Essays

Genres and Artists in the Mellini Collection

Francesca Cappelletti

There are two Mellini inventories that were drafted a year apart. The first, dated 1680, is a traditional legal document. The second, dated 1681, is the poem that is the focus of this publication and constitutes a sort of “greatest hits” of the Mellini collection at the end of the seventeenth century.

The 1681 inventory, while it presents a selection of 95 paintings and drawings from the larger group of 153 works listed in the inventory of the preceding year, nevertheless faithfully reflects the overall makeup of the collection, which was assembled for the most part during the first three decades of the seventeenth century, as demonstrated by Fausto Nicolai.1 Its origins are represented by the presence of Caravaggesque paintings, attributed to Bartolomeo Manfredi and Valentin de Boulogne, for example, or even to Caravaggio himself; and by subjects that can be traced back to the output of Caravaggio, and, above all, to that of his followers. Some of these paintings have been identified and can be attributed to Valentin—Denial of Saint Peter,2 for example—and others, including the buffoon making an obscene gesture,3 are likely to belong to the production of Nicolas Régnier, a Flemish painter who was active in Rome in the service of the Giustiniani family. Régnier was one of the few artists authorized by the works' owners to make copies of Caravaggio’s paintings.

In the Mellini collection, the landscapes—an essential component of Roman collections of the beginning of the seventeenth century, when paintings of rural settings covered the walls of reception rooms, private chambers, and sometimes chapels in the palaces and especially in the villas of collectors—are attributed sometimes to famous painters and in other cases seem to have been purchased at low prices, in groups of ten or twenty.

Many of the paintings listed in the 1681 poem, described as being on copper, wood, or canvas, can be attributed to painters who had been active in Rome during the early decades of the seventeenth century, including Paul Bril, Filippo Napoletano, Leonard Bramer, and Pietro Paolo Bonzi. Bril and Napoletano in particular were in contact with Agostino Tassi, a painter who did decorative work for the Mellini family in their villa at Monte Mario. The works by Tassi at Monte Mario have been lost, but at least one painting by him is cited as having been in the Mellini collection. The poetic inventory contains no trace of landscape painters from the latter decades of the seventeenth century, such as Salvator Rosa, Nicolas Poussin, Gaspard Dughet, and Jean Lemaire.

No fewer than six works in the rhyming inventory are attributed to the Cavaliere d'Arpino, a contemporary of the other painters represented in the collection, who was extremely fashionable on the Roman scene.

Furthermore, Pietro Mellini (or whoever actually wrote the rhyming inventory), and to an even greater degree the author of the 1680 inventory, revealed a familiarity with the painters of the late sixteenth century—even those whose names appear very rarely in inventories of the time, including, for example, Ventura Salimbeni and Giovanni de’ Vecchi. There are also references to some of the more intricate dynamics of the history of art during the early 1620s. For example, the reference to Scarsellino as a pupil or even a dependent of Dosso Dossi is indicative of a certain level of erudite knowledge of artistic matters of the somewhat distant past. It should be kept in mind that the fashion for Scarsellino’s paintings in Roman collections can be traced to the presence in Ferrara of the cardinals legate during the period immediately after the city was ceded to the Papal States in 1598.

Another important indication of the nature of the Mellini collection and the family's tastes are the references to artists who made copies after Guercino (see items 3a.2 and 3a.3 in the conventional 1680 inventory), and who are specifically mentioned by name and in one case whose painterly skill is praised: “Copied by Carluccio Napoletano, extremely skilled in copying, from an original by Guercino.”4 We learn two further significant things from the presence of these copies after Guercino in the 1680 document: (1) that copies were not necessarily considered “inferior” or “fake,” as they usually are today; and (2) that Pietro did not consider them to be among “the best paintings” that he selected from his family's collection for his poetic inventory.

The presence of a portrait of Luca Mellini attributed to Carlo Maratti is a clear indication of a more modern approach to collecting. Maratti was very popular during the last decades of the seventeenth century and had a decisive presence in the collections of cardinals, bankers, and aristocrats during the 1670s.

Footnotes

  • 1.Fausto Nicolai, “La committenza del Cardinale Giovanni Garzia Mellini a Roma: Giovanni da San Giovanni, Agostino Tassi e Valentin de Boulogne,” Rivista dell’istituto nazionale d’archeologia e storia dell’arte 27, no. 59 (2004, published 2010): 199–205.
  • 2.See Denial of Saint Peter in the List of Artworks.
  • 3.See Man with a Wine Flask in the List of Artworks.
  • 4.Carlo Viva (Carluccio Napoletano) was a minor but fairly successful painter active in Rome during the mid-seventeenth century.