The Vocation of Saint Aloysius (Luigi) Gonzaga

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, Cento 1591–1666 Bologna)

ca. 1650
Oil on canvas
140 x 106 in. (355.6 x 269.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1973
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    Luigi Gonzaga (born 1568) was the eldest son of the marquis of Castiglione. He resigned the marquisate in favor of his younger brother, and in 1585 joined the Jesuit novitiate in Rome. He devoted himself to the care of the poor until he died of the plague in 1591. He was beatified in 1621 and canonized in 1726. Guercino’s altarpiece was commissioned for the Theatine church of Guastalla in 1650 by Duke Ferrante III Gonzaga (1618–1678). An angel holds a heavenly wreath over the saint’s head, while at his feet are a sheaf of lilies, representing chastity, and a crown, symbolizing the marquisate he had renounced.

  • Catalogue Entry

    On March 29, 1650, Guercino noted in his libro dei conti (account book) an advance payment for a painting of the “Blessed Luigi Gonzaga with a glory of angels above,” commissioned by a certain Signor Quaranta Sampieri on behalf of the duke of Guastalla for an unspecified church in Guastalla, a town in Reggio Emilia. The following year Guercino received two further payments for the altarpiece from the duke himself (Ghelfi 1997). The duke, Don Ferrante III Gonzaga (died 1670), a member of the cadet branch of Luigi Gonzaga’s family, may have ordered the painting to promote the canonization of his relative. In 1621 Pope Gregory XV, the young Guercino’s most important patron, beatified Luigi Gonzaga, but it took over a century before Benedict XIII canonized him as San Luigi, or, in English, Saint Aloysius.

    Luigi Gonzaga (1568–1591) was the eldest son of Ferdinando Gonzaga, marquis of Castiglione, kinsman to the duke of Mantua. Born in the castle of Castiglione near Brescia, as a young boy he showed concern for the poor and extraordinary piety, and, despite his family’s opposition, he resolved to enter the Church. In 1585 he ceded his marquisate to his younger brother and entered his novitiate at the Jesuit church of Sant’Andrea in Rome, giving up a position of wealth and power to join one of the strictest arms of the Counter-Reformation. However, he served only six years, dying in an epidemic at the age of twenty-three.

    Guercino’s painting does not illustrate a specific event in the saint’s life; instead, it telescopes different moments into a single image of the saint’s dedication. According to Luigi’s biographers, for example, his vocation became apparent when he was seven years old, considerably earlier than in the painting, and he relinquished his marquisate when he was seventeen, several months before he would have adopted the Jesuit habit he wears in the painting. The altarpiece depicts in allegorical terms Luigi’s abdication of a temporal vocation for a spiritual one. His family’s coronet lies on the floor behind him, while a putto brings him a flowered wreath symbolizing his heavenly reward. The branch of lilies at his feet alludes to chastity, his most famous virtue. This iconography was firmly established shortly after the saint’s death. The coronet, flowered wreath, and lilies appear in a pair of engravings (MMA 51.501.6197, 51.501.6389) made in about 1607 by Jerome Wierix (ca. 1553–1619) and Anton Wierix (ca. 1552–1624) [see Images]. It is quite possible that Guercino referred to these or similar prints when he designed the altarpiece a half century later. Luigi Bosio (1976), however, relates the iconography to a specifically Mantovan tradition and discounts the Wierix engravings as a possible source for Guercino's imagery.

    By the time Guercino painted the Saint Luigi he had abandoned the dramatically charged style exemplified in the Museum’s Samson Captured by the Philistines. His palette is bright, the light diffuse, the figures idealized. Rather than engage the viewer emotionally, he sought to exemplify the moral content of the subject. Although his earlier style has proved more appealing to modern viewers, it was his late, clear manner that established his fame throughout Europe.

    Within a short period of fifteen years, this enormous painting was shipped back and forth across Europe: from Parma to Paris in 1806, to London in 1818, back to Milan, and to Kilgraston, Perthshire, in 1821. A young Scotsman, John Grant III of Kilgraston (1798–1873), had Samuel Woodburn (1786–1853), the famous collector and art dealer, bid on the altarpiece in the Junot sale at Christie’s in London on May 4, 1818 [see Provenance]. But Grant’s father, angry at his son for having bought the painting for 190 guineas, by far the highest price paid for any of Junot’s pictures, disclaimed the purchase sometime before his death (July 26, 1818), as his son was not yet of age. Woodburn subsequently disposed of the picture, and it next turned up with Carlo Sanquirico, a dealer in Milan. Once John Grant came of age, he tracked the picture down; according to a manuscript contract, dated Milan, August 24, 1821 (MMA, Department of European Paintings archives), Sanquirico asked more for the picture than Grant could afford, although he did finally consent to accept as part payment three of Grant’s horses with their saddles and harnesses. The picture was then shipped to Grant’s house in Perthshire, and it remained in his family until the Wrightsmans acquired it in 1957.

