Artibus et Historiae no. 63 (XXXII)

2011, ISSN 0391-9064

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R. WARD BISSELL - Simon Vouet, Raphael, and the Accademia di San Luca in Rome

In October of 1624 the French master Simon Vouet became Principe of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, his ascendency ordained by the Cardinal Protector, Francesco Maria del Monte, who ordered the abolition of the old Academy, the rewriting of its statutes, and ultimately the elimination of the ruling clique. With the reform of the institution foreign artists and young members gained decision-making participation.

Vouet set the Accademia on firmer organizational and financial footing, for which upon his resignation in June of 1627 he received the gratitude of the membership. However, it is highly probable that the actions decreed by Del Monte were not initially greeted with applause by the ingrained power structure, which might also have resented the loss of autonomy under the Cardinal’s iron fist.

Internal controversies having arisen, Del Monte certainly had contemplated commanding change for some time. This study argues that he and Vouet launched a joint campaign to help persuade the Accademia membership that the French painter, in particular, would best serve in the leadership position and, further, that the Marescotti Chapel in San Francesco a Ripa, with Vouet’s canvas of the Birth of the Virgin as its star attraction, figured in this offensive.

The Birth of the Virgin presents such a forceful combination of Caravaggesque realism and High Renaissance monumentality as to make it exceptional in Vouet’s career, and as part of the aforementioned lobbying effort was calculated to demonstrate the non-Italian’s command of early Cinquecento art as well as that of his own time. Given contemporary discussions in the Accademia precisely of Raphael, the picture’s obvious dependency (hitherto unobserved) upon Raphael’s frescoed Sibyls in Santa Maria della Pace is not coincidental. Thus the article proposes to account for the stylistic uniqueness of the Birth of the Virgin, to suggest the circumstances under which it was painted, and to establish a new date for it and potentially for other undocumented works by the master.

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