giuseppe cesari
(called Cavaliere d’Arpino, 1568 Arpino – 1640 Rome)

Head of a Bearded Man Wearing a Turban; verso: Profile of Bearded Old Man. Black chalk (recto and verso), with traces of red chalk (recto only). 11 x 9.6 cm. Numbered in pen and black ink in the bottom left-hand corner (recto): 12, verso inscribed: Giuseppe d’Arpino.

This expressive and rapidly executed head study of a bearded man in a turban comes from an album that was probably compiled in the 17th century and went on auction at Christie’s in London in 1980 (Christie’s London, Old Master Drawings, 15 April 1980, No. 86). In addition to drawings by other masters the anthology contained quite a large number of head studies by Giuseppe Cesari. The two present studies are from the artist’s early period and probably date (according to Herwarth Röttgen) from about 1591–93. It is highly probable that this is one of the preliminary studies for Cesari’s ceiling paintings in the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. The central panel shows the Apostle Matthew healing Ephigenia, the daughter of King Egippus of Ethiopia, from leprosy. Among the preliminary studies recorded by Röttgen, the sketch of a bearded old man (R. 29b), which also belonged to the above-mentioned album, shows clear stylistic resemblances to the ascetic male head on the verso of our sheet (fig. 1). It may be a preliminary study for the head of Saint Matthew. The bearded man wearing a turban (recto) may be a primo pensiero for the head of the oriental figure to the right of the saint (fig. 2). The deft, accurate linework and the spontaneity of the concept seem to confirm this assumption.

Giuseppe Cesari’s career was extraordinarily successful right from the outset and brought him great prestige, yet towards the end of his life it was also characterized by a certain hardening of the arteries and the effects of changing tastes in art (see Herwarth Röttgen, Il Cavalier Giuseppe Cesare d’Arpino, Rome 2002). Röttgen’s characterization: “Un grande pittore nello splendore della fama e nell’inconstanza della fortuna” neatly sums up this contradiction. Cesari was one of the most influential artists in Rome in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, although an authoritative theoretician of art, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, later criticized the extravagance and the “maniera fantasticheggiante” of his art.

The reign of Pope Clemens VIII (1592–1605) undoubtedly marked the high point of Cavaliere d’Arpino’s artistic career. Cesari’s best works from this period are distinguished by the facility and ingenuity of their invention and the serene elegance of their figures. The sensuous brilliance of Cesari’s colours and his strong sense of compositional design and suggestive narrative make him a “pioneer of the sensualism of the Baroque” (Röttgen). Round about 1600 Cesari was considered to be the most famous painter in Rome, swamped with commissions and charged with the execution of numerous monumental room decorations. The decoration of the Cappella Contarelli, executed between 1591 and 1593, was one of his important early commissions. Finally, in 1599, when Cesari’s workload had got too much for him, Caravaggio, who had spent a lengthy period in Cesari’s studio some years earlier, was charged with painting the walls. This trick of fate gave rise to one of the most significant creations in European art history.