by Roderick Conway Morris

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Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford
The Picture Gallery of Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, 1749

Cardinal Valenti's Virtual Gallery

By Roderick Conway Morris
MANTUA, Italy 16 April 2005


Over time the name of Gonzaga, the dynasty that ruled Mantua, became synonymous with the state. The family even granted the use of their name to other prominent citizens. One such was the knight Valente Valenti, who had this privilege conferred on him in 1518, along with the right to insert the Gonzaga eagle into his coat of arms.

Although not of the bloodline, Valenti's descendant, Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga, shared to a striking degree the ruling house's compulsion to collect. He is the subject of 'Portrait of a Collection: Pannini and the Gallery of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga' (which continues at Palazzo Te until May 15).

Born in Mantua in 1690, he moved to Rome at the age of 20, and enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks at the Vatican. Having served in several senior positions in the state, he was made a cardinal in 1738. Equally engaged by theology, the arts and science, among other initiatives Valenti oversaw the works for the consolidation of the dome of St. Peter's; revived the drawing school at Rome's Academy of Fine Arts of San Luca; inaugurated an Academy of the Nude to foster figure drawing; founded the Capitoline Picture Gallery; and strengthened the laws regulating the export of artworks, both ancient and modern, from the Papal states. He established chairs of chemistry and experimental physics at Rome University. He is reputed to have brought the first pineapple to Rome.

Valenti bought pictures, sculpture, furniture, tapestries, silver and thousands of other artifacts to embellish his several residences. By the time of his death in 1756, his paintings numbered 832. In 1749 he had one of his favorite protÉgÉs, Giovanni Paolo Pannini paint 'The Picture Gallery of Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga.' This is now at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, and has made the journey back to Europe for the first time in half a century.

This view of a lofty baroque interior - in which Valenti and Pannini are portrayed center stage examining a new acquisition - shows the gallery crammed floor to ceiling with paintings, and with piles of new canvases, engravings and books waiting to be accommodated. There are 220 pictures visible in Pannini's oil, of which 140 are clear enough for their content to be discerned. Of these, with the aid of Valenti's inventory and other documents, 54 have been positively identified (15 of them in the exhibition).

What is remarkable about Pannini's painting is that the cardinal's canvases were never all at the same time in the same place, and the building in which they are shown hanging is wholly fictional. This is, indeed, almost certainly the first 'virtual' gallery ever conceived and executed.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024