Jusepe de Ribera (1591 Jativa – 1652 Naples)
Oil on canvas, 93.5 x 119.5 cms
We are grateful to Prof. Nicola Spinosa for confirming the attribution on first hand inspection of the painting after its recent cleaning in 2010. The painting is one of several versions Ribera painted of Aesop and Spinosa believes this work to be entirely autograph. Spinosa notes a number of versions in his latest monograph on the painter, including the present work, which has only recently emerged from a collection in Belgium where it has been since the eighteenth century.
The ancestor of the 19th Comte de Lalaing was in the 1730s, Ambassador from the Low Countries to the court of Madrid, and brought back a number of Spanish masterpieces to Flanders, including a version of Velasquez’s Los Borrachos and works by Sannchez Coello, apart from this great work by Ribera. One of the versions of the painting was done for the Spanish Viceroy, and may tentatively be identified with a painting in the Escorial. That however is much obscured by centuries of varnish and dirt, and has been reduced, particularly above the head of Aesop: the present painting is among the strongest examples of the kind of naturalism that Ribera embraced as soon as he came to Rome in 1612, with an studio lighting that emulated that which Caravaggio had employed. He even negotiated an opening in his ceiling to reproduce the overhead lighting that Caravaggio had had in the Vicolo San Biagio – the only difference was that his landlady wrote a clause in his lease that obliged him to make it good when he left, whereas Prudenzia Bruni had to sue to obtain compensation form what little in terms of goods Caravaggio had left behind when he fled to Genoa in 1605.
It is some way from the worn and patched habit that Caravaggio borrowed form Gentileschi, and which he used for the various representations of St Francis he painted in 1602/03 – to the noble series of Philosophers that Ribera painted for the Spanish Viceroys in Naples. And it is sometimes difficult to comprehend the meaning of these characterizations of the great minds of antiquity for the highly civilized patronage of Naples and Madrid. Compared with the saints like St Jerome, St Lawrence and St Bartholomew, who had engaged so many congregations from Florence to Rome and Naples, the philosophers had a different audience, with less emphasis on the pain and suffering that seems such a day-to-day feature of the Catholic experience in Spain and the Two Sicilies. The flaying of St Bartholomew, the toasting of St Lawrence, the arrows of St Sebastian, the hanging of St Philip, these are the sensation recommendations that Ribera’s imagery is passing on to the faithful, and the realism is obviously much more convincing than the crude martyrdoms that line the walls of San Stefano Rotondo and other Jesuit interiors, with missionaries being thrown into wells and boiled alive in great cauldrons. It is an extension of the incredible innovation that Caravaggio introduced when he portrayed subjects like the Capture of Christ and the Supper at Emmaus; these were representations that illustrated for the first time the crucial episodes of the gospel as they might actually have happened. By comparison, attempts at a kind of archaeology in reconstructing the appearance of the early Christians whose remains were found in the Catacombs in Rome, or the modelling of backgrounds of Santa Cecilia’s world or the amphitheaters and triumphs that Falcone and Andrea di Leone, Lanfranco and Domenichino painted for the King of Spain, seem quite ‘archaic’ compared with the human realism of Ribera’s Senses or his Philosophers.
It is difficult to reconstruct the need to be accompanied by the wisdom and experience of the past, not just the lares et penates of the classical world, but the spirit of the wisdom of ages. Paolo Giovio in the sixteenth century established a collection of portraits of the good and the great, and these were acquired for the Medici, and formed the basis of the passion that Florentine collectors especially, in Rome assembled in their palazzi, in order to give an example by their presence of some of the wisdom that they represented. Cardinal Del Monte had a series of no less that 277 portraits of unknown personalities, and this was apart from those that are individually named that may have been as many again. The generation of Counter-Reformation zeal maintained that the closer an image was to real appearance, the more effective it would be; so the verosimile held sway especially when all that one had was the descriptions of ancient philosophers, from sources like Diogenes Laertius in the Lives of the Ancient Philosophers. These are necessarily subject to the interpretation of the painter, who endows each of them with living spirit, or what was termed optical palingenesis to arrive at the communication of the inspiration that they were perceived to have incorporated. But these individuals gave comfort to a society in which the other example was the martyrdoms and decapitations that the Christian allegory demanded to put people on the path of reflection of fear and obedience.
Aesop, or Æsop, was famous for his Fables. He is supposed to have lived from about 620 to 560 B.C. The place of his birth is uncertain – some scholars believe that he could have been African. His given name, Aesop, is the Ancient Greek word for “Ethiop,” the archaic word for a dark-skinned person of African origin. We possess little trustworthy information concerning his life, except that he was the slave of Iadmon of Samos and met with a violent death at the hands of the inhabitants of Delphi.
Aesop must have received his freedom from Iadmon, or he could not have conducted the public defense of a certain Samian demagogue (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ii. 20). According to the story, he subsequently lived at the court of Croesus, where he met Solon, and dined in the company of the Seven Sages of Greece with Periander at Corinth. During the reign of Peisistratus he is said to have visited Athens, on which occasion he related the fable of The Frogs asking for a King, to dissuade the citizens from attempting to exchange Peisistratus for another ruler.
The popular stories current regarding him are derived from a life, or rather romance, prefixed to a book of fables, purporting to be his, collected by Maximus Planudes, a monk of the 14th century. In this he is described as a monster of ugliness and deformity, as he is also represented in a well-known marble figure in the Villa Albani at Rome. That this life, however, was in existence a century before Planudes, appears from a 13th-century manuscript of it found at Florence. In Plutarch’s Symposium of the Seven Sages, at which Aesop is a guest, there are many jests on his original servile condition, but nothing derogatory is said about his personal appearance. The obscurity in which the history of Aesop is involved has induced some scholars to deny his existence altogether.