Jusepe de Ribera
Xátiva 1591 - Naples 1652
Signed: Jusepe de Ribera
c. 1638
Oil on canvas - 72 x 57 cm.

Further information


Rome, private collection.



This powerful and hitherto little-known painting forms a new and significant addition to the corpus of Jusepe de Ribera's work, the inimitable quality of the piece proving even more effectively than the characteristic signature that it is indeed an autograph work by this great Spanish master.

It is undeniable that the distinguishing features of Ribera's style—the virtuosity of his impasto, his emphatic realism and an astonishing ability to probe his figures' psychology—are best expressed, both recognizably and in full, in the portrayal of ageing philosophers, ascetics and martyrs. It is in the depiction of old age, and in particular in the contrast between the deteriorating body mercilessly probed and the irrepressible vitality of gaze and gesture that de Ribera's art achieves its deepest and most impressive dimension. It is beyond question that the modern prototypes for this particular iconographic trend should be sought in the inventions which de Ribera tried and tested in his youth in Rome; and by the same token, it is to de Ribera that we owe the subsequent codification of the genre and its widespread popularity in European 17th century painting.

But while the true theme around which de Ribera's art revolves is the human condition in its most real and most fragile aspects, we can also see how the iconography of the wise man or the saint often serves as a pretext and why the identification of individual figures is so often deliberately ambiguous1.


Thus also in the painting under discussion here, the compass attribute by no means certifies the subject's identity beyond all question. The compass, occasionally associated with cosmographers, is also to be found in other compositions by de Ribera such as, for example, the celebrated Philosopher, no. P01121 in the Museo del Prado (traditionally thought to be Archimedes or, more recently, Democritus on account of the figure's laugh), or the Astronomer in the Worcester Art Museum (inv. 1925.116), it too interpreted in the past as Archimedes on the basis of an inscription on a 19th century engraving of the painting2.

This latter picture, dated 1638, may serve as a reference also for dating the Smeets Portrait of Archimedes, which is stylistically close to it by virtue of its vibrant and subtle brushwork; and the date is further confirmed by comparisons with other works signed by the painter in that same year, which share a similar conception and a similar expressive force, for example the Musician in the Toledo Museum of Art (inv. 26.61), unquestionably a portrait of Giovanni Maria Trabaci, the master of the Royal Chapel in Naples3, and—even more decisively, in my view—the intense and little known St. Anthony the Abbot in the Fondazione De Vito4, which shares not only the format and composition of the figure but even the model's features.


1638 marks a crucial moment both in de Ribera's career and in the development of his more typical repertoire, because he was engaged in that year in painting the fundamental cycle of Prophets for the church in the Charter-house of San Martino in Naples, as we know from a downpayment dated 1 February of that year and from the date on the superb figures of Moses and of Elijah on the inner façade of that same church5.



Giuseppe Porzio




1. A typical example of the difficulties and limitations involved in the iconographical interpretation of these works is the pioneering (if largely obsolete) essay by Delphine Fitz Darby entitled Ribera and the Wise Men, in “Art Bulletin”, XLIV, 4, 1962, pp. 279-307.


2. For the two paintings see respectively Gabriele Finaldi in Velazquez's Fables. Mythology and Sacred History in the Golden Age, catalogue of the exhibition held in Madrid at the Museo Nacional del Prado from 20 November 2007 to 24 February 2008, ed. Javier Portús, Madrid 2007, p. 314, n. 15; and Harold Edwin Wethey, in European Paintings in the Collection of the Worcester Art Museum, I, Worcester (MA) 1974, pp. 509-511.


3. Trabaci's name was put forward for the first time be Ulisse Prota-Giurleo (Giovanni Maria Trabaci e gli organisti della Real Cappella di Palazzo di Napoli, in “L'organo. Rivista di cultura organaria e organistica”, I, 2, 1960, pp. 190-191), albeit on the basis of inaccurate knowledge of the musician's biographical data; subsequently rejected by critics (see Nicola Spinosa, Ribera. L'opera completa, Naples 2006, p. 341, n. A226), the identification has recently been revived, but this time on the basis of solid and persuasive arguments, by Domenico Antonio D'Alessandro, Mecenati e mecenatismo nella vita musicale napoletana del Seicento e condizione sociale del musicista. I casi di Giovanni Maria Trabaci e Francesco Provenzale, in Storia della musica e dello spettacolo a Napoli. Il Seicento, ed. Francesco Cotticelli and Paologiovanni Maione, Naples 2018, forthcoming.


4. For both paintings see the succinct entries in N. Spinosa, op. cit., pp. 342, n. 229, and 336, n. A209.


5. The record of this payment was published by Nunzio Federigo Faraglia in Notizie di alcuni artisti che lavorarono nella chiesa di S. Martino sopra Napoli, in “Archivio storico per le province napoletane”, XVII, 1892, p. 670; for the companion piece on the inner façade see N. Spinosa, op. cit., p. 337, nos. A211-A212, with further bibliography; for its impact on Neapolitan circles see Giuseppe Porzio, La scuola di Ribera. Giovanni Dò, Bartolomeo Passante, Enrico Fiammingo, Naples 2014, pp. 96, 98.