Domenichino, Saint Cecilia, and Clarel
Domenic Zampieri (1581-1641), known as Domenichino, was a native of Bologna who had studied at the Carracci Academy in that city before following Annibale Carracci to establish a practice in Rome in 1602. Like the Carracci themselves, Domenichino was deeply drawn to the saint who had been memorably depicted by both Francia and Raphael in Bologna. One of Domenichino’s most ambitious early achievements in Rome had been to paint five Scenes from the Life of St. Cecilia in fresco at the Polet Chapel of San Luigi del Francesi between 1612 and 1615. This commission was inspired in part by the discovery of Saint Cecilia’s body “miraculously preserved” when exhumed on October 20, 1599, at Trastavere in Rome, where “the virgin martyr” who had died there in the third century A.D. had been reburied in 821. David Spear makes an excellent case for these five paintings as “masterpieces” of seventeenth-century Italian painting in spite of the fact that the physical condition of some of them had deteriorated so much by the twentieth century as to make full restoration impossible (1:178-83). A quick overview of the five Scenes from the Life of St. Cecilia shows the skill with which Domenichino had consolidated subjects and techniques from his Italian Renaissance predecessors in a way that opened up future subjects and techniques for later generations of painters, especially in France.
The first fresco in the series, Sts. Cecilia and Valerian Crowned by an Angel, converts the expansive, ornamental landscape scene in panel four of the St. Cecilia Oratorio in Bologna into an intimate action by which the angel with outspread arms presents the floral crowns to the kneeling figures (Spear no. 42.1). The next fresco in the series, St. Cecilia Distributing Alms to the Poor, converts the relatively restrained action of the ninth panel of the Oratorio in Bologna into a full-scale orchestration of a diverse array of impoverished Romans reaching up desperately for help from the benevolent saint, as if we were witnessing the urban underbelly of one of Veronese’s celebratory Biblical feasts (Spear no 42.2). The third fresco in the series, The Condemnation of St. Cecilia converts the airy, statuesque assemblage of figures of the seventh scene in the Bologna Oratorio into a tightly choreographed indoor scene that looks forward to the gestural archaism of Nicholas Poussin in the next generation of painters in Rome (see Melville’s copy of his Shepherds of Arcadia, CAT 142) while also reaching back to the archeological authenticity of Raphael by depicting a Roman frieze beneath the feet of the accuser (Spear no. 42.3). The resulting image, as Emily Freeman has noted, is “the equivalent of a sarcophagus in fresco” (37; fig. 1 below).