"Erminia and the Shepherds", by the Neapolitan painter Luca Giordano (known in Spain as Lucas Jordán), belongs to the outstanding collection of works by the painter which were amassed by the 9th Count of Santisteban. Particularly famous among them were twelve paintings—one of which is the present work—based on scenes from the Gerusalemme Liberata by Torcuato Tasso (1581), one of the most popular epic poems of the late Renaissance and Baroque in Europe.
Francisco de Benavides y de la Cueva, 9th Count of Santisteban, hailed from a long-established family distinguished by its services rendered to the Crown, and followed in his ancestors’ footsteps. His career began with the captaincy general of the Kingdom of Granada (1672-5), followed by the viceroyalty of Sardinia (1676-8) and viceroyalty of Sicily (1678-87), culminating with the viceroyalty of Naples (1687-96). In all these posts Santiesteban left his stamp of authority and good governance. However, there is no evidence to suggest that he was particularly attracted to the fine arts initially.
Nonetheless, Don Francisco hailed from a family that was more cultivated than most of the period: his father, Diego de Benavides, was a prominent military man and diplomat—minister plenipotentiary in the Peace of the Pyrenees—and ended his life as viceroy of Peru. He was also a poet and excellent Latinist and wrote an anthology of poems and moral reflections, entitled Horae Succisivae, which his children published posthumously. Nonetheless, there are no indications that he was interested in art either. As we will see, Don Francisco de Benavides’s formation of an important collection of painting proved to be inherent in his Italian experience, specifically the Neapolitan period.
Indeed, Santisteban arrived in Naples in 1687 to replace as viceroy the Marquis of Carpio, who had died in the city. Carpio, a compulsive buyer of paintings with a collection that was famous in Europe, had taken advantage of his earlier posting as ambassador in Rome to add to his picture gallery, and carried on doing so during the barely four years he spent in Naples. He spent such lavish amounts that, after he died, the sale of the artworks from his estate organised by the executors of his will to raise money to pay off his debts dragged on for several years. Luca Giordano had been one of his favourite painters, and he came to own 49 works by the Italian; however, we now know, thanks to research by González Asenjo, that this frenzied pace of purchases was at least partly due to Charles II, who had entrusted him with acquiring as many as 122 paintings by Giordano.
Whatever the case, Santiesteban arrived in Naples he was instructed to continue with the mission for the king; at the time the sale of the considerable holdings of the Carpio collection (among them those by Giordano) was in full swing. Initially, however, Santiesteban, who was more interested in book culture, began to frequent the city’s literary circles, particularly that of Giuseppe Valletta, who owned an impressive library of 18,000 works. It was the meeting place for a group of Neapolitan intellectuals, prominent among whom were Nicoló Caravito, Giuseppe Lucina and, above all, Gianbattista Vico. Santisteban joined the group, marking the embryonic stage of what his nephew and successor, the 9th Duke of Medinaceli, would later formally establish as the Accademia Palatina.
But this group of intellectuals had artistic sensibilities: Valletta himself owned a sizeable collection of antiques and paintings; he was also a close friend of Giordano’s and, as de’Dominici states, advised the artist on abstruse iconographic matters. The viceroy’s double exposure to the world of fine art—through his contact with the Neapolitan intellectuals of Valletta’s circle, who defended it from a theoretical stance, and as witnesses to the massive sales of the Carpio collection—immersed him in the world of connoisseurship. As a result he built up a collection of painting that was modest in comparison to the huge holdings of Carpio or his own nephew Medinaceli but of superb quality, centred on Giordano—so much so that Santiestaban bequeathed as part of his estate not only a body of works by the artist but also the self-portrait of “such an eminent man”. Indeed, of the 121 works by different artists listed in the inventory compiled in 1716 by Antonio Palomino, 62 were by Giordano, in addition to a book with 24 drawings by him.
While some of the Giordano paintings must have been purchased at the sale of the Carpio collection, the twelve paintings on the theme of Gerusalemme Liberata were most likely a commission from Santiestaban himself, who owned in his library not only this work by Tasso but also the less popular work by the same author, Gerusalemme Conquistata, dated 1593. These twelve paintings, in different formats designed to be hung over doors, between windows and in other locations, hung together in the so-called estrado colorado of the Madrid mansion; they were seen there by Antonio Palomino, who praised them in his description, like the Abbé Ponz and the Count of Viñaza after him. The painting examined here, Erminia and the Shepherds, is a literal rendering of stanze 6 and 7 of Book VII of Gerusalemme Liberata, though Giordano interprets the passage in a highly original manner, depicting the heroine with almost childlike features , which gives the scene a more Rococo than Baroque air.
Santiesteban’s discovery of the art of painting during his stint as viceroy of Naples and the friendship that he must have struck up with Giordano continued until the painter departed for the court in 1692; the viceroy was responsible for establishing the conditions for his new mission in Spain. A letter from Santiesteban to his nephew the Duke of Medinaceli, the Spanish ambassador in Rome, dated 13 November 1693, provides advice on the procedure for sending other artists from Rome to Spain based on his previous experience. However, after the viceroy returned to Spain in 1696, he must have resumed the friendship—at least this is suggested by his family portrait, in which the painter is also depicted, now in the National Gallery in London.
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