Source: Sotheby's

How a Spectacular Hellscape Owned by the Pope Came to Sotheby’s

When it comes to Old Master paintings, provenance is more than just a matter of historical curiosity.

This week’s Old Master auctions in New York offer dozens of paintings that have been owned, through the centuries, by hundreds of people. Just who those owners were, however, is often a mystery. “It's not unusual for paintings to have very little provenance, and then reappear” said Christopher Apostle, head of Sotheby’s master paintings department in New York. "That can be really exciting for the market."

The provenance of a painting concerns more than historical curiosity: A dubious provenance can lead to uncertainty about a painting’s condition, or even its authenticity. That uncertainty, in turn, can easily lower the painting’s price. A sterling provenance, on the other hand, can only enhance a painting’s value.

Take, for instance, The Temptation of St. Anthony, by an unknown artist from around 1550, on sale with an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000 at Sotheby’s Jan. 28 Master Paintings evening sale. Using a series of 350-year-old inventories, Sotheby's was able to definitively place its existence to verify its authenticity. (And not just its existence: who owned it, what room it hung in, and what it hung next to.) 


The Temptation of St. Anthony, c. 1550, on auction at Sotheby's in New York.

Source: Sotheby's

The Painting

Painted in the style of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), whose deranged, hyper-detailed hellscapes made him a superstar across Europe, “the original thing was probably made on spec,” said Apostle. “That happened a lot in the North [what is now Holland and Belgium]; they had an international market, and these paintings would get shipped from Antwerp all over Europe and sometimes, even to the New World.”

Ostensibly a depiction of St. Anthony’s fever dream, “what it is is an excuse to be frightening and wacky and weird,” said Apostle.

Much of the subject matter would have been comprehensible to someone in the 16th century: The armies shooting arrows into a bag of money symbolized greed, the hollow tree evoked evil portent, the skeleton, memento mori. Other vignettes were simply meant to be enjoyed.

“Sometimes, a demon with bells on his legs and eyeglasses instead of feet is, well, just a demon with bells on his legs with eyeglasses instead of feet,” Apostle said.

The Provenance

How exactly the painting made its way from Flanders to Rome during the first 70 years of its existence is unknown. What is known is that by 1623, it had come into the hands of one Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the scion of an aristocratic Italian family. He was, as it happened, about to become Pope Urban VIII.

The Barberini Palace in Rome

The Barberini Palace in Rome.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Even at the time, the painting, which was housed in the spectacular Barberini Palace, would have been considered “a bit of a prize,” Apostle said. “The Barberini were some of the biggest patrons in European history, so this, mixed in with paintings by Caravaggio and Poussin, would have seemed like a unique object.”

Urban's papacy was notable, first for the staggering debt amassed by the Vatican and second, for the staggering wealth he managed to direct toward his immediate family. When he died in 1644, he passed the painting to his nephew, the (recently) crowned Prince of Palestrina, who enjoyed the painting for three years before dying. He willed the painting to his second son, also named Maffeo Barberini. 

The back of the painting, with different inventory markers

The back of the painting, with various inventory markers.

Source: Sotheby's

The painting passed through the hands of two additional Barberini and then disappeared for more than 250 years, emerging sometime in the 1970s at the London dealer P. & D. Colnaghi.

Why did the Barberini family sell? And where, exactly, did the painting go?

"Things were often just sold during the 18th and 19th century," said Apostle—not for lack of funds, but because the family might have "just wanted to clean things out."

Ultimately, this type of ambiguity "is typical," Apostle said. Companies and dealers rarely keep sales records from 60 years ago, and fewer still keep them for 260 years. The only reason the Barberini inventories survived, Apostle said, is because the family was notable enough to have its records preserved in an archive. That's great news for scholars and even better news for Sotheby's—and the next buyer. "What's unusual, truly unusual," said Apostle, "is for the painting to appear in these inventories at all." 

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