Essays

Comparison between the 1680 and 1681 Mellini Inventories

Nuria Rodríguez Ortega

One of the most interesting aspects of the rhyming inventory by Pietro Mellini dated 1681 is the fact that there also is a conventional legal inventory that gives a detailed description of the family’s collection of paintings and drawings, drawn up during the previous year at the behest of Pietro himself.1

There is no doubt that the two documents relate to the same collection—the descriptions of the materials and measurements of the works in both texts coincide in almost all cases, as clearly shown by our comparison of the two documents.2 What is more, there is an explicit intertextual relationship between the two documents: language in the third stanza (folio 1 recto: “The names of the Creators / Of the painted canvases are now known to us”) and the fifth stanza (folio 1 verso: “Notes with numbers and letters / Next to each work appears the name of the famous Artist”) of the first part of the 1681 poem can be unequivocally interpreted as direct allusions to the inventory of 1680, since one of the main purposes of the first inventory was to specify the artists who had executed the paintings and drawings in the Mellini collection.

A careful study of both documents is essential for a better understanding of the Mellini collection, as each document provides different information and reveals different aspects of the works described. A comparative analysis not only familiarizes us with the Mellini collection but also allows us to study the way in which different conceptualizations of the same collection could coexist in the two texts that have come down to us. It further enables us to reflect on the distinct function that inventories had in the sociocultural order of Pietro and Savo Mellini’s time—that is, they recorded, described, and documented art collections3—as well as to appreciate how Pietro’s rhyming inventory went far beyond a simple neutral administrative document.

We can make a comparison of the two documents focusing on three key elements:

  1. The Paintings and Artists Included. The inventory of 1680 is exhaustive; it records each one of the 153 paintings and drawings that were in the Mellini collection in Rome at the time. The poem of 1681 is selective; Pietro describes only the works that he considers the “best” or “most excellent.” This is quite different from the tendency of inventories from the second half of the seventeenth century onward, where the main criterion seems to have been quantitative—the more works that could be recorded, the better. Perhaps the best example of this kind of inventory is of the Colonna collection.4 In contrast, Pietro’s poetic inventory is qualitative, since he describes 95 works as opposed to 153 works in the 1680 inventory. Thus what he described was an ideal collection, purged of lesser works of art. Unlike Marino’s Gallery,5 however, which does not correspond to a real, existing collection (it includes real works from various collections, in addition to imaginary works), the selected works in Pietro’s gallery come from a single, real collection.

  2. The Descriptions of the Works. The descriptions in the 1680 inventory are analytic in nature—the physical characteristics of the works, their subject matter and iconographic content, and indications about their style and judgments of their aesthetic quality are given in considerable detail. The descriptions in Pietro’s rhyming inventory, instead, are in keeping with the tradition of ekphrasis6 and rhetorical hypotyposis.7 In his rather clumsy, amateurish verses, Pietro attempted to re-create the visual and emotional impact that the images had—or that he believed they should have had—on the reader/spectator. He repeatedly refers to the sense of amazement or wonder that the works in his family’s collection were capable of eliciting. The cold, clinical descriptions of the 1680 inventory are transformed by Pietro into vivid representations aimed at exciting his readers’ imaginations (and, by extension, the imagination of those fortunate enough to actually see the works). The emphasis is on the gestures, poses, and feelings of the characters depicted—their states of mind. Pietro seeks first and foremost to re-create the emotional atmosphere of the paintings. He dwells on the most dramatic and even violent narrative elements (conflagrations, battles, deaths) as well as those that provide pure visual delight. Thus we can say that while the 1680 inventory is a logical, rational account of the works on three levels (as physical artifacts, representative images, and aesthetic objects), the 1681 poem provides a rather circumscribed emotional experience focused on the works as aesthetic objects. (The physical descriptions—media and measurements—in the margins of the poem appear to have been copied or transcribed from the conventional inventory.)

  3. Sequence. Pietro Mellini’s ekphrasis takes the form of a sequence of visual descriptions that departs from the topographical order followed in the 1680 inventory. Pietro’s poem is divided into two sections, each of which is purportedly dedicated to describing one room in the Palazzo del Rosario in Rome.8 With one exception (item 18 in Part I, folio 3 verso), the paintings described in the first part of the poem correspond with those that are located in the “large room that looks out to the piazza” indicated in the 1680 inventory. The second part of the poem, in spite of the fact that Pietro writes that the works hang “in a spacious room with golden friezes” (folio 7 verso), describes paintings that are specified as hanging in different rooms in the 1680 inventory. In neither part of the poem does Pietro’s description follow the topographical order of the conventional inventory. On the contrary, his account jumps from one wall to another. In this manner, the paintings are grouped in a new way in the poem, thereby taking on new meanings. With this strictly literary “display,” Pietro determines the conditions of the “visualization” and the experience of the reader/spectator, who encounters the collection in the way that Pietro has reshaped it in his poem.

Footnotes

  • 1.Jorge Fernández-Santos Ortiz-Iribas, “The Inventory of Pietro Mellini’s Collection at the Palazzo del Rosario in 1680,” Burlington Magazine 150, no. 1265 (August 2008): 512–20. http://burlington.org.uk/archive/back-issues/200808.
  • 2.See the “Comparison to 1680 inventory” section in the List of Artworks.
  • 3. See the essay “What Is an Inventory?”
  • 4.Natalia Gozzano, La quadreria di Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna: Prestigio nobiliare e collezionismo nella Roma barocca (Rome: Bulzoni, 2004), 17; Maria Celeste Cola, “Gli inventari della collezione Ruspoli: La nascita della quadreria settecentesca e l’allestimento nel palazzo all’Aracoeli,” in Elisa Debenedetti, ed., Collezionisti, disegnatori e teorici dal Barocco al Neoclassico, 1:29–64 (Rome: Bonsignori, 2009), 30. Also see the essay "The Mellini Collection in the Context of Seventeenth-Century Baroque Rome."
  • 5.Giambattista Marino, a Neapolitan poet who spent the greater part of his career in Paris, was most famous for his epic poem L’Adone (Adonis), first published in 1623. La galeria del cavalier Marino, Distinta in pitture, & sculture (The Gallery of the Cavalier Marino, Divided into Paintings, & Sculptures), first published in Milan in 1620 and reprinted numerous times during the following decades, is a poetic description of a “virtual gallery” of real and imagined paintings and sculptures. A full digital facsimile is available at http://archive.org/details/lagaleriadelcav00marigoog.
  • 6.See the essay “Ut Pictura Poesis.”
  • 7.Hypotyposis is a vivid description characterized by an almost exaggerated realism.
  • 8.See the essay “Where Was the Mellini Family’s Art Collection Housed?”