- The Domenichino Affair: Novelty, Imitation and Theft in Seventeenth-Century Rome
In this exemplary study, Elizabeth Cropper examines the story of Giovanni Lanfranco's claim that Domenichino took the composition for his altarpiece, the Last Communion of St. Jerome, painted in 1614 for the high altar of San Girolamo alla Carità in Rome, from Agostino Carracci, who had painted the same subject about twenty years earlier for San Girolamo alla Certona in Bologna. That these altarpieces share many basic compositional elements is well known, and so is a plausible account of Lanfranco's motives for impugning Domenichino's ability to create an original design, and the later responses of Domenichino's supporters in his defense, but, as readers of this beautifully written and superbly illustrated book will learn, little else about either commission has been examined in much depth, let alone the reverberations of this incident for the rest of the century and well beyond.
Nothing has escaped Cropper's attention — not the documents concerning both commissions (some of which she was the first to trace and publish), not the text on which the image depends, and not a single detail of the works themselves: the habits, vestments, and even the hairstyles of the monks and priests attending the dying saint, the exact moment in the ceremony depicted, and the theological concerns of the patrons of both commissions. Above all, she takes on the core issue of originality, imitation, and theft as understood by the artists' peers and later art critics, both literary and visual. Her text ranges from patient close reading of every nook and cranny of both paintings to the perpetual problem of defining originality in any artistic endeavor, literary or visual, past and present: one of the last illustrations is Jeff Koons's appropriation of a photograph of a couple holding eight puppies for both a painting and a sculpture.
For this reader, the rarity of this subject was a surprise — only Botticelli's small painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art precedes these two altarpieces, a fact that itself demands, and gets, an explanation: the early medieval text describing the saint's death attributed to Eusebius of Cremona was a later fabrication, as Erasmus proved conclusively in 1516, thus discouraging commissions of this subject. Nevertheless, St. Jerome was too popular a saint for such an exemplary — if fictional — death not to appeal to his followers. Erasmus's edition of Jerome's writings was put on the Index, replaced by a new edition in 1565 that did not contain an account of Jerome's death, but some elements of the pseudo-Eusebius [End Page 861] account were argued back into the official literature by a Spanish theologian in 1595. Agostino Carracci shows one monk busily writing down every word uttered by Jerome in his last moments, a figure omitted in Domenichino's painting, details that hint at the complex debates that lurk behind what looks like a straightforward administration of the host to the frail saint held up by his companions. The late justification of this legend even supports Cropper's argument for a later dating than the usual 1590 for Agostino's painting, which his biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia, records he had great difficulty completing.
This book should become a classic, read by all serious students of seventeenth-century Italian artistic practice as well as by other scholars of the many related disciplines that make appearances here. It is worth a careful read not just to absorb Cropper's patiently researched investigation of this particular incident and its fortuna critica, but also as a model of art-historical research employing all the tools and approaches available to work out from the specific images to others of similar themes and then to broader issues of imitation versus emulation, or innovation versus tradition. Too often dismissed in current literature as an issue no longer worth discussion as too obvious — or one that diminishes our appreciation of any "genius" by showing that he...