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Some Early Works by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta Author(s): Bernice F. Davidson Reviewed work(s): Source: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1966), pp. 55-64 Published by: College Art Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 14/02/2012 17:02Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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Some EarlyWorks by GirolamoSiciolanteda SermonetaBERNICE F. DAVIDSON


Girolamo Siciolante has been called a rustic, an eclectic, a Mannerist. In varying degrees, each of these epithets contains some truth, but all are misleading and are tangential to the character and intentions of the artist. For although it cannot be denied that Siciolante was a painter with serious limitations, he is, nevertheless, a figure of considerable interest, and his work helped to shape certain significant trends in mid-sixteenth century Roman painting that generally have been neglected by historians. Indeed, on the whole, our knowledge of Roman painting during the 1540's and 1550's is remarkably incomplete and inaccurate. Siciolante is only one victim of our misconceptions. If a great many errors of attribution and chonology have been committed and perpetuated in the literature on Siciolante, this state of confusion has arisen because none of the personalities active in Rome at the time (with the exception of Michelangelo) has yet been clearly distinguished or defined. The bewilderment over Siciolante has been especially aggravated because a number of his early paintings and drawings have been considered the work of his master, Perino del Vaga. It is difficult to decide where this chain of error began: whether the uncertainty over which paintings and drawings were by Siciolante led to a faulty assessment of his personality as an artist (which in turn occasioned further misattributions) or whether the reticent nature of the man and his work prevented any clear comprehension of what he might or might not have been capable of producing. This article is an attempt to extract Siciolante from the tangle of misattributions and to assess his position in relation to the painting of his period. The biographies of Siciolante written by Vasari and Baglione are respectful but impersonal. They include none of those details of character or behavior that in other "Lives" make their subjects so vivid to us. We are given only a very incomplete, chronologically confused list of Siciolante's works, and not a single specific date. With the help, however, of documents, dated paintings, and the invaluable contributions of Professor Zeri,' and by a closer examination of the character

of Siciolante's work, it is possible to expand somewhat the sketchy outlines of these earliest biographies. According to Pantanelli, the historian of Sermoneta, Siciolante was born in 1521 in Sermoneta, one of the many fortress towns south of Rome held by the Caetani.2 His parents appear to have been prosperous for they were able to give their children a good education. One son entered the Church, and he became philosopher, theologian, and arciprete of Santa Maria in Sermoneta; another became a doctor, and a third son, a lawyer.3 Given this family record of intellectual achievement, one surely ought not, as Venturi did,'4 attribute to Siciolante the mentality of a peasant. He too must have received professional training, and very likely it was in Rome, not the provinces. In fact, Siciolante probably was a pupil of Leonardo da Pistoia who seems to have been working in Rome in the late 1530's.r At the age of twenty Siciolante received the first commission cited by Vasari-the high altar, inscribed with the date 1541, which he painted for the Badia of Santi Pietro e Stefano, near Sermoneta (now in the Palazzo Caetani, Rome; Fig. 1)." Had Baglione not mentioned Siciolante's associations with Leonardo da Pistoia one might easily overlook the traces of his influence on the Caetani Altar and on other paintings of the forties by Siciolante. The flat, oval faces of Siciolante's Madonnas, with their small features, long, straight noses, and tight little bow mouths must be derived from Leonardo. His precedent might account also for the clumsy drapery stylethe zig-zag folds and heavy bunches of cloth that cluttered Siciolante's compositions for many years. These and other Leonardesque defects of the Caetani Altar are more immediately striking than its virtues. The light contrasts seem overintense, and the colors, to quote Venturi, poco scelti: faults again due to Leonardo's example. The figures of the Caetani Altar are organically incoherent, inconsistent in proportions, and unconvincing in detail (e.g., the fingernails appear to have been pasted on, but not quite in the proper places). The large, awkward figures, which seem to have been assembled from chunks and slabs of stiffly joined wood, are crowded together in a manner that is almost

