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Insights | 24/09/2017

The King of Spain’s Grandchildren: Anton Raphael Mengs and Florence

The King of Spain’s Grandchildren: Anton Raphael Mengs and Florence

The Niches Room of Pitti Palace hosts an exhibition dedicated to Anton Raphael Mengs and his relationships with Florence. Painted by Mengs in Florence and today preserved in the Prado Museum, the three portraits of the children of Pietro Leopoldo of Habsburg-Lorraine and Maria Luisa of Bourbon are shown alongside the portrait of Ferdinand and Maria Anna recently acquired by the Uffizi Galleries. Around this central group are other portraits of the Habsburg-Lorraine family by other painters one of whom, Johan Zoffany, particularly stands out. The self-portraits of both these artists from the Uffizi collection are also present. The exhibition also includes two letters from Mengs and a manuscript dedicated to Correggio and to his works, written by the painter during his stay in Florence.

Entitled The King of Spain’s Grandchildren. Anton Raphael Mengs at Pitti Palace, the exhibition is on display in the Niches Room of the Palatine Gallery, which, with its neo-classical decoration, provides a perfect setting for it. It is focused on the dynastic portraits of the Grand Dukes of the Habsburg-Lorraine family, grouping together works which not only illustrate an important aspect of the cultural and social context of the age of Peter Leopold, but are also a vivid testimony to the cosmopolitan climate that made Florence an effective centre of Enlightened Absolutism, and not only in Italy. Protagonist of the exhibition, Anton Raphael Mengs is indeed one of the leading figure of the artistic reforms that were carried out in those years both in Rome and in Madrid driven by the Enlightenment, promoting a new view of Classical and Renaissance art and also renewing the principles of artistic education in a systematic sense. Even if the reason for his stay in Florence was rather conventional – being a court painter he had the duty of creating the portraits of the grand ducal family for his patron, the King of Spain – the exhibition is also dedicated to Mengs’s essential contribution to the artistic changes in Florence that have been largely neglected by critics until now.

The cornerstone of the exhibition is the Double portrait of Archduke Ferdinand and Archduchess Maria Anna of Habsburg-Lorraine as children, whose recent acquisition gave rise to the initiative for this exhibition (Fig. 1). Discovered and identified as a work of Mengs by Stefano Grandesso of the Carlo Virgilio Gallery in Rome [1] who for decades has devoted himself to re-assessing periods and contexts outside usual antiquarian collections, the painting has found its worthy and rightful home in the Palatine Gallery where portraits of the children of Peter Leopold and Maria Luisa of Bourbon were missing up to now. They themselves are both present in the exhibition with individual portraits associated to the idea of contrasting concepts that provides almost the guiding theme for the works on display. The portrait of Pietro Leopoldo ‒ sober and elegant, but also conscious of his role as sovereign –  painted by Mengs during his stay in Florence is contrasted with the happy, lively picture of his future wife, painted by Lorenzo Tiepolo in Madrid in the context of a set of paintings representing the Bourbon heirs.

It was down to the extraordinary dedication and visionary thinking of those responsible at the Uffizi Galleries to make an acquisition that not only enriches their conspicuous  iconographic collections, but it also marks a turning-point in the perception of dynastic portraits that have been underestimated for decades, thus accelerating the further break-up of the few dynastic galleries still maintained by aristocratic houses, often being sold off without anyone knowing where they came from or who they portrayed. The large number of portraits uprooted in this way, that have gone around the market without the hope of being able to attribute or identify them, is explained by this phenomenon which effectively means a loss of social history and cultural contexts. The portrait of the archduke and archduchess was saved from this fate because it landed in the hands of expert antique dealers who realised its excellent pedigree. So the mechanism was set in motion to give a secure future to this painting which had first to be divested of the marks of the centuries that had darkened its appearance. Only then did they discover that it had not been finished, a circumstance that makes it today more attractive than it would have been in the last century when it was retouched (Fig. 2).

