THE reputation of the
Delft-born artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) is now such that the
inclusion of his name in the title of any exhibition is clearly
intended to draw the crowds. From relative obscurity in the 19th
century, his stock has gradually risen, partly because of the
paucity of his known works. With no more than 34 surviving
paintings securely identified as his, the catalogue of this show in
Rome makes a virtue of reproducing all of them as a selling
It is perhaps, therefore,
less surprising that the show currently on the Quirinal Hill can
claim to be the first to showcase the artist in Italy. The
exhibition is left in the capable hands of Arthur Wheelock and
Walter Liedtke, who are both known as the leading scholars in the
field within the United States.
Of the 57 paintings on
show, only seven are by the elusive Vermeer, two of which are among
the three paintings disputed in his oeuvre. A Young Woman
Seated at the Virginals has only recently begun to find
acceptance as an autograph work. It had been posthumously
repainted, but tests carried out in 2011 show that it was painted
on a similar panel to that of the Louvre's famed Lacemaker
(1669/70). The other is a signed copy of a Florentine devotional
basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome traditionally marks the burial
spot of the daughters of St Paul's first convert there, a senator
named Pudens. The church, enlarged by the great reformer and
pioneering pontiff Paschal I, houses the relics of other early
saints and part of the column to which Jesus was tied when he was
whipped in the Praetorium.
According to tradition,
St Praxedes sought to offer Christian refugees a safe home during
the persecutions of the emperor Marcus Antoninus. Her piety
extended to gathering their mortal remains, and, in a Baroque
painting by the Tuscan Felice Ficherelli (1605-1669?), she is
depicted in the act of squeezing out a sponge containing their
blood into an urn (private collection).
Ficherelli, who was born
in San Gimignano, was of a somewhat retiring disposition (his
nickname is "Il Riposo"), but his paintings have a sexual charge
that palpably suggests the inescapable interplay between sexuality
and religion, and between eroticism and chastity.
Londoners who know only
his The Rape of Lucretia (Wallace Collection), will
recognise this feeling all too well. On first visiting Savoie, I
was amazed that the gallery in Chambéry displays his St
Sebastian without even a word of warning.
The Ficherelli canvas of
St Praxedes is here simply because Vermeer, in one of his first
known works, seemingly imitated it slavishly; it has the same
dimensions, and the composition is identical, as if it has been
traced over. Vermeer's copy, which has been in the Barbara Piasecka
Johnson Collection since 1987, seems to be a pale reproduction.
It may be that Vermeer,
the newly converted papist, painted it only to satisfy his
mother-in-law, the redoubtable Maria Thins, after his marriage to
Catherina Bolnes (1653). Calvinist Holland tolerated Catholicism
only if it was practised privately, and Mrs Thins harboured
Jesuits; the Society of Jesus had a strong attachment to
celebrating persecution, which may explain the particular choice of
an otherwise seemingly obscure subject.
Whatever Vermeer's own
credal persuasion (like three-quarters of the population, he had
been Protestant until he married), religion rarely informed his
work, although he did name his sons Francis and Ignatius. He is not
known to have painted any altarpieces, and another early work,
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, in the National
Gallery in Edinburgh and not in this show, is equally
The Metropolitan in New
York has loaned its painting Woman Playing the Lute. Given
how often musical instruments, with the connotations of love duets,
feature in Vermeer's genre scenes, it is interesting to note that
none was recorded in the inventory taken at the time of his death.
Wheelock's own institution has sent the delightful Girl with a
Red Hat (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), a small work
(22×18 cm) whose attribution has sometimes been questioned,
although it is ubiquitous across the Eternal City on posters.
Three of Vermeer's
paintings depict a woman with a wineglass with the subtext of a
lover's encounter. That on show here is the one from Braunschweig
(the others are in Berlin and New York). The curiosity here is
that, although there are two cavaliers in the scene, one of whom is
paying court to the seated girl, she alone can drink. The table is
stocked with a porcelain wine flagon and white napery, while a
peeled lemon lies on a silver salver; but there are no other stem
glasses for the gentlemen. A formal portrait on the wall (the only
decoration in the room) is hardly glimpsed. Is it, perhaps, her
absent husband, or a disapproving father?
