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PRESENT DAY

29|09|21 Óscar Alzaga Donation

Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Italian Painting

In Room G until October 1

 

Old Italian painting is now much more strongly represented in the museum's collection thanks to an important donation from Óscar Alzaga Villaamil (Madrid, 1942), a professor and lawyer and an extremely important figure during the Spanish Transition.

The generous donation, reserved for usufruct, includes three works of unquestionable artistic quality, heightened by the historical and iconographic value of the paintings, which were made by an unidentified sixteenth-century artist and by the masters Orazio Gentileschi and Salvator Rosa.

Portrait of a Lady with Child (c.1570–1580), by an anonymous painter likely from Florence, expands the museum's sequence of court portraits, which includes important names in Spanish painting like Antonio Moro, Alonso Sánchez Coello, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz and Juan Carreño de Miranda, as well as from Flemish painting like Frans Pourbus the Younger. They are now joined by this unique portrait with elements that reveal the fashion and decorative arts of the Spanish and Italian courts in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c.1605–1612) is an exceptionally valuable piece for the collection because of its wonderful workmanship and the fact that it may have been owned by the painter's daughter, the artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Furthermore, it comes from Orazio's early career when he was living in Rome. As early as 1924, the museum acquired his impressive painting Lot and His Daughters (c.1628), made in London on commission from King Charles I of England somewhat later in the artist's career.

Finally, Judah and Tamar (c.1660) by Salvator Rosa signals the incorporation of this Neapolitan painter into the collection via this expressive modello. Original in the way he arranges his compositions, Rosa also stands out here for his choice of theme, an episode from the Old Testament which has seldom been depicted in the history of painting.

 


 

Anonymous Italian

Portrait of a Lady with Child (c. 1570-1580)
Oil on canvas. 195 x 123 cm
Óscar Alzaga donation

Portrait of a Lady with Child (c.1570–1580)—which has been ascribed to an anonymous Italian artist, although recent research concluded that he was probably Florentine—is a notable example of a court portrait which was formerly attributed to Sofonisba Anguissola. In a large composition, the painter depicts a woman with rigid bearing accompanied by a boy, her son or a page, whom she is giving a little bouquet of carnations and jasmine, the symbol of love, or perhaps an offering for a deceased child. The lady is bedecked with magnificent jewellery and is wearing an elegant dress embroidered with gold and silver and decorated with gemstones and pearls, common in courtly fashion under the Habsburgs. The clothing of the boy, who is wearing a jerkin with a waistcoat with golden buttons and puffy breeches, resembles the clothing in which the seventh son of Cosme I de Medici was buried in 1562, as conserved in the Palacio Pitti in Florence. What is striking is both the boy's placement, standing on a small chest decorated with marquetry whose design stems from the perspectives created in 1560–1562 by the painter and architect Hans Vredeman de Vries, and the gesture of his hands, which seem to be holding an object that was ultimately never painted. The originality of the layout of the scene in this double portrait also comes from the Spanish-made carpet from Alcaraz (Albacete) or Cuenca.


Orazio Gentileschi
(Pisa, 1563-London, 1639)


Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1605-1612)
Oil on canvas. 131 x 101 cm
Óscar Alzaga donation

Orazio Gentileschi is the author of this wonderful composition showing a famous episode from the Old Testament. It describes the moment the young Jewish widow Judith, still gripping the sword, removes the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes, whom she had seduced in order to decapitate him so the fortress of Bethulia could be freed from his army's siege.

When the small city was about to surrender, Judith entered Holofernes' encampment accompanied by her maidservant Abra with the intention of liberating her people from the enemy and avenging her husband's murder. She was then captured by sentinels and taken to Holofernes, who invited her to a banquet in his tent. During the dinner, he got drunk and fell asleep, and Judith took advantage of the opportunity to decapitate him with Abra's help. Bereft of its commander, the Assyrian army lifted the siege and fled.

The biblical heroine Judith embodies moral strength, although often, especially from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries, during the Counter-Reformation, she also symbolised the Church's triumph over heresy. The theme became quite popular during the Baroque, and many painters successfully rendered it. Some reflected the instant when the two women fled from the enemy encampment, while other painters, like Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi, took a more dramatic tone to depict the moment of decapitation. In Gentileschi's work, this choice was related to her 1611 rape by her colleague Agostino Tassi. Orazio Gentileschi also depicted this theme several times, and this version is the first one, from which his daughter Artemisia also drew inspiration. It dates from Orazio's Roman period, when he expressed himself with tenebrist modelling and strong chiaroscuros under the influence of Caravaggio. The quality of the work now donated is even further enhanced because it was very likely owned by Artemisia, from whom it may have been stolen, as mentioned in the proceedings of the trial against Tassi.