BdA, 36, 1951. Zeri published the 1 Federico Zeri, "Intorno a Gerolamo Siciolante," In his work and many new attributions. of Siciolante's first valid interpretation Pittura e controriforma (Rome, 1957, cf. index) he extended his earlier contribution by relating Siciolante to the Counter-Reformation. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Sydney J. Freedberg and to Dr. Anne D. Ferry for their many valuable corrections of and comments on this essay. Neither, however, saw the final draft of the article, therefore neither can be blamed for condoning its errors. Dr. Konrad Oberhuber and Michael Hirst also have offered a number of helpful suggestions. 2 Pietro Pantanelli, nelli does not cite century history of now apparently is Notizie istoriche . . . di Sormoneta, Rome, 1906, II, 597. Pantahis source for this information but it may be taken from a 17th the Siciolante family, which once was in the Caetani archive but missing. The birth-date should be regarded with some skepticism

3 4 5


as it may simply have been deduced from Vasari's statement that Siciolante was twenty when he painted the Caetani Altar (dated 1541). Pantanelli, Notizie, II, 602. Venturi, IX, 5, 591. Giovanni Baglione, Le vite de' pittori, etc., Rome, 1935, 23. It must be Leonardo Grazia da Pistoia to whom Baglione refers. Vasari does not mention Leonardo in If Leonardo and Jacopino del Conte executed the Pala connection with Siciolante. dei Palafrenieri for Saint Peter's around 1537 (cf. Zeri, "Intorno a Gerolamo Siciounder Leonardo lante," 148 n. 6) then Siciolante may have served his apprenticeship in Rome at about that time. Vasari-Milanesi, VII, 571. The altarpiece was moved from the abbey to the Palazzo around the middle of the last century (cf. Gelasio Caetani, Caetani sometime Domus Caetani, San Cassiano Val di Pesa, 1933, II, 55).



to physically disagreeable behold.At the sametime,the light-

dark and them, theirangular ingcreates chasms among postures somewhat and seem each brooding expressions to isolate and If figurebothphysically spiritually. Siciolante already knewpaintings Perino Vaga, del named Vasari his as by by his was to master, influence notyet strong enough erasetheill-effectsof Siciolante's earliertraining.The CaetaniAltar-

has ease It piece noneof Perino's andharmony. is an austere,almosta harshpainting. A preparatory study in the Louvrefor the CaetaniAltar(Fig.3) is executedsomewhatmore fluently than the painting,yet it too is clumsy and inconsistent.l In some passages the line is stiff and angular; in others it moves quickly through hooks and loops. Evidently, the more firmly decided Girolamo was about parts of the composition-for example, Sts. Peter and Stephen where pentimenti are confined mainly to the chalk under-drawing-the stiffer and more wooden his figures became. Obviously he was uncertain about the pose of the little St. John, for around this figure his pen wove a knot of suggestions and cancellations. The chief interest of the drawing is that it reveals that the taut, massive structure of the painting was achieved through deliberate corrections of an originally much freer and more open design. To create a stronger, more architectonic arrangement, Siciolante reduced the space surrounding the figures and substituted for the tree a niche which blocks off most of the landscape background. In time Siciolante grew more skillful at constructing figures and compositions, but the purposefully sober, monumental character of this first altarpiece continues throughout his work to culminate in such powerful, ascetic masterpieces as the Crucifixion in Santa Maria di Monserrato. Stylistically very similar to the Caetani Altar is a painting, now lost, of the Madonna and Child, Sts. Peter, Paul and a donor, of which a photograph has been published with an attribution to Perino del Vaga.8 A study in the Victoria and Albert Museum for this painting (Fig. 2), also hitherto attributed to Perino, resembles the more finished parts of the Louvre Madonna and Saints drawing.g Both painting and drawing lack any trace of the suavity, grace, and highly accomplished technique which distinguish the work of Perino del Vaga. The facial types, the stiff, disjointed structure of the figures, the drapery with its multiplicity of tight little folds, the peculiar

hands"? with their pasted-on fingernails all suggest Siciolante as the artist responsible f