Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) took three attempts to get to Rome. On his first journey there in 1617 or 1618, he got as far as Florence, where he suffered some sort of accident, and was forced to return home. On his second attempt in 1622, he only got as far as Lyon before he turned back. When he finally arrived there in the Spring of 1624, it must have been with a great sense of relief. The new Pope, Urban VIII, wanted Rome to remain Europe’s artistic capital, and the Academy of Saint Luke was led by another French artist, Simon Vouet, who kindly provided Poussin with accommodation.
Although Rome had a thriving art market at the time, Poussin needed patrons, particularly those with good connections, and must have been even more relieved when he was introduced to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who also happened to be the Pope’s brother. The next few years were troubled, though: the Cardinal was made papal legate to Spain, so left Rome, and Poussin fell ill with syphilis. It was only through the assistance of a chef that he was able to convalesce, and once he was well again in 1630, he married the chef’s daughter (which also explains how little was known about syphilis at the time).
Although it was Cardinal Barberini and his associates who paid Poussin’s bills, by far the most important of his patrons in Rome was the Cardinal’s secretary, Cassiano dal Pozzi (1588-1657), who was of noble birth, had been raised in Florence and educated at the University of Pisa. He was appointed secretary in 1623, and like his master was a member of the Accademia dei Lincei, one of Europe’s earliest scientific societies.
Dal Pozzi was a proto-scientist and an obsessive collector. He was fascinated by natural history, antiquities, and curiosities of all kinds. He met and corresponded with Galileo, and – as much as his modest means allowed – was a patron of the arts. He bought paintings by Simon Vouet, Artemisia Gentileschi, Pietro da Cortona, even the renegade Caravaggio, but most of all by Poussin.
Cassiano dal Pozzi lived with his younger brother Carlo and Carlo’s wife Teodora in a palace in the Via Chiavari, which steadily filled with their museum, to which they added other collections of scientific instruments, and a huge library. He employed young draughtsmen to make copies of Rome’s many antiquities, which he bound together in more than 23 volumes, in what was probably the first attempt to document the remains of the classical city.
Following dal Pozzi’s return from Spain in late 1626, he employed Poussin to make some drawings of antiquities, and to paint life-sized pictures of birds such as eagles and ostriches. Sadly, all those ornithological paintings by Poussin have vanished without trace. In return, Poussin was paid, and learned a great deal about Rome, natural history, and other subjects which fascinated dal Pozzi. In a fairly short time, the Cardinal’s secretary had assembled a collection of more than fifty of Poussin’s paintings. It was also dal Pozzi who encouraged Poussin to paint scenes from the the artist’s most enduring literary source, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered.
Being of more limited means, dal Pozzi didn’t commission many paintings from Poussin, but the most fascinating and significant are his first series of the Seven Sacraments, which Poussin started to paint in about 1636. A great deal has been written about these unusual paintings, most commonly in an effort to understand Poussin’s religious views. However, it’s most likely that they originated with dal Pozzi’s interest in the religious beliefs and rituals of different societies. The paintings had a special place in the museum, as dal Pozzi repeatedly refused to allow others to have them copied, and guarded them jealously.
(I apologise for the small size and relatively poor quality of several of these images.)
The first in the series shows The Baptism of Christ, as an unusual example of a baptismal scene. The white dove of the Holy Spirit above the figure of Christ is one link across some of the others in the series.
Confirmation is an informal scene, and more conventional, in which the light above the altar in the distance is a surrogate for the white dove.
Eucharist shows the Last Supper, with another ornamental oil lamp standing in for the dove.
The white dove reappears in Poussin’s genteel Marriage.
Poussin’s painting of Penance was tragically destroyed much later by fire, and this engraving, shown here reversed, is the closest record that remains. The penitent is kneeling and praying for forgiveness at the lower left, as everyone else indulges in a feast.
For the sacrament of ordination, Poussin chose Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter, in a very different composition from that woven into tapestry in the Sistine Chapel from Raphael’s cartoon of more than a century before. This is one of Poussin’s earliest lyrical paintings of trees, as shown in the detail below.
The series is completed by Extreme Unction, which shows the sacrament being administered to a cadaveric man as his family are gathered around his deathbed.
Dal Pozzi also commissioned Poussin’s magnificent Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651). Here the classical tragedy of the deaths of the lovers is being played out against one of Poussin’s most exciting landscapes. The lioness from that story has escaped into the middle ground and is attacking a horse, as everyone else is fleeing from the imminent thunderstorm.
Dal Pozzi also purchased some of Poussin’s narrative landscapes, including Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion from 1648, in which the artist may have borrowed from the museum’s collection of drawings of classical buildings.
The Cardinal’s secretary undoubtedly played an important part in the development of Poussin’s paintings, as did his unique museum. Together they were an influence over the rest of Poussin’s career.
Francis Haskell (1980), Patrons and Painters, Art and Society in Baroque Italy, 2nd edn., Yale UP. ISBN 0 300 02540 8.