This mesmerizing portrait shows one of the outstanding spiritual leaders of seventeenth-century Rome—the founder of the Oratorians—and takes one into the interior life of a major artist. In an inscription Dolci records that he began work on May 26th, the saint’s feast day, and completed it eight days later for the church of San Firenze, adding, "I Carlo Dolci, painted the present image . . . [beginning] the first day of my thirtieth year 1645 [or 1646]." Since the saint had died fifty years previously, Dolci must have used a death mask to achieve the astonishing quality of physical presence. According to a contemporary: "[Philip Neri] had the pure look of a child, and his face and his eyes had a light in them that no painter has been able to capture, although many have tried."
The Artist: Carlo Dolci was the most famous Florentine painter of the seventeenth century and today is known for his flawlessly and meticulously executed religious paintings, appreciated alike by his patron, the grand duchess of Tuscany, Vittoria della Rovere, and, two centuries later, by Queen Victoria. His principal biographer, Filippo Baldinucci (1624–1697), recounts that as a young man Dolci frequented the confraternity, or compagnia, of San Benedetto Bianco and, "growing every day in devotion, made a firm decision to never in his life wish to paint anything other than sacred images or holy stories, in such a fashion that they might inspire Christian piety in those who saw them ("crescendo ogni di più nella devozione, aveva fatto un molto fermo proponimento di non mai in vita sua voler altro dipignere che Sacre Immagini, o Sacre istorie, talmente rappresentate, che potessero partorir frutti di Cristiana pietà in chi le mirava"). There is no question but that at the core of his personality and artistic creativity was an intense, meditative spirituality. Indeed, it has been noted that his paintings are best understood in terms of meditational practices and the reading of spiritual literature, and this explains the fetishistic focus on details such as tears or the description of flesh and his use of gold to create aureoles (see Giovanni Serafini, "Carlo Docli e il sacro," in Carlo Dolci 1616–1687, exh. cat., Florence, 2015, pp. 57–65). As demonstrated by a portrait of a man (sometimes identified as Stefano della Bella) in the Galleria Palatina in Florence, he was already an astonishingly gifted portraitist at the age of fifteen (see Baldassari 2015, p. 76, no. 2).
Dolci’s work was enthusiastically collected by the British, beginning with Sir John Finch during the time he served as minister at the ducal court in Florence between 1665 and 1670 (Dolci’s portraits of Finch and his companion Sir Thomas Baines are in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). There was, indeed, not a princely collection in Europe that did not have at least one of his paintings. However, over the course of the nineteenth century Dolci’s reputation fell victim to the transformations in taste that accompanied the revival of interest in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian painting (the so-called "primitives," which, ironically, much interested Dolci, who—indicative of his ideal notion of a painter—created a portrait of Fra Angelico upon his entry to the Accademia del Disegno) and the advent of modernist aesthetics. The influential critic and moralist John Ruskin famously consigned Dolci—together with Guido Reni, Correggio, and Murillo—to the "school of errors and vices." Paradoxically, the inclusion of Dolci alongside such illustrious figures underscores how essential his work is to any understanding of Baroque painting. His meticulously descriptive technique owed much to the example of fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting, which existed in abundance in the Medici’s collection; the painter Walter Sickert (1860–1942) declared that Dolci had "possibly pushed skill in painting in oils to the highest perfection it has yet attained." As already noted, he was extremely devout and viewed painting less as an occupation than a vocation. He often added inscriptions to the reverse side of his pictures or, as in the present case, the canvas support (or strainer), recording when he painted them.
The Sitter: What makes the present portrait not merely rare but unique is not only its compelling representation of the sitter but his stature and cultural significance. Philip (Filippo) Neri was one of the leading—indeed essential—spiritual figures of the Catholic reform. It is a unique image: a lifelike portrait intended to surpass mere representation and achieve the effect of an iconic representation of one of the most admired and venerated figures of his age—the founder of the Oratorian congregation of secular preachers. The aged Philip Neri is shown bust-length, bearded, wearing the simple black robe and white collar with a black hat associated with the Oratorians.
