Essays

Introduction to the List of Artworks

Murtha Baca and Nuria Rodríguez Ortega

The images in this digital publication are intended to give the users an idea of the kinds of pictorial works that were in the collection of the Mellini family during the late seventeenth century. They are an indication of taste, fashion, and social status as reflected in the reception rooms of the family’s palazzo.

The poem that Pietro Mellini wrote in 1681 is an ambivalent textual construct. Though it is based on a real collection of paintings and drawings located in a specific place (the so-called Palazzo del Rosario in Rome), Pietro’s poetic rendering of what is essentially an inventory transforms it into a sort of ideal, “virtual” gallery, both because of the selection of works and because of the subjective, personal ordering of their sequence.1

Any effort to identify the actual works that Pietro chose to describe in his poem inevitably involves the complex task of attempting to reconstruct the collection as it was during the last third of the seventeenth century. As art historians know well, the reconstruction of art collections of past epochs is a laborious and often thankless undertaking, involving the consultation of documents that inventory and describe those collections. In short, researchers must peruse textual documents unaccompanied by illustrations, unlike any serious modern or contemporary inventory, which includes first and foremost photographs of the works that are therein recorded. Not surprisingly, this kind of research is fraught with difficulty, especially given the enormous variability and often unreliability of these kinds of historical documents. Inventories and similar texts describing works of art and material culture frequently contain descriptions that are too generic and/or ambiguous to enable us to identify the works with any degree of certainty. They often include erroneous attributions, errors in the identification of the subjects of the works, deliberately “inflated” attributions (for example, recording a work by a follower of Caravaggio as an original by the master), and so on.

In the case of the Mellini collection in the 1680s, we were very fortunate to have not one but two closely related documents, dated only a year apart: the conventional, legal inventory that was drawn up in 1680, and Pietro’s poetic “virtual collection” of 1681. The 1680 inventory is also exceptional in that the narrative and iconographic composition of the works, as well as their measurements and media, is meticulously detailed and seems to have been copied almost verbatim into the margins of the manuscript that contains Pietro’s poem. Also, the attributions in this case may be more reliable than in other inventories because they were done in all likelihood by a well-known expert of the time, perhaps Sebastiano Resta2 or Giuseppe Ghezzi.3,4 Given that one of Pietro’s clearly expressed reasons for writing the poem was to preserve the memory of the Mellini family’s collection of paintings, it is reasonable to suppose that he was necessarily consulting the precise inventory that had been compiled the year before he completed the poem. In fact, many of the descriptions of the subject matter and iconography of the works selected lead us to conjecture that Pietro was not looking at the actual paintings when he wrote the poem. Rather, he was consulting the inventory for the titles, artists, and measurements of the works, and letting his imagination run free in describing their narrative content and dramatic impact.

Thus Pietro’s poetic Relatione of 1681 consists of precise physical descriptions of visual works mingled with descriptions of the images as Pietro remembered them, as well as descriptions of other works typical of the visual culture of his time, with which he was certainly imbued. This is why we tend to believe that Pietro may have been describing the works from memory while copying (or having someone copy) the precise physical descriptions of the measurements and media contained in the conventional 1680 inventory. Pietro’s descriptions are highly emotional and subjective. Thus it is not surprising that in the process of creating his poetic account, he inevitably added details, emphasized gestures, and enhanced his descriptions with a highly charged emotional atmosphere.

For example, in the case of Adoration of the Shepherds, attributed to Jacopo Bassano,5 we might be tempted to think that Pietro’s poem is less reliable than the 1680 inventory because of its highly emotional approach and the impression that Pietro may not have been actually looking at the paintings at the time he composed the poem. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the two texts—inventory and poem—often function in a complementary way. Thus some of the descriptions in the poem, which are more focused on emphasizing the emotional and gestural aspects of the images, provide information that enables us to speculate about possible connections with other known paintings, or to open up new possibilities for research and discussion, as is the case with the Madonna and Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist, attributed to Scarsellino.6

The list of artworks, which was developed through a point-by-point comparison of the two documents,7 constitutes another interesting research tool. It enables us to compare two textual descriptions, each with a different approach to conceptualizing and recording the details of the same objects, and to search for images that might correspond or be related to the works being described. The list of artworks is also a context for reflecting on the relative and polyvalent nature of these images, since the two documents have such clearly different perspectives. As with many historical documents, in most cases no corresponding image can be found because the original work may have been lost or destroyed or is as yet undiscovered, or simply because the descriptions, deliberately or not, are inaccurate.

