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  • Making History at the Capitoline Museum:Maria Tibaldi Subleyras's Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee
  • Christopher M. S. Johns (bio)

Maria Felice Tibaldi (1707–1770), one of the most important painters active in Rome in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, is familiar to art historians primarily as the wife of the celebrated expatriate French artist Pierre Subleyras (1699–1749), who spent his entire career in the Eternal City. In fact, she is arguably best known as the subject of one of her husband's finest portraits (Figure 1), not as a fully independent painter active in the ultracompetitive Roman art world in the age of the Grand Tour.1 Subleyras's status as one of the finest painters of the era has largely overshadowed Tibaldi's remarkable achievements. Born in Rome in 1707 to the prominent musician Giovanni Battista Tibaldi (1660–1750), little is known of her artistic training. Her mother's name is not recorded. She must have moved in artistic circles, especially after the marriage of her sister, Isabella, to the French decorative painter Pierre-Charles Trémolières (1703–1739) in 1734, but there is little documentary evidence about her earlier activities. What does seem all but certain is that Tibaldi was introduced to her future husband by Trémolières, who was Pierre Subleyras's intimate friend, both of them having studied at the French Academy in Rome. In any event, Tibaldi Subleyras was an accomplished artist receiving commissions in her own right long before she married. Known primarily as a painter of miniature portraits and copies of historical compositions, she also painted historical and literary subjects in oil on canvas, a medium her contemporaries viewed largely as a male preserve. It should be noted, however, that gender-determined restrictions on women artists were never so onerous in Italy as they were elsewhere, and Tibaldi Subleyras's election as an accademica di mérito of the Accademia di San Luca in 1742 was uncontroversial.2 [End Page 167]

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Figure 1.

Pierre Subleyras, Portrait of Maria Felice Tibaldi Subleyras, oil on canvas. Worcester, MA: Worcester Art Museum, ca. 1738–1739. (Photo: Bridgeman Images, NY)

Tibaldi Subleyras's most notable claim to art historical consideration is the fact that one of her paintings, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, executed in 1748, was very likely the first work by a living artist purchased for display in a public museum (Figure 2).3 The Pinacoteca Capitolina, established by Pope Benedict XIV Lambertini (reigned 1740–1758) in 1751–1752 as an adjunct to the Capitoline Museum founded in the mid-1730s by Lambertini's predecessor Pope Clement XII Corsini (reigned 1730–1740), was the first museum in Europe opened to the public on a regular schedule upon payment of a small admission fee. Its purpose was to prevent the export of important antiquities and to provide models of aesthetic beauty and edification to visitors, artists, and the local populace. Benedict's Pinacoteca similarly was set up to prevent the sale of significant Old Master paintings to foreigners, and to allow artists and the art-interested public to [End Page 168] study the cultural patrimony of Rome entrusted to papal curation. Both institutions were hugely influential on the development of European museum culture that was one of the most enduring legacies of the Enlightenment.

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Figure 2.

Maria Felice Tibaldi Subleyras, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, watercolor on vellum. Rome: Musei Capitolini, 1748. (Photo: Art Resource, NY)

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Figure 3.

Pierre Subleyras, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, oil on canvas. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 1737. (Photo: Art Resource, NY)

Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, still on display in the Capitoline, is Tibaldi Subleyras's copy of one of her husband's most famous paintings, executed for the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria Nova at Asti, near Turin, in the kingdom of Piedmont-Savoy.4 This colossally scaled oil on canvas painting (215 x 677 cm) elicited exceptionally favorable comment in Rome and did...


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