The earliest mention of this painting can be traced to a list of paintings belonging to Monsignor Giorgio Bolognetti (Rome, 1595-1686) annotated on a few loose sheets attached to the last will and testament of his father, Giovanni Battista - who was burnt to death in Rome on the 25th of February 1627 (Rome, Archivio di Stato, Notai Capitolini, Bonincontri Lorenzo, office. 18, last will and testament b. 5, f. 36) - in which three paintings by Francesco Albani are described: "A depiction of Europa with four Amori by the hand of the Albano with its gilded frame", "A large town with the Madonna on her journey to Egypt and a few angels by the hand of the Albano with its gilded frame", "A depiction of Ecce Homo with three angels by the Albano with its gilded frame".
The painting features again as a part of Giorgio Bolognetti's collection in the inventory drawn up on his death in 1686 (Palmer 1993). In 1706 it would be taken on loan by Count Ferdinando Bolognetti, Prince of Vicovaro, for the painting exhibition organized on occasion of the celebration of La Santa Casa di Loreto (Ghezzi 1686-1726). An accurate engraving, that without doubt depicts the painting examined here, would be executed in 1732 by Jacob Frey with the inscription "Ex Tabula Albani asservata in aedibus Ill.mi D. Comitis Ferdinandi Bolognetti" ("from the painting preserved in the house of the revered Count Ferdinando Bolognetti").
The painting's acquisition by Prince Eugenio Beauharnais (1781-1824) - the adopted son of Napoleone Bonaparte (he was born of Josephine's first marriage to Generale Alexandre de duca Beauharnais) nominated by the Emperor as Viceroy of Italy (M. PRETI HAMARD, La collection de peintures italiennes d'Eugène de Beauharnais, in Le goût pour la peinture italienne autour de 1800, prédécesseur, modèles et concurrents du cardinal Fesch, 2006, pp. 129-146) - is not accurately documented, but can be deducted from the detailed bibliography relative to the work. Following the down fall of Napoleons empire, Eugenio abandoned Italy and settled in Munich - where he would be given the title Duke of Leuchtenberg - taking his extensive collection of paintings (described in many printed inventories from 1826 onwards) with him. The most complete version to be found amongst these inventories is the inventory printed in 1853 by the publisher Joseph Baer in Frankfurt with a dedication to his son Maximilian von Leuchtenberg, with a commentary by J. D. Passavant and reproductions of woodcut engravings executed by F. del Pedro. One of these engravings corresponds exactly with the painting in question.
On the death of Maximilian in 1852, his widow, Marie Nokolaeva - daughter of the Russian Tsar Nicolas I - would transfer this rich collection of paintings to the Marinski Palace in St. Petersburg, where it would be summarily described by G. F. WAAGEN (Die Gemäldesammlung in der Kaiserlichen Ermitage Zu St. Petersburg, nebst Bemerkungen über andere dortige Kunstsammlungen, Munich, 1864) following his visit to Russia between 1861 and 1862.
The information noted in this description would be used again in later publications such as the Hermitage catalogue of 1891, in which the painting in question is cited in relation to another version of the same subject, then believed to be a work by the hand of Albani himself, but more recently defined as a work attributable to the school of Albani, (Puglisi 19991; S. VSEVOLOZSKAJA, Museo Statale Ermitage. La pittura italiana del Seicento, Milan, 2011, p. 200 n. 2).
Later events in the life of this painting can be followed through the catalogues of public sales in which the Leuchtenberg Collection would be presented after the October Revolution: first in Stockholm (1917) and then, in the late 1920's in Buenos Aires. As D. C. Miller had already noted in an important article dedicated to a number of paintings now in the Collection of M. Herlitzka of Buenos Aires (1990), the reproduction presented in the last mentioned catalogue left the supposition that the painting commented on here - and of which all trace had been lost by this point - was entirely authentic. In her important monograph on the painter (1999), Catherine Puglisi also notes this work as an authentic Albani,at the time thought to be lost.
The reappearance of the painting, with two paper labels on the rear attesting to its historic presence in the Leuchtenberg collection, induces us to confirm these hypotheses. It shows important variations in relation to other known versions of this subject by the painter from Bologna, who often used the same motifs in more than one painting. In fact, in the small canvas (cm 76,3 x 97), the copper plate engraving (cm 33,3 x 41,4) of the Uffizi in Florence and the larger canvas (cm 173,5 x 223) at the Galleria Colonna in Rome (ripr. in Puglisi 1999, figures 182, 185, 186), Albani uses a slightly different composition in which the putto (or Amorino) with the arrow is seen from behind as it clutches the ox's tail. In all of these works the painter makes use of a beautiful drawing of Europa's face in coloured pencils, which is preserved today at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh (Puglisi 1999, tav. XVIII). The closest version to the painting examined here is the previously mentioned work (cm 170 x 224) preserved at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (Vsevolozskaja 2011, ripr. a p. 26), and certified as a work by Albani's bottega, in which Europa turns her head and stretches out her right arm towards her companions; but here too the putto holding the arrow is seen from behind.
However, the painting examined here corresponds perfectly to the composition of the engraving executed by Jacob Frey in 1732, when the painting still belonged to the Bolognetti Collection in Rome, and also to the engraving by F. del Pedro of 1853, executed when the painting was already a part of the Leuchtenberg Collection in Munich. Apart from minor variations this work distinguishes itself from the other paintings cited here by the profile perspective of Europa's head and the gesture of her arms - with the right arm outstretched towards her companions on the river bank, and by the presence of the putto positioned at her feet, whose smiling visage looks directly towards the viewer.
As the recent restoration treatment has shown, during the elaboration of the work Albani experimented with and refused variations in the composition, in fact, hidden under the red cape fluttering in the wind, the head of a fifth putto that Albani had started to paint but then changed his mind, covering its traces, was revealed.
This and other relatively important "pentimenti" show the painting to be entirey authentic, however, in the past it was subjected to a drastic cleaning and "restoration" treatment that saw many areas of the painting (the sky, landscape etc) covered by a thick layer of heavy repainting which greatly compromised the original pictorial surface.
The recently concluded restoration treatment, effected in Milan by Barbara Ferriani, aimed to bring the painting back to its original pictorial form, connoted by an admirable pictorial technique, especially in the flesh tones of Europa and the putti and in the depiction of the protagonist's hair and robes. The ox's muzzle is also incredibly naturalistic, while the execution of the group of young girls on the river bank in the distance - despite their more decorative depiction - is equally effective.
Thus, this painting can be qualified as an important work to be included in the catalogue of Francesco Albani's oeuvre, and can be dated to the second decade of the 17th Century, when Albani's painting - thanks to his contact with Guido Reni - would become more monumental, while his bruschstrokes bacame much lighter and looser.
Convincing comparisons can be found to illustrate the artist's style in his larger paintings, such as the Battesimo di Cristo executed between 1620 and 1624 for the Gnetti chapel in San Giorgio in Poggiale (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale), in which the figures of the putti are similar, or with the Madonna e santi executed in 1621 for the church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Rimini (Puglisi 1999, figures 145, 149).
Prof. Daniele Benati, Bologna, 28 November 2011
The rape of Europa
Oil on canvas, 162x203,5 cm
For more information about this painting, please contact
Marc Maurie, tel: +46 (0)8-453 67 56