A summit of modernity by Orazio Gentileschi: the Vision of Francesca Romana

The "Vision of Francesca Romana," a masterpiece that Orazio Gentileschi made between 1618 and 1620, highly praised by Roberto Longhi, is one of the pinnacles of the Pisan painter's production because it is an extraordinarily modern painting.

There are two hagiographies of St. Frances Romana that narrate a precise episode, which occurred on September 6, 1431, when the Roman mystic, born Francesca Bussa de’ Leoni, was sixty-seven years old: while listening to Mass in the church of Santa Cecilia, Francesca Romana was ravished by a great light that led her to a room where the Virgin was seated, with three crowns on her head, and resplendent with golden light, holding Jesus, a baby eight months old. Frances was led by an angel dressed in flowers into the presence of Our Lady, and little Jesus began to joke with her. The saint, moved by love, had the desire to take the Child in her arms, but the little one disappeared every time she tried to approach. After a few attempts, a voice from the clouds reminded her of the meaning of that vision: to seek Jesus every day and to be inflamed with love for him.

The episode is reported in the texts of Ianni Mattiotti, a Roman priest who was Francesca Romana’s confessor and first biographer, and Fra’ Ippolito da Roma: Orazio Gentileschi had them well in mind when, around 1618, he was commissioned to paint the Vision of Francesca Romana for the Olivetan Benedictines of the church of Santa Caterina Martire in Fabriano. It is one of the high points of his entire output, and not just that of his Marche period.

We usually tend to think of Orazio Gentileschi as the unwieldy father of Artemisia, or at best as a follower of Caravaggio. No: Orazio Gentileschi had a definite, multifaceted and versatile artistic personality of the highest order. He knew how to be metaphysical and earthly, sophisticated and raw, intimate and magniloquent; he was able to adhere to the Caravaggesque revolution without losing sight of his Tuscan elegance, and he was able to express himself with a composure and calmness steeped in emotion, which transcend the meshes of Tuscan-Roman mannerism but compared to Caravaggio’s naturalism are situated on a different, more meditated and spiritual plane. Orazio was a painter endowed with extraordinary sensitivity, never tame, cultured and precise, original and totally autonomous, a careful investigator of the art of the past. These are elements that the viewer finds in the Vision of Francesca Romana.

Orazio Gentileschi, La Visione di santa Francesca Romana (1618-1620; olio su tela, 270 x 157 cm; Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche)
Orazio Gentileschi, The Vision of Saint Francesca Romana (1618-1620; oil on canvas, 270 x 157 cm; Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche)

It is an otherworldly encounter that Orazio Gentileschi describes with an trepidation that is perhaps more proper to our world. The format is vertical, the cut oblique: the meeting between the Virgin and Saint Frances Romana takes place above a flight of steps, above which is placed a soft, firm throne of clouds that welcomes the queen of heaven. The saint, dressed in the black habit and white veil of the Oblates of Tor de’ Specchi, the women’s religious institute she founded, is kneeling on the first step, while Baby Jesus, as all eight-month-old babies do, waddles toward her face to caress her. Behind, a beautiful angel dressed in golden brocade kneels in turn, holding his hands crossed on his chest: he is the heavenly companion who, according to hagiographies, led Francesca Romana before Our Lady. Above, a choir of cherubim is manifested within a dazzling golden light that invests the clouds, and on the corner is a curtain of iridescent green fabric, drawn like a curtain: a detail found in other works by Orazio Gentileschi of the same period or a little later, such as theAnnunciation in the Galleria Sabauda, a reinterpretation of the counterpart painting in the church of San Siro in Genoa, in which the encounter between the Virgin and the archangel is similarly enhanced by a curtain being drawn aside.

Orazio Gentileschi had sifted both literary and artistic sources for his composition. He was familiar with both the texts of Ianni Mattiotti and Friar Ippolito da Roma, as well as with a pair of fifteenth-century iconographic precedents, that of the cycle of episodes in the life of Francesca Romana painted for the church of Santa Maria Nuova, and the frescoes Antoniazzo Romano executed in the church of Tor de’ Specchi. Yet although the substratum of this painting is fundamentally fifteenth-century, Orazio Gentileschi was able to produce a work of disconcerting modernity. And not only because of the intimate, delicate, touching, moving way in which the artist was able to deal with the theme of the vision, offering the viewer a counterpart in images to the words of hagiographies. There is, meanwhile, perhaps the purest essence of Orazio Gentileschi’s art: that of the refinements of a Tuscan who never gave up his coloristic harmonies (the beauty of the Visione ’s chromatics has been acknowledged by all who have written about this admirable painting), but who welcomed the novelties of Caravaggio’s luminism, “resulting in transparency and prominence of modeling,” Carlo Gamba had to write. Still, the Vision of Francesca Romana shines for the simplicity of its composition, for the composure with which the divine is manifested in the everyday life of the saint, for the clever idea of suggesting the meeting of the spiritual and the earthly even with theencounter between the golden and the somber light, for the originality of a lyricism that could suggest further cues taken from the works Lorenzo Lotto left in the Marche during his repeated stays in this land.

A land where, moreover, the Vision of Francesca Romana has always remained despite the tribulated historical travails it had to go through: after having remained for more than a century and a half in the church of Santa Caterina Martire, the canvas left in 1798 following the Napoleonic suppressions of religious orders, although the abbot who at the time’ruled the Olivetan monastery at the time, Silvestro Marcellini, managed to prevent the work from being sent to Milan, Bologna, Paris or other cities where many of the works that decorated churches in the Marche ended up. Upon Marcellini’s death, the works that were in his possession were inherited by a public official, Carlo Rosei, and in 1941 the latter’s descendants sold the canvas to the Italian state: so today this apex of Gentileschi’s production is everyone’s heritage, and can be admired at the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche.

There is, finally, a further aspect that makes this work important: we can consider it as “one of the first paintings made on the relationships between color, light and form that constitute the foundation of all modern painting, up to the Impressionism of Monet and Renoir,” wrote art historian Andrea Bernardini. It was Roberto Longhi, in 1916, who explained what it was that made this painting, which he considered “one of the first things succeeded on the basis of values, instead of on the basis of colors,” so exceptional: a painting where the balance between form, light and color reaches unusual heights and implies a complexity to be understood as “scaled ratios of luminous quantities in colors; quantities that precisely because they are scaled become qualities of art: values.” The Caravaggesque revolution had found an updated and innovative interpreter, even in a devotional painting intended for a suburban church: in seventeenth-century art it is not uncommon to find such peaks in the provinces.

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