting for the erudito the duke styled himself to be. Numbering eight in all, four were commissioned from Ribera and hung in pairs in different rooms of the house (Figs. 18 and 19).

Analogously, when Alcalá considered securing a bearded lady for his Wünderkammer, he turned to Ribera, an artist known for his commitment to drawing and painting from life, and for his depictions of oddities like grotesques, and narratives of extreme human behavior. Surely this collector and artist were meant for each. Don Fernando’s “[…] interest in unusual human behavior” was noted by Brown and Kagan in their introduction to the 1637 inventory when they singled out a painting attributed to Alcalá’s private painter Diego de Rómulo of “[…] the ‘portrait of the buffoon who eats everything that is painted on his plate’ [iv. 23].”

Rómulo’s painting hung in the fourth room of the palace (as divided in the inventory), keeping company with a Gianbologna three-horned bull (probably a rhinoceros), landscapes, Venetian portraits, still lifes (another passion of Alcalá’s), a few saints, two more philosophers, a Gianbologna bronze on a mahogany table, and other furniture and sculpture. In the fifth room, where the duke ate, Ribera’s Bearded Woman held court with a large painting of a butcher shop and a canvas of Herod with the Head of Saint John the Baptist. Joining them in the dining room were–among others–pictures of religious subjects, paintings with attributions to Palma il Giovane and Albrecht Dürer, landscapes of ruins (reminders to Don Fernando of his visits to archaeological sites in Rome), portraits of emperors and a bare-breasted Venetian woman holding a bouquet of herbs, perhaps Flora.

Truly an eclectic selection, the contents of these rooms continued Don Fernando’s decorative agenda throughout the house into more private spaces, echoing the cabinets of curiosities of other Spanish nobles, who in their grand galleries brought together paintings, objets d’art, wonders of nature and marvels of human craft. These Wünderkammers, often indistinguishable from Kunstkammers, could grow to huge proportions and encompass a high degree of variety (Fig. 20).

A compendium of many of the grandest ones appeared in Vincente Carducho’s 1633 Diálogos de la Pintura, though it made no reference to Alcalá’s. Nonetheless, the kinds of objects encountered during the chronicler’s visits to these treasure troves were identical to many in the Third Duke’s death inventory.

The Wünderkammers Carducho did document could contain upwards of a thousand or more paintings within which were found some by great masters like Titian, Raphael, Leonardo and Bassano–all of whom were represented on select walls of Alcalá’s house along with notable artists Artemisia Gentileschi, Velázquez, Dűrer, Guido Reni, Perugino and Michelangelo, many in room three of the Casa de Pilatos, the corridor with the door to the loggia overlooking the garden. Two of Ribera’s philosophers (Figs. 16 and 17) lived there, too.

Other items Carducho encountered were sculptures, swords, knives, shields, carved and engraved rock crystals and ivory, escritoires and buffets, balls of jasper, clocks, mirrors, globes, spheres, relics, and mathematical and geometrical instruments. Versions of all of these once filled the galleries and gardens of the Casa de Pilatos, where objects proclaimed their fine craftsmanship, exotic origin, rarity, variegated mediums and materials, antiquity, and natural origins–all characteristic of a cabinet of curiosities.

In addition to the rooms already described, a small, private space adjoining the dining room–noteworthy for its maps–was followed by a seventh room described as small, “where the duke received visitors.” Within its walls sixty-two objects, many of high quality, vied for visitors’ attention. Catalogued were paintings like that identified by Pacheco as a famous one by Tintoretto, a large canvas by Andrea del Sarto (Fig. 21), a group of fourteen still lifes in golden frames, and a portrait of a cleric by Leonardo. Here, too, were quite a few desks, some of ebony and walnut (Fig. 22), sculptures of bronze, marble and black stone, several chairs and mirrors, and a cherry-wood box for chess pieces by then missing.

In this intimate space overlooking the garden–which functioned as a portal to the Casa de Pilatos, Don Fernando crammed an impressive selection of objects, again showcasing for visitors a pair of Ribera philosophers (Figs. 18 and 19). From here, the duke could guide his guests into his camerín grande where they would be greeted by souvenirs from his travels, scientific instruments, his collection of small bronzes–many by Gianbologna, eighteen pictures on paper of animals by Bassano, nine paintings of muses by Alonso Vázquez, a portfolio of prints and drawings (unfortunately none specified), a self-portrait of Titian and a copy of his Danaë, and so much more, adding up to a dizzying array of two hundred and fourteen fabulous objects.

From the small chapel filled with devotional images and the dining room with Ribera’s Bearded Lady, to chambers filled with paintings, sculptures and decorative objects, reaching a crescendo in the camerín grande with its mix of naturalia and artificialia, the Casa de Pilatos epitomized a seventeenth-century Wünderkammer. While the inventory says nothing about the manner in which the small exotic objects were displayed, by virtue of their inclusion among such illustrious pieces as old master paintings and bronze sculptures, curiosities like the nails from the Pantheon must have been shown in a way that communicated their value to the auditor, who made sure to inscribe them in the inventory. How exactly Don Fernando managed that, how he placed each piece within its respective room–in conversation with what other item–remains as yet and perhaps forever unknown. Perchance some yet undiscovered print or painting of the interior of a Spanish Baroque gentleman’s palace will prove the key to the mysteries still locked away in the Third Duke of Alcalá’s Wünderkammer.

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For citations and bibliography, contact the author at:  deborahfeller@verizon.net