Valentin de Boulogne, perhaps the greatest of the French caravaggisti, mingled with the stark naturalism fashionable in Rome around 1620 a grave melancholy all his own. He belonged to the international cohort of painters who converged on the Eternal City in the second decade of the seventeenth century and there discovered in the works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) and his follower Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582–1622) a vivid, psychologically immediate alternative to the erudite intricacies of late Mannerism. Manfredi’s caravaggesque formula—the so-called manfrediana methodus—with its half-length, life-size street characters depicted in shallow, dramatically lit spaces, appealed especially to young artists arriving from war-ravaged Northern Europe, where many had received little formal training in such matters as linear perspective and classical iconography.1 Casting everyday Romans—beggars, prostitutes, soldiers, and street urchins—in biblical stories, the methodus blurred lines between genre and history painting.2 No artist adopted the style with more conviction or pursued it more persistently than Valentin.
Raked from the left by a harsh white light, Valentin’s figures emerge from their mottled ground as if carved in relief. A young woman with the rounded facial features of a child appears at the center, her wrists bound and eyes downcast. The figure’s disordered appearance—her half-unlaced corset, stray lock of hair, and bare shoulders—suggests the nature of her crime. At right, three Pharisees, marked as such by eyeglasses, a false Hebrew inscription, and a ragged fur cap, crowd in, whiskery and weather-beaten.3 At left, three soldiers present the adulteress for judgment. The glinting metal of their weapons and armor forms a poignant contrast to her tender, exposed flesh. Yet, despite the soldiers’ grip on their prisoner and the accusatory finger one of them points at her, they, too, look down, contemplating words we cannot see, traced in the dust by Christ, kneeling at right. The composition adheres closely to John 8:3–7:
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
As in the gospel, an unspecified written text hovers outside the scene, just below the center of the frame. Like the soldiers and the Pharisees, the viewer of the painting strains to make out Christ’s invisible writing. What exactly he set down has been the subject of theological debate since at least the fourth century, when Saint Jerome suggested that the inscription was a list of the onlookers’ sins. Subsequent commentators have proposed the complete Decalogue, the commandment against false testimony, or the story of Susannah from the Book of Daniel as alternative texts. But few visual representations of the episode place such explicit, tantalizing emphasis as Valentin’s on the act of inscription and the inscrutability of its result.4
For example, a version of the subject (fig. 1) by Manfredi or–as more recently suggested–by Valentin’s compatriot Nicolas Tournier (ca. 1590–before 1639) takes a more straightforward, sentimental approach: instead of writing on the ground, this upright Christ addresses the weeping woman directly.5 Here is an encounter between miseria and misericordia (misery and mercy, sin and virtue) far removed from the tension and frustrated legibility of Valentin’s picture.6 A closer compositional correlate to the Getty painting is Pietro da Cortona’s (1596–1669) version (fig. 2), wherein Christ gestures downward to an indiscernible inscription, on which a Pharisee trains his eyeglass and the adulteress turns her sorrowful gaze. But while Cortona’s soldier, distracted, looks off to the left, and his Christ turns to reprimand the Pharisees at right, Valentin’s composition exerts a centripetal force that draws all eyes down toward the unseen text. Christ alone lifts his head, gazing fixedly at the accused, who is evidently too consumed by her humiliation to meet his eye.
First published by Roberto Longhi in 1958,7 the Getty picture had no pre-twentieth-century provenance until 2010, when a painting of the same subject and dimensions, attributed to Valentin, was located in the 1714 inventory of the Colonna family’s vast Roman collection under number 374.8 The same work appears, unattributed, in the inventory of 1689 under number 966.9 The authors and current locations of the four other pictures displayed in the camerino at the Palazzo Colonna where this painting hung in 1689 are unknown, and the inventory offers no clues as to their arrangement in the room.10 It is nonetheless tempting to imagine that the Getty picture might have been placed in such a way as to make Christ’s pointing finger indicate not only his invisible inscription but also some element in a neighboring painting. Christina Strunck has described a seventeenth-century installation of this type for Cortona’s version of the subject, which belonged to the Mattei family in the period.11 Strunck has further suggested that a similar network of gesture, narrative, and meaning existed in Baroque hangings in the Palazzo Colonna’s grand gallery,12 but whether such a complex installation would have been attempted in the kind of side room that Valentin’s picture occupied is less certain.
As often displayed in grand galleries as relegated to antechambers, Valentin’s paintings were eagerly collected by Roman noble families of the seventeenth century.13 Even after his countrymen Simon Vouet (1590–1649) and Claude Vignon (1593–1670) had abandoned the style as no longer chic, even after the ascent of Gregory XV to the papal throne and the concomitant turn of official favor to Bolognese classicism, Valentin continued to paint his shadowy pictures—and families such as the Barberini and Colonna to buy them. Only a picturesque death at age forty-one—of a chill caught after plunging into a public fountain at the end of a drunken evening—could put a stop to Valentin’s pursuit of the methodus.14
While Giovanni Baglione’s biography made the lurid story of the painter’s death famous, the details of his early life and the date of his arrival in Rome remain somewhat vague. Born in Coulommiers-en-Brie in 1591, Valentin makes his first definitive appearance in the stati d’anime—the Counter-Reformation Church’s parochial censuses—in 1620, when “Valentino Bologni, francese” is listed under the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo, home to the city’s burgeoning international bohemia.15 He was quickly drawn to a circle of Netherlandish artists in and around the Via Margutta—the so-called Bentveughels (roughly “birds of a feather”), who adopted the freewheeling motto “Bacco, Tabacco e Venere.”16
Valentin’s earliest style (probably of the late 1610s and early 1620s) is characterized by its somber quality, occasionally bordering on hardness, with dramatic shadows, sculpturally defined volumes, and complicated poses. To this manner seems to have succeeded the more ambitious, monumental style of the mid-1620s, in which draperies are rendered in large waves, the use of color is refined, and black is employed somewhat less liberally.17 The Getty painting belongs to a transitional moment between these styles. Valentin’s abundant use of black and the severely lit, sculptural forms point toward such early works as the Expulsion of the Money Changers (fig. 3). The relative simplicity of the composition, serenity of the poses, and subtle sheen of Christ’s robe, however, already belong to a later moment.
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