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Taste and Prudence in the Art of Jusepe de Ribera

Hannah J. Friedman [Johns Hopkins University]
Paul Mellon Fellow, 2012 – 2015

Throughout his long career in southern Italy, the Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera (1591 – 1652) showed a vested interest in the shifting practices and expectations of looking at pictures. My research shows that the artist’s evident preoccupation with sensory experience is inseparable from his attention to the activities and discussions that looking at art entailed. In works such as The Five Senses (c. 1615), Ribera forged a new approach to this subject, departing from allegory in favor of physically immediate figures that confront the viewer. His prints of facial features from around 1622 depict the sensory organs (eyes, ears, noses, and mouths) with great animation and awareness, producing the illusion that the etched features both express an inner feeling and receive feeling from the world outside the page. The biblical and hagiographic subjects that account for most of his oeuvre also manifest Ribera’s preoccupation with sensory experience, nowhere more clearly than in his painting Isaac and Jacob (1637). In all of these works, Ribera emphasizes the weighing of sensory information and the potential for pictures to articulate the mechanics as well as the contents of knowledge.

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Jusepe de Ribera, Isaac and Jacob, 1637. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid / Art Resource, NY

These works of art exemplify Ribera’s participation in the broad discussions of his generation about the role of pictures in negotiating the connections between the sensible world of bodies and things and the knowledge of the invisible and/or intangible. I have found that Ribera probed art’s ability to mediate between seeing and knowing by emphasizing and anticipating the ways in which his viewers could probe his paintings. In previous studies, connoisseurship, understood in its contemporary sense as a preoccupation with attribution and stylistic chronology, has been the dominant approach to Ribera’s art; by contrast, I have traced its hitherto unexplored relevance to the artist and his contemporaries as a set of interpretive practices. Ribera cared about how people looked at paintings, and his works both anticipate and creatively redirect the discussions that could take place in front of them.

This emphasis on the phenomenon of looking is evident in the dynamic overlap between Ribera’s early activity as a producer of easel paintings and new practices of exhibiting and discussing works of art that were developing in Rome in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Ribera participated in this culture of connoisseurship by cultivating an aptitude and a reputation as an interlocutor in matters of art: early documentary sources describe him as an adept and knowledgeable participant in the spoken art criticism that was flourishing in Rome at the start of his career. In writings from this period, including Giulio Mancini’s unpublished Considerazioni sulla pittura (c. 1620), the notion of taste, gusto, appears as an arena of critical overlap between the qualities of a good picture and those of an intenditore, a patron or connoisseur. Less frequently studied manuscripts by Mancini, such as his treatise on honor and dishonor, cast new light on his extensive biography of Ribera, in which Mancini tacitly solidifies his prerogative as a nonartist to judge works of art.

The conversational practice of considering paintings was relevant to Ribera not only because it was the way his patrons “used” their art collections; spoken art criticism was also intellectually potent, an active ingredient in Ribera’s approach to his pictures. In Isaac and Jacob, for instance, the crux of the scene is not the blessing or even the deception of Isaac but his consideration of the evidence that is offered to him as he touches the goat’s hair covering Jacob’s arm. Alberto Frigo’s suggestive remark that blind Isaac would make the best patron saint for connoisseurship finds ample support in the careful scrutinies invited and carried out by Ribera’s blind patriarch. Far from asserting a triumphalist equivalency of image- making with the production of knowledge, Ribera’s painting explores the capacity of sensory experience, first and foremost that of looking at paintings, both to lie and to tell the truth, or to tell a truth that is concealed rather than exposed by the information conveyed by the senses.

The case studies in my project demonstrate Ribera’s awareness of art’s potential to package and present different sorts of knowledge for examination. His insistence in these images on the act of evaluation rather than on surrender to sensory experience runs counter to the received wisdom that positions the Catholic culture of southern Italy and Spain (and, by extension, most of Ribera’s oeuvre) as propagandistic and anti- intellectual. What I found instead was the immense relevance and originality of Ribera’s participation in his generation’s vigorous questioning of what pictures are, what it means to look at them, and what they have authority to do and communicate.

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