Finally, it is worth noting that in the eighteenth century, the painting belonged to Marquis Giuseppe Rondanini, a prominent patron, and later went to the collection of Bartolomeo Capranica, as stated in the inscription on the obverse of the painting, 'B Capranica N 623'.


 

Salvator Rosa
(Naples, 1615-Rome, 1673)

Judah and Tamar, c. 1660
Oil on canvas. 66,4 x 50,2 cm
Óscar Alzaga donation

Because of his often lurid themes and landscapes shrouded in fantastical atmospheres, the paintings of the Neapolitan Salvator Rosa have been classified as pre-Romantic. The story depicted in this beautiful painting that now joins the museum's collection is related to the Book of Genesis. Judah, the son of Jacob and part of Jesus' family line, had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. The first married Tamar, and when he died without children she had to marry Onan, who also gave her no children, knowing that they would not be acknowledged as his own according to Jewish levirate marriage law. Doubting that Judah would give her his third son, Tamar concealed her identity and offered herself to her father-in-law as a prostitute. The scene is located in an undefined place outdoors and captures the moment when the patriarch pays her with his seal and staff, which she later used to prove that the twins conceived in that act were actually his children. The loose brushstrokes and beautiful colours that the painter used create a classicist atmosphere whose balance is broken solely by the detail of the main character's veiled face and the dim twilight suffusing their encounter.

This work was documented in the London collection of the banker Sir Francis Child since 1706, and was later in the possession of his heirs until 1949, when it was put up for auction by the ninth Count of Jersey in London and purchased by the Dutch dealer Daniël Cevat. The British Museum conserves a preparatory drawing of this painting. We are also aware of another version in a similar size in a Bavarian aristocratic collection.

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Óscar Alzaga Villaamil (Madrid, 1942) is a lawyer and professor of Constitutional Law. Born to parents from Bilbao, and he earned a Bachelor's degree in Law at the University of Madrid in 1964 and a doctorate from the Autonomous University of Madrid, where he had begun to teach three years earlier. He later taught in San Sebastián and Oviedo, and finally he transferred to the National University of Distance Education to become the chair in Constitutional Law and the director of its Political Law Department.

His political career got underway in the 1960s, when he was elected to be the student delegate in the Faculty of Law at the University of Madrid. He also became the co-founder of the outlawed Union of Democratic Students and was active in several illegal Christian-Democratic youth groups, in some of which he was the founder and secretary-general. He became a member of the National Directorate of the Christian-Democratic Party in 1977 and co-founder of the Union of the Democratic Centre party (Unión de Centro Democrático, UCD). The next year, he was elected deputy in Congress on behalf of that coalition, and he was re-elected in 1979, when he became the president of the Justice and Interior Committee. In 1981, he agreed to be appointed advisor to the president of the government, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, which was uniquely compatible with his chair and his professional work as a lawyer. He declined offers to become a minister in the government five times. In 1982, he was elected president of the People's Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Popular).

In 1986, he was again elected deputy for Madrid, but he resigned the next year to permanently leave politics and instead devote himself to his university chair and the legal work in the office he had founded in 1967.

He has worked tirelessly to disseminate culture by serving as an advisor to publishing houses and magazines, some of which he co-founded, like Cuadernos para el Diálogo (1963), Discusión y Convivencia (1970), Revista Española de Derecho Político and Teoría y Realidad Constitucional. He has served on the boards of foundations such as Fundación Ortega y Gasset, Humanismo y Democracia, Fundación Luis Vives and Acción contra el Hambre, and he has chaired the boards of the museums founded by the Marqués de la Vega Inclán (Museo Romántico de Madrid, Casa del Greco de Toledo and Museo Casa de Cervantes de Valladolid). He has also been the vice-president of the Fundación Luso-Española.

He joined the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences as an honourable member in 2010 and has chaired the Advisory Council of the Fundación Acción contra el Hambre. Just a few days ago, his latest book, La conquista de la Transición (1960-1978). Memorias documentadas, was released. In 2017, he donated six of his works to the Museo del Prado, along with the financial resources needed to purchase a seventh work.