    In 1662 the prince of Massa, Palermo, commissioned a painting of the same subject from Guercino (untraced). The artist's account book records payment of 375 scudi on March 16, 1662 (Ghelfi 1997).

    [2011; adapted from Fahy 2005]

  • Provenance

    commissioned by Quaranta Sampieri on behalf of Don Ferrante III, Duke of Guastalla, for an altar in the right transept of the church of Santa Maria del Castello, Guastalla (by 1651–1805; valued at 500 scudi; expropriated in 1805 by Moreau, the French General Administrator for Guastalla); Mérédic-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint Méry, Parma (1805–6); the painter Gaetano Callani, Parma (1806; transferred to Junot); Jean Andache Junot, duc d'Abrantes, Paris (1806–d. 1813; his estate sale, Christie's, London, June 7, 1817, no. 35, bought in; his estate sale, Christie's, London, May 4, 1818, no. 58, for 190 gns. to Woodburn); [Samuel Woodburn, London, from 1818]; [Carlo Sanquirico, Milan, until 1821; sold to Grant for 300 Luigi and 3 horses with their saddles (equivalent to 400 louis d'or)]; John Grant, Kilgraston, Scotland (1821–d. 1873); his son, Charles Thomas Constantine Grant, Kilgraston (1873–d. 1891; his sale, T. Chapman & Son, Edinburgh, April 15, 1882, no. 87, for £100, bought in); his son, John Patrick Nisbet Hamilton Grant, Biel Dunbar, Scotland (1891–d. 1950); his cousin, Basil Charles Barrington Brooke (1950–57; sold through Agnew, London, to Wrightsman); Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, New York (1957–73; cat., 1973, no. 13)

  • Exhibition History

    Edinburgh. Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland. "Third Exhibition of Ancient Pictures," April 17–?, 1826, no. 36 (as "Legend of St Louis," by Guercino, lent by John Grant, Esq.).

    London. British Institution. June 1857, no. 4 (as "St. Louis di Gonzaga, eldest son of the Duke of Mantua, who abdicated his succession to the Dukedom in favour of his brother, and entered the Society of the Jesuits, in the 16th century," lent by J.Grant, Esq.).

    London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," 1873, no. 225 (lent by John Grant).

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," March 26–May 24, 1987, not in catalogue.

  • References

    Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Account book entry. March 29, 1650, fol. 37v [Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio di Bologna, inv. B 331; published in Jacopo Calvi, "Notizie della vita, e delle opere del . . . Guercino," Bologna, 1808, p. 124, and in Ghelfi 1997, p. 146], records an advance payment of 473 scudi from Signor Quaranta Sampieri for an altarpiece representing the Blessed Luigi Gonzaga with a glory of angels, for a church in Guastalla.

    Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Account book entry. April 24, 1651, fol. 40v [Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio di Bologna, inv. B 331; published in Jacopo Calvi, "Notizie della vita, e delle opere del . . . Guercino," Bologna, 1808, p. 128, and in Ghelfi 1997, p. 152], records a further payment of 1,000 scudi from the duke of Guastalla for the painting representing the Blessed Luigi Gonzaga ordered by Sampieri.

    Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Account book entry. April 27, 1651, fol. 40v [Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio di Bologna, inv. B 331; published in Jacopo Calvi, "Notizie della vita, e delle opere del . . . Guercino," Bologna, 1808, p. 128, and in Ghelfi 1997, p. 152], records a payment of 500 scudi from the duke of Guastalla for the painting of the Blessed Luigi Gonzaga; records the total received for the picture as 400 ducats.

    Carlo Cesare Malvasia. Felsina pittrice: vite de' pittori bolognesi. Bologna, 1678, vol. 2, p. 378, lists an altarpiece representing the Blessed Luigi Gonzaga executed by Guercino in 1650 for Guastalla.

    Ireneo Affò. Istoria della città e ducato di Guastalla. 3, Guastalla, 1787, p. 162, reports that in 1654 the duke of Guastalla buried one of his daughters in the church of the Theatines before the altar of San Luigi Gonzaga with its beautiful painting by the famous Guercino.

    The New Statistical Account of Scotland. Edinburgh, 1845, vol. 10, p. 806, as in the collection of John Grant, Kilgraston; incorrectly describes the subject as an episode from the life of Louis IX.

    G[iuseppe]. Campori. Gli artisti italiani e stranieri negli stati estensi. Modena, 1855, p. 49, identifies the painting mentioned in Guercino's account book entries of April 1651 as the work that was appropriated from the Theatine church in Guastalla in 1805 by Moreau de Saint Méry, the administrator general of Parma, adding that he thinks it was taken to France.