Neri was born in Florence. His father was a notary, his mother the daughter of a carpenter (she died in his infancy). He was educated by the Dominicans at San Marco, the convent associated with Fra Angelico and, importantly for Neri, with Savonarola and anti-Medicean republicanism. Around 1532–33 he was sent to his uncle in a town near Naples but soon moved to Rome, where he took courses in philosophy and theology. He was no intellectual and declared that he "studied little and couldn’t learn because he was occupied in prayer and other spiritual exercises." Deeply sensible to the visual arts and to music, he is known to have cried before a crucifix in the church of Sant’Agostino and did much to promote the centrality of music in devotional practice. For a decade he was a wandering preacher and it was during this time that he became acquainted with the poor of the city. In 1548 he co-founded a confraternity to minister to the thousands of pilgrims to the papal city and in 1551 he received minor orders. It was in 1556 that, at San Girolamo della Carità, he began the informal prayer meetings—at first limited to eight persons with readings from the Evangels, discussions, and prayers—that became the basis of the Oratorians. Their participatory reunions and preaching by laymen led to suspicion under Pius V (pope from 1566 to 1572), but matters changed under Gregory XIII (pope from 1572 to 1585), who in 1575 established "a congregation of priests and secular clerics called the Oratorio," and in 1583 moved Neri and his followers to the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella.
Neri was profoundly interested in reconnecting with the practices of the early church and to this end encouraged the great historian Cesare Baronio (1538–1607)—a devotee of Neri’s—in his work (in typical fashion, Baronio also undertook such ordinary tasks as cooking); he, too, was deeply interested in art and its affective powers. The composers Pierluigi Palestrina (1514/15–1594) and Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) were followers of Neri’s; Palestrina composed motets and spiritual anthems for them. It was the practices of the Oratorians to which we owe the name of the musical genre of the oratorio (Emilio de’Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo, often considered an early example, was performed in the specially constructed oratory adjacent to the Chiesa Nuova in 1600, with thirty-five cardinals present.) Neri’s influence was enormous and his charismatic personality attracted members of the Roman nobility as well as commoners. He had little regard for social status or for ecclesiastical office and this, too, placed him outside the norm. He was beatified by Paul V in 1615—just twenty years after his death—and canonized by Gregory XV in 1622 together with Saint Teresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola (a friend and admirer of Neri’s) and Francis Xavier. Neri is buried in the church of Santa Maria di Vallicella, which was rebuilt for the Oratorians beginning in 1575 (whence the name the Chiesa Nuova) and is one of the principal and most profusely decorated Baroque churches of Rome (the oratory attached to the church was designed by Francesco Borromeo). An essential figure for any consideration of the history of the seventeenth century and for an understanding of the objectives and character of Baroque art, Neri was described by one contemporary in the following terms: "At [the Oratorians’] head is a certain Reverend Don Filippo, a Florentine, now an old man of sixty, but stupendous in many respects . . . He is looked upon as an oracle, not only in Rome, but in many distant parts of Italy, and in France and Spain, and many seek his counsel" (letter from Giovanni Giovanale Ancina to his brother, written on May 20, 1576; trained as a physician in northern Italy, Ancina joined the Oratorians two years later).