In assembling the list of artworks, we have attempted to trace the history of the identifiable works from the time that they first appeared in the Mellini collection. We used published inventories and unpublished sources in the Serlupi Crescenzi archive in Rome, where much of the documentation relating to the Mellini family is preserved.

As frequently occurs with historical documents of this kind, we have been able to identify only a small fraction of the works described in Pietro Mellini’s poem with any degree of certainty. These works are indicated as “identified.” Two publications were extremely valuable to the research team in this regard: the 2008 article by Jorge Fernández-Santos Ortiz-Iribas in which he published and analyzed the 1680 Mellini inventory,8 and a later study (2012) of the same inventory by Fausto Nicolai, who compares that document to the postmortem inventory of Giovan Battista Mellini of 1627.9 The work of Fernández-Santos and Nicolai enabled us to determine when certain works entered the Mellini collection, and to fill in some of the gaps in their provenances.

We classified a second group of works under the heading of “Possibly Identified.” These are works that, lacking more conclusive information, could plausibly have been in the Mellini collection at the time that Pietro wrote his poetic inventory.

The third category of images in the list of artworks is designated as “Related.” Here we included images related to works that we were unable to find but that represent alternate versions, copies, or preliminary drawings for those works. These images are intended to give an approximate idea of what the works that Pietro Mellini was describing looked like.

Our fourth category of images is designated as “Example.” In our list of artworks, an “example” is a work that clearly was not in the Mellini collection in 1680 and 1681 but is representative in some way of a work described by Pietro—for instance, because of its iconographic or narrative subject matter and/or its visual composition.

But the majority of the works described by Pietro in his poem and recorded with their physical characteristics in the 1680 inventory remain unknown to us. They represent a portion of the enormous number of art objects that are known to us only through textual records.

As art historians, should we confess to a certain degree of frustration due to the fact that we have been able to identify only a very small number of the works described in the documents that are the focus of our research project? Reconstructing a historical collection of works of art, with its inherent efforts at locating, attributing, and identifying works described in documents written more than three hundred years ago, is a laborious task. Taken together, comparing images, compiling a comparison of the two records of the collection at the time of Pietro and Savo Mellini, and consulting other documents of the period as well as the studies of other researchers constitutes a sort of compendium of several essential challenges that art historians have always had to face.

As Donald Preziosi writes in “Unmaking Art History,” ever since the modern foundation of the discipline of art history—if not before—the work of the art historian has been invested in “master narratives” or “frames” based on the need to restore the true chronological order—and, we might add, the causative order—of works of art; this order may be temporal, stylistic, or thematic.10 That is, art historians have often busied themselves accumulating and reformatting the relics of the past into episodic chains of objects, wherein the significance or meaning of a work came to be seen as a function of its position relative to works that came before or after it. But the impulse of the art historian to achieve a perfect concatenation, to fill in the blanks, to draw a line that connects the present with the past, inevitably must be frustrated. Provenance research, which attempts to fill in the gaps in the sequence of a work's changing owners and locations over time, is perhaps one of the major representations of this kind of discourse. For profound reflections on the notion of provenance, see the compilation of essays edited by Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Jackson Reist, Provenance: An Alternate History of Art.11

Nevertheless, seen from our posthistorical perspective, we understand that this discourse, which certainly has intellectually defined the development of the discipline of art history over the course of time, is no more than a cultural construct linked to a determined episteme, which is conveyed by a narrative of an almost “fictional” nature. Except in very few cases, reconstructions of historical collections are no more than intellectual constructions devised by scholars looking back in time and attempting to “restore” a group of objects to their original grouping and organization—clearly, an “idealistic” undertaking that is doomed to remain incomplete at best and inaccurate at worst.