The other cavalier is
melancholy, seated as if he is bored by waiting for his friend to
finish the business. The likely subtext of the picture is lightly
airbrushed for an Italian audience, where it is explained that
Petrarcan love, pure and unattainable, is transformed from a
quasi-neoplatonic ideal into a reality that could be represented.
In the stained-glass panel of the open window stands the figure of
Temperance, but the woman turns aside to look at us, as if to
ignore her own safety.
A much less temperate
society of all-day drinking emerges in the Zurich painting Two
soldiers and a chambermaid, c.1655 (Pieter de Hooch), and in
Two Peasants Smoking and Drinking, painted in the 1640s by
the Haarlem-born painter Adriaen van Ostade, who had studied with
Frans Hals (Montpellier). Life was hard in Holland, and the grit
was real. The Disobedient Drummer (Madrid) by Rembrandt's
pupil Nicolaes Maes (1634-94), and Hendrick van der Burch's
Woman with a Child Blow ing Bubbles in the Garden (Zurich)
suggest simpler passions and pleasures.
The last painting in this
exquisitely staged exhibition is, however, The Allegory of the
Catholic Faith, from New York. A female form, personifying the
Roman Catholic Church, in accordance with the Iconologia
published by Cesare Ripa in 1603, stands in front of a painting of
the crucifixion by Jacques Jordaens, next to a Flemish tapestry of
the later 1500s. Ripa wrote of faith's having the whole world at
its feet, and this gives the clue to Vermeer's including a Dutch
globe dating to 1618 in a composition that also includes a Roman
Missal, a chalice, and a crown of thorns, as well as an all too
Vermeer may not dominate
the exhibition, although it is impossible to ignore the bravado and
sheer beauty of his 1658 Little Street, which is the first
work to be shown (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), and which suggests a
plausible link to the writing of Alberti on perspective.
From the Golden Age
emerges a veritable treasury of works, many from private
collections. Anthonie de Lorme was born in Tournai, and established
himself as a Dutch painter, predominantly of church interiors in
Rotterdam, where he died in 1673, aged 63.
The Chapel in the
Laurenskirk with the Tomb of Admiral Witte de Witt (1667) is a
painting of great social significance. St Laurence's Church
(1449-1525) was the first all-stone building in Rotterdam. It had
been gutted in 1572 by the Calvinists. De Lorme's view shows the
south transept and the public monument designed by the sculptor
Pieter van Rijck for Admiral de Witt (1599-1658), who had been
killed fighting the Swedes at the siege of Copenhagen.
At the time, the Swedes
under Charles X Gustav seized his body and displayed it at Elsinore
Castle as a trophy of war, but it was later returned to Holland and
buried on 7 October 1659 in the Rotterdam pantheon. De Lorme
depicts a Hollander couple showing the monumental tomb to two
Ottomans, while a mendicant looks on, perplexed and bemused. The
dog that urinates against the column in the foreground is a harsh
reminder of the ritual laws of purity; the Catholic church would
have been defiled by the presence of the Turkish traders in the
past, but the Calvinist church knew no such barriers.
It is somehow telling
that it was de Lorme's paintings of this church's interiors which
allowed it to be rebuilt accurately (1952-68) in the aftermath of
the Rotterdam Blitz of 14 May 1940, when it became a national
monument as, roofless, it had defied the worst of the Luftwaffe's
aerial bombardments. In the city of so many Baroque churches, it is
faintly unnerving to contemplate the progress of the Reformation
and the power of Calvinism.
"Vermeer: The Golden
Age of Dutch Painting" is in the Scuderie del Quirinale, Via XXIV
Maggio 16, Rome, Italy, until 20 January 2013. Open daily from 10
a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays (and additionally 24 and 31
December to 3 p.m.), and late opening Friday and Saturdays to 10.30
p.m. Phone 00 39 06 39967500.