    Gaetano Atti. Intorno alla vita e alle opere di Gianfrancesco Barbieri detto il Guercino da Cento. Rome, 1861, p. 117.

    Charles Thomas Constantine Grant. San Luigi di Gonzaga and Guercino. Bruges, 1882, pp. 7–8, ill., records that the picture was bought by John Grant about 1818 in Milan, where it had been "rolled up in a back shop", and that Grant returned to Kilgraston "much in dread of his father's welcome, for he was still then a minor"; adds that "during the burning of Kilgraston in 1872, the picture was cut out of its frame by the late John Grant, Esquire, with the aid of two servants, and was carried out of the house before the roof fell in"

    Henry A. La Farge. "Noble Metropolitan Visitors." Art News 65 (February 1967), p. 60, fig. 5, describes the picture's commemoration of an almost contemporary religious event as "an eloquent example of the programmatic art of the Counter-Reformation which turned from traditional subjects to celebrate the great events and deeds of the Living Church"; adds that the picture may in fact have promoted the subsequent canonization of the saint in 1726.

    Denys Sutton. "Pleasure for the Aesthete." Apollo 90 (September 1969), p. 233, , no. 3, ill.

    Everett Fahy in "Paintings, Drawings." The Wrightsman Collection. 5, [New York], 1973, pp. 117–25, no. 13, ill. p. 119 (color), figs. 1–3 (details), notes that the picture does not illustrate a specific event in the saint's life, but telescopes different moments into a single image of Luigi's dedication; observes that the coronet, flowered wreath, and lilies appear in a pair of engravings of San Luigi made about 1607 by Anton and Jerome Wierix, and that it is possible Guercino referred to these or similar engravings in designing his altarpiece a half-century later; compares the clothing and general posture of the angel in the Wrightsman picture to that in Guercino's "Guardian Angel" altarpiece, executed in 1642 for Fano (now Museo Civico Malatestiano); suggests that the fortified buildings visible in the picture's landscape may represent the town of Guastalla.

    Luigi Bosio. "La 'Vocazione di San Luigi Gonzaga' della collezione Wrightsman." Civilità Mantovana 10, nos. 57–58 (1976), pp. 170–81, fig. 1, relates this painting's iconography to a specifically Mantovan tradition, finding precedents for the white blossoms on the angel's wreath and pearls on the saint's coronet in a painting attributed to Ippolito Andreasi (1548–1698) at the Museo Storico Aloisiana di Castiglione della Stivere; discounts the Wierix engravings as a possible source for Guercino's imagery.

    Francis Haskell. Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion and Collecting in England and France. Ithaca, N.Y., 1976, p. 32 n. 42.

    Nerio Artioli and Elio Monducci. Dipinti "reggiani" del Bonone e del Guercino (pittura et documenti). Exh. cat.Reggio Emilia, 1982, pp. 113–14, no. 23, colorpl. 41, states that Junot acquired the picture in 1806 from the painter Gaetano Callani.

    Luigi Salerno. I dipinti del Guercino. Rome, 1988, p. 346, no. 276, ill. (color), notes that the canvas was cut down at the top, possibly in 1872, when a fire at Kilgraston caused the work to be hurriedly removed from its frame.

    Denis Mahon and Nicholas Turner. The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle. New York, 1989, p. 72, under no. 128, tentatively identify a red chalk drawing at Windsor Castle ("Head of a Youth," 34.7 x 24.5 cm, inv. no. 0235) as a study for this painting.

    William M. Griswold. "Guercino." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 48 (Spring 1991), pp. 38–40, fig. 33 (color), identifies the white surplice Luigi wears over the high-collared black habit of the Society of Jesus as a reference to his ordination as door-keeper, lector, exorcist and acolyte—the four minor orders that he received in the early months of 1588.

    David M. Stone. Guercino: catalogo completo dei dipinti. Florence, 1991, p. 272, no. 263, ill. (color).

    Nicholas Turner. Guercino: Drawings from Windsor Castle. Exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. Washington, 1991, p. 66.

    Nicholas Turner and Carol Plazzotta. Drawings by Guercino from British Collections. London, 1991, p. 79, under no. 50, point out that the chalk drawing at Windsor Castle [see Ref. Mahon and Turner 1989] is a study for the head of Saint Lawrence in the altarpiece painted for the chiesa del Seminario in Finale nell'Emilia (ca. 1624), not for Saint Luigi Gonzaga.

    Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Il libro dei conti del Guercino, 1629–1666. [Bologna], 1997, pp. 146, 152, colorpl. 21.

    Andreas Schalhorn. Historienmalerei und Heiligsprechung: Pierre Subleyras (1699–1749) und das Bild für den Papst im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert. Munich, 2000, pp. 275, 318, fig. 158.

    Everett Fahy in The Wrightsman Pictures. New York, 2005, pp. 32–34, no. 8, ill. (color).

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History