The Picture: Dolci painted his portrait fifty years after Neri’s death, capturing as no other artist was able Filippo Neri’s gentleness and humility coupled with his deep empathy for those in need. (During the process of canonization it was stated that "He had the pure look of a child, and his face and his eyes had a light in them that no painter has been able to capture, although many have tried.") The importance of the picture thus extends beyond its artistic qualities to its importance as a cultural document. It also testifies in mesmerizing fashion to the inner, spiritual life of its creator. In it, devotional practice and artistic accomplishment may be said to intersect. According to an inscription on a piece of the original strainer that was retained when the canvas, relined, was mounted on a new stretcher (see Additional Images, fig. 1), Dolci painted the posthumous portrait over a period of eight days in 1645 for the feast day of Neri—May 26—as an act of private devotion. Dolci’s birthday coincided with the feast day of the saint (on the proper date of his birth, the 26th rather than the 25th, see Baldassari 1995, p. 199). The inscription, written in red ink, is today almost illegible but can be reconstructed as follows: "[…]imag[ine] […] del glorioso s[an] Filippo Neri lavora[to] nel giorno della sua festa e finito il venerdì segue[nte] [della] sua festa [per la Chiesa di s[an] Firenze […] io Carlo Dolci lavoravo la presente immagine in età mia [nella] festa [del] primo gio[rno] del mio trentesimo anno 1645 [or 1646]" (an image of the glorious Saint Philip Neri painted on his feast day and completed the Friday following his feast [for the] church of San Firenze…I, Carlo Dolci, painted the present image… [beginning] the first day of my thirtieth year 1645 [or 1646]). The last digit of the date must always have been difficult to read. In the nineteenth century it was recorded alternatively as 1646 (Dubois 1841 and sale catalogue 1865) or 1648 (sale catalogue 1868), but more recently has been transcribed as 1645. (This latter date was evidently transcribed from the inscription on the strainer onto a piece of paper that was glued to the original canvas after 1868 but was lost when the picture was relined: see Gregori 1986 and Baldassari 2015.) The year—1645 or 1646—turns on one’s understanding of what Dolci meant by "the first day of my thirtieth year." If the date is 1645, the picture was begun on May 26 and completed on Friday, June 2. Given the devout character of Dolci, the picture may be viewed as a highly personal, private exercise of devotion. It was destined for the church of San Firenze, Florence, which was granted to the Oratorians by papal bull in 1640 (see Giuseppe Richa, Notizie istoriche delle chiese fiorentine, Florence, vol. 2, 1755, pp. 252, 255). There it would have been revered as the "true likeness" of their founder. Presumably it entered the market under Napolean, with the suppression of the order.
The strongly modeled head, with its emphatic contrast of light and dark, and the meticulous description of the sitter’s beard and moistened eyes endow the figure with a strongly physical presence. The light is gentle and diffused, the focus soft rather than sharp, thereby transforming the data of ordinary appearance into a timeless image of a deeply spiritual man. In this resides the genius of Dolci, who, as noted by Barbieri (1995) and Onali (2014), must have worked from a death mask of Filippo Neri, who had died fifty years earlier. A death mask is, in fact, recorded in the sacristy of the church of San Firenze (see Walter and Elisabeth Paatz, Die Kirchen von Florenz, Frankfurt, vol. 2, 1941, p. 109).
Dolci was evidently asked to paint other portraits of the saint; a copy of the picture in The Met is on deposit at San Marco from the Uffizi, Florence (see Baldassari 1995, fig. 27w). Baldinucci owned an example (Baldinucci 1847, p. 348).
[Keith Christiansen 2016]
Painted for the Oratorians at the church of San Firenze, Florence (suppressed in 1808); comte James Alexandre de Pourtalès-Gorgier, Paris (by 1841–d. 1855; cat., 1841, no. 29; his estate sale, his hôtel, rue Tronchet, no. 7, Paris, March 27–April 4, 1865, no. 50, for Fr 9,000); Paul Demidoff, principe di San Donato, Florence and St. Petersburg (until 1868; his sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, February 3, 1868, no. 22, for Fr 4,100 to Sano); Emmanuel Sano, Paris (from 1868); sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, June 28, 1934, no. 9, for Fr 3,200; Thomas Harris, London (in 1937); private collection, Switzerland; Enrico Giordani, Reggio Emilia (in 1986); [Rob Smeets Old Master Paintings, Milan, until 2004]; private collection, Milan (until 2016); [Rob Smeets Old Master Paintings, Geneva, 2016; sold to The Met]
Florence. Palazzo Strozzi. "Il Seicento fiorentino: Arte a Firenze da Ferdinando I a Cosimo III," December 21, 1986–May 4, 1987, no. 1.247 (lent by a private collection, Reggio Emilia).