We have already pointed out the ambiguity of the descriptions that are contained in historical documents such as family inventories. Their frequently dubious reliability often permits us to do nothing more than hypothesize and present possible identifications of the works of art described in such documents. Another problem is the existence of an indeterminate number of copies and versions of works of art, a situation that disrupts our modern notion of the value of an object being based on its uniqueness and irreproducibility. This conception of “value” had absolutely no meaning during the time of Pietro and Savo Mellini, when artists routinely painted multiple versions of the same subject, and copies by pupils or followers did not carry the negative connotations that “copy” does in our present time. In our case, both documents—the 1681 poem and the 1680 inventory—deal effortlessly with the concepts of “copy” and “original,” making distinctions between what the Mellini family considered to be original works by masters and copies executed by other artists, which at least in theory should facilitate the process of attribution.

The problem is more complex, however. In Pietro and Savo’s day, the practice of artists doing multiple versions of their own works or those of other artists went beyond the idea of a mere copy or reproduction; indeed, artists often did numerous different versions of the same narrative subject, all of which were considered “originals.” This is typical of a culture for which the idea of “creativity” was not necessarily linked to the creation of works ex novo but often associated with an artist’s ability to propose new alternatives to already existing models and prototypes—from the present, the near past, and even the distant past (for example, works based on models from classical antiquity). As a result, a single textual description could correspond to a wide range of works then in circulation, which at times presented minimal variations. Thus, lacking other, more conclusive information, researchers can offer only a range of probable options. We also have to take into consideration the changes that works of art undergo over time: paintings were frequently cropped, painted over, modified, and so forth. In the case of many if not most works that we are fortunate enough to be able to identify and place in context based on contemporary descriptions, the work in its current form may only partially correspond to what was actually seen at the time the historical descriptions of them were written.

Finally, we must accept the inevitable fact that many works of art described in historical texts have been lost or destroyed forever. For such works, which are the majority in documents like the two Mellini texts that are the focus of our research project, their only existence today consists of verbal reconstructions or comparisons to other images. If we agree with Foucault that the idea of continuous, progressive, perfectly concatenated knowledge is an illusion—and, above all, a cultural notion—we can say that our list of artworks, with its numerous gaps, ambiguities, and hypotheses, is in fact a “realistic” representation of the discontinuous, fragmentary knowledge that characterizes the practice of art history.

Nevertheless, given the many and varied opportunities for research, new discoveries and hypotheses that are offered by the age of “digital art history,” we can also say that our list of artworks is a representation of open, unresolved research questions, and that it—and the Mellini research team—is always open to new theories and attributions. Thus the list, and indeed this entire digital publication, constitutes a call to anyone—emerging researchers and students as well as advanced scholars—to contribute to the work that we have begun.

Footnotes

  • 1.See the essay “Comparison between the 1680 and 1681 Mellini Inventories.”
  • 2.The collector and priest Sebastiano Resta (1635–1714) was a respected scholar and connoisseur in Baroque Rome.
  • 3.Giuseppe Ghezzi (1634–1721), a painter in the style of Pietro da Cortona, was the first secretary of the Accademia di San Luca. The Accademia, an association of artists founded in 1577 in Rome under the directorship of the painter Federico Zuccaro, took its name from Saint Luke the Evangelist, who, according to tradition, made portraits of the Virgin Mary and Saints Peter and Paul.
  • 4.This according to the thesis argued by Jorge Fernández-Santos Ortiz-Iribas in “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.
  • 5.See this painting in the List of Artworks.
  • 6.See this painting in the List of Artworks.
  • 7.See the “Comparison to 1680 inventory” section under each item in the List of Artworks.
  • 8.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.
  • 9.Fausto Nicolai, “Le ‘molte pitture moderne buone’ nella raccolta di Giovan Battista Mellini (1591–1627),” Rivista d’Arte, ser. 5, vol. 2 (2012): 217–35.
  • 10.Donald Preziosi, “Unmaking Art History,” in Elizabeth C. Mansfield, ed., Making Art History: A Changing Discipline and Its Institutions (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), 117–30.
  • 11.Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Jackson Reist, Provenance: An Alternate History of Art (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2013).