Orazio Riminaldi's study for the Assumption, one of the most beautiful faces of the seventeenth century

The study that Orazio Riminaldi (Pisa, 1593 - 1630) made for the Assumption painted in the dome of Pisa Cathedral is one of the most beautiful faces of the 17th century. A model, it has, however, the same force as a finished work.

It is not taken for granted that the public of museums and exhibitions dwells at length on the preparatory studies of a work, on sketches, drawings, models, on everything that the artist elaborated before arriving at the finished product. We are accustomed today, when walking through the halls of a museum, to seeing almost always only the final outcomes of an artist’s creative process. Either one knowledgeably visits an exhibition of only drawings, perhaps because one cultivates a specific interest, or everything that is not the completed painting one usually considers as an interlude, a passage that may perhaps be of interest to specialists, but if one has little time to visit an exhibition or a museum, one will sacrifice an exhibition of studies and sketches without great regret. However, it is by observing this type of production that one becomes more in tune with the artist. Not least because it is not certain that the finished work, the one we admire, was entirely produced by his hand: many artists relied on the help of their collaborators. Instead, when we observe a studio, it is as if we really see the artist at work. As if we are entering his studio.

Besides, a studio doesn’t necessarily have the same force as a finished work. This is what one thinks of when observing the Study for the Head of the Assumption by Orazio Riminaldi, an outstanding painter from Pisa who lived between 1593 and 1630, an artist of great inventiveness, vigorous energy and supreme finesse, yet little known outside Tuscany or outside the circles of connoisseurs. This study painted in oil on canvas is probably enough to make us fall in love with Riminaldi. Besides, what was said earlier about the public sometimes applies to scholars as well: recall that, in 1987, the scholar Roberto Paolo Ciardi, writing in the journal Paragone, lamented the fact that “the ’Head of the Assumption’ on the same scale as the dome has been known for a long time, although it has not aroused interest among Riminaldi scholars.” Before him, only Mina Gregori and Enrica Fabbrini had written about it in the 1970s.

Then, fortunately, it was pulled out of oblivion, thanks mainly to the work of Pierluigi Carofano, a great expert on the Pisan painter and art historian who has written more about this wonderful study than any other. According to him, “it is among Riminaldi’s most beautiful things, of pre-Baroque strength,” and it is not hard to see why. Just look at the lip of Riminaldi’s Virgin, whose turgidity is highlighted by that flicker of light that accentuates its fullness. Or the delicate blush that brightens her cheeks. The mouth that opens in a slight sigh. The eyes that look upward, painted with an almost scientific flair. The light that makes them shine and then rests on her chin. The tension in the muscles of the neck. Were it not that it would seem to blaspheme (but the seventeenth century, after all, is a century in which artists routinely overstep the boundaries between sacred and profane: think of Cagnacci’s Magdalene, Furini’s saints), one could say that it gives it an almost erotic intonation. But already at the end of the eighteenth century a Pisan patrician, Alessandro Da Morrona, had praised the vividness of Orazio Riminaldi’s figures: the scholar wrote, in his Pisa illustrata, that the artist showed his genius “in the flesh principally, where roundness, and vagueness with the force of a well-founded chiaroscuro he knew how to unite, and in the tints in general, where the easy and fat strokes of his brush stand out.”

Orazio Riminaldi, Studio per la testa dell'Assunta (1629 circa; olio su tela, 115 x 103,5 cm; Pisa, Opera della Primaziale Pisana)
Orazio Riminaldi, Study for the Head of the Assumption (c. 1629; oil on canvas, 115 x 103.5 cm; Pisa, Opera della Primaziale Pisana)

Alessandro Da Morrona reported that a head of the Assumption, “as large as is declared, ritrovasi in the house of the Noble Lords Curini.” We do not know for certain whether the face of the Assumption in the Curini house is the same one that is now the property of the Opera della Primaziale Pisana, but we do know that this model was purchased in 1831 by the city authorities to secure it for the public collections of Pisa. It is the full-scale model of the face of the Virgin that appears in Orazio Riminaldi’s most colossal undertaking, the decoration of the dome of Pisa Cathedral. It was an enormous work, executed with a special technique: in fact, the artist worked in oil on plaster, thus employing a technique typical of easel painting. Riminaldi died before seeing it finished: the work would not be completed until 1632, although the result was still imperfect, and his brothers Girolamo and Giovanni Battista had to take care of the finishing touches. The very intricate decoration of the dome, in which Riminaldi displays clear Correggioesque reminiscences, depicts precisely the theme of the Assumption of the Virgin, and the composition sees the Madonna being led up to heaven by a host ofmusician angels supporting her among a theory of saints, among whom can be recognized the patron saints of Pisa, who turn to the principal apostles, St. Paul and St. Peter, to ask for Our Lady’s intercession, and who guide the eye of the faithful toward the reassuring figure of Christ, who appears in flight at the center of the angelic circles, showing himself to those who pray to him down on earth. As if to say that if there is faith, supplications will be heard.

The study of the Opera della Primaziale is as close as one can get to the Virgin painted on the plaster of the Cathedral. Indeed, it is even better: the youthful figure of the Virgin is shown here to the relative with a degree of virtuosity and finesse that does not even belong to the finished work. Unfortunately, no drawings relating to the first preparatory phase of the Cathedral undertaking have been preserved. We have only studies and models close to the final drafting of the project, such as this one. It is true that it has the same strength as a painting, but we should not forget that we are still talking about an idea that anticipated the decoration, a project, a working tool, whose degree of fineness is perhaps explained by the fact that it was to be shown, as an essay, to the clients. Again: we enter the artist’s studio, in a completely different dimension than the Cathedral scaffolding. And we therefore feel him closer.

Alessandro Da Morrona placed Riminaldi somewhere between Caravaggio and Domenichino, seeing in his abandonment of the vivid Caravaggesque realism and, on the contrary, in his approach to Bolognese classicism, the turning point that had allowed his art to make a sort of qualitative leap. For this head of the Assumption, Simon Vouet and Guido Reni were then called into question, although, Carofano wrote in the catalog of the first monographic exhibition on Riminaldi, the one held in the Palazzo della Primaziale Pisana in the summer of 2021, we are here faced with an “unconventional classicism.” Guido Reni was “a more algid painter than ours, at least on the level of physiognomic representation,” and the comparison with Vouet “highlights more distances than points of contact.” Orazio Riminaldi reveals, from this model, his strength as an original painter, an experience that approaches different sources while finding a unique path. And his originality, in this study, is such that we can consider him, according to Carofano, “among the highest examples of idealized faces in the entire seventeenth century.” Not bad for a model.

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