Wellesley, Mass. Davis Museum at Wellesley College. "The Medici's Painter: Carlo Dolci and 17th-Century Florence," February 10–July 9, 2017, unnumbered cat.
J. J. Dubois. Description des tableaux faisant partie des collections de M. le comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier. Paris, 1841, p. 12, no. 29, as a bust view of Saint Philip Neri by Carlo Dolci; notes that an inscription by Dolci on the strainer ("le châssis") states that it was begun on the saint's feast day, also Dolci's birthday, in 1646.
Filippo Baldinucci. Notizie dei professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua. Ed. F. Ranalli. Vol. 5, Florence, 1847, p. 343 [first ed., 1681–1728], lists a painting of "san Filippo Neri, testa sola" (Saint Philip Neri, head only).
Giuseppe Cantelli. Repertorio della pittura fiorentina del Seicento. Fiesole, 1983, p. 72, lists it as having been with T. Harris in 1937.
Mina Gregori inIl Seicento fiorentino, arte a Firenze da Ferdinando I a Cosimo III: pittura. Exh. cat., Palazzo Strozzi. Florence, 1986, p. 440, no. 1.247, ill. (color), referring to what she calls an autograph inscription on a piece of paper pasted on the back (now lost), dates the picture 1645; notes that between the fourth and fifth lines of the inscription are the words "chiesa di S. Firenze," and finds it very likely that the portrait was made for that church, the seat of the Oratorian congregation since 1640; mentions the version in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, which she dates to a later period.
Antonio Cistellini. San Filippo Neri: l'Oratorio e la congregazione Oratoriana, storia e spiritualità. Brescia, 1989, vol. 1, ill. (color, frontispiece).
Francesca Baldassari inLa pittura in Italia: il Seicento. Ed. Mina Gregori and Erich Schleier. revised and expanded ed. Milan, 1989, vol. 2, p. 726.
Francesca Baldassari. Carlo Dolci. Turin, 1995, pp. 90–91, no. 58, ill.
C. Barbieri inLa regola e la fama: San Filippo Neri e l'arte. Exh. cat., Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia, Rome. Milan, 1995, pp. 464–65, under no. 14, agrees that the Uffizi version dates from much later than this one; states that the composition must derive from a death mask or a portrait prototype.
Francesca Baldassari. La pittura del Seicento a Firenze: indice degli artisti e delle loro opere. [Milan], 2009, p. 334.
Marta Onali inI Papi della speranza: arte e religiosità nella Roma del '600. Exh. cat., Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant'Angelo. Rome, , p. 207, under no. 88, agrees with Barbieri (1995) that the composition must derive from a death mask or from an image that over time was used as a prototype.
Francesca Baldassari. Carlo Dolci: Complete Catalogue of the Paintings. Florence, 2015, pp. 172–73, no. 77, ill. (color), suggests identifying it with a picture included in an eighteenth-century Quaratesi family inventory as "Due quadri compagni da testa con suo adornamento intagliato con quattro aquile per ciascheduno, e tutti dorati, che in uno vi è dipinto S. Filippo Neri di mano di Carlin Dolci, e nell'altro vi è dipinto S. Maria Maddalena de Pazzi di mano di Giordano"; notes an oval version of the composition on the art market as by Dolci but whose attribution she rejects; lists the Uffizi work as a copy after The Met's picture.
Francesca Baldassari inThe Medici's Painter: Carlo Dolci and 17th-Century Florence. Ed. Eve Straussman-Pflanzer with Francesca Baldassari. Exh. cat., Davis Museum at Wellesley College. Wellesley, Mass., 2017, pp. 13, 20, 134, ill. p. 22 (color).
The frame is modern and was made by Michele Leoni of Florence in imitation of a Florentine Baroque frame.