Last year an exhibition held in New York dedicated to the unfinished work received great acclaim [2]. The pictures displayed there also included a portrait by Mengs, in which the face was missing while all the rest was painted. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this abnormality, the portrait found an appropriate location and if we ask ourselves why, the answer is rather mundane – because a painting done with the virtuosity and exuberance typical of Mengs’s official portraits in his role as court painter, but without a face – the raison d’être of any portrait – has something exotic about it that makes it interesting and attractive. In the case of the painting at the Palatine Gallery, we have the opposite situation: the faces are created with great care and attention while the clothes, the hands and the setting remain as a rough outline. Examined in the catalogue but unfortunately not included in the exhibition, the preparatory drawings for the faces document the precision and the virtuosity of the portraitist in capturing the character and childish expression. Moreover, there are no sources or information about the provenance and the original destination of the painting, which must have come out of the painter’s studio before his death in 1779 because it is missing in the inventory of goods bequeathed. One hypothesis about the commissioning of the this portrait dating back to the same period as the Madrid portrait derives from a double portrait of the older archduchess and archduke – Maria Theresa and Francis, attributable to Anton von Maron – which has always been in the Viennese collections and therefore can be linked to their paternal grandmother, Empress Maria Theresa, who was untiring in her work of documenting the dynastic family fortunes. The two paintings are connected by their dimensions, which differ only slightly, and the showy chromatic relationship in the children’s clothes, green and pink respectively, inverted so as to make one suppose that they must be a couple. It is therefore reasonable to claim that Mengs’s portrait was originally destined for Vienna but that it remained unfinished because of the many tasks to which the painter had to devote himself after his stay in Florence.

It is a fact that the legacy of the Florentine seventeenth-century art – and especially that of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty ‒ does not enjoy the same attention and admiration today as it did in previous eras, and this is also explained by the poor visibility of this heritage in the current structure of the city and its collections. Perhaps few visitors today, therefore, realize that the arrangement of the Uffizi as a public museum goes right back to Peter Leopold who aimed to adapt the collections to the needs of the cultured European audience of the times. The interventions carried out by the Grand Duke of Habsburg-Lorraine also laid down the roots for a re-evaluation of the Florentine Renaissance, which contributed so much in the Risorgimento period and will make Florence the preferred destination of scholars and historians specialized in artistic periods preceding Giorgio Vasari. The adaptation of the architectural layout of the city centre and its monuments to the image that was associated to promoting the city’s artistic expansion from the fourteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries was one of the side-effects of this revival that wiped out or at least covered up a large part of the aspect the city had assumed during the 17th and 18th centuries. The consequence of this was that Pitti Palace stands out even more as the symbol of absolute power of the monarch and of his pomp and magnificence, concealing behind a Renaissance façade a wealth and splendour that – in Tuscany at least – is without equal, both because of its imposing size and its complex historical and artistic phases.

The portrait of the archduke and archduchess fits perfectly into this context having been executed in one of the many interiors of the Palace that housed Pietro Leopoldo’s large family in the South wing, as well as the historic collections. The quarters belonging to the archduke and archduchess and their tutors, nannies, nursemaids and servants were located on the second floor, and from the layout we understand that the majority of the rooms where the male descendants lived looked out from the façade while the female quarters faced onto the internal courtyard and the garden [3]. The gilded chair upholstered in red velvet on which little Ferdinand is leaning probably belonged to the furniture in the apartments of the archduke and archduchess, as several similar pieces are still preserved today in the Palace’s Wardrobe.

While working on the grand ducal portraits, of which four are included in the exhibition, the painter also lodged in the Palace and we know that he was there when he worked on the portrait of Archduke Francis [4], future Holy Roman Emperor, displayed in the exhibition alongside Johan Zoffany’s portrait depicting him at the age of six. The pairing brings out the difference between the various concepts of monarchic power: the concept of sovereign majesty appropriate to Spanish conventions is in strong contrast with the idea of sovereign power assumed in Florence in keeping with the modern upbringing of the heir to the imperial throne.  

The difference between the two versions of the double portrait of Ferdinand and Maria Anna is equally evident. In contrast to the Prado’s version, which is not just larger but more ceremonial too, the painting at the Palatine Gallery shows a natural grace and freshness that makes us forget the two posing children who – already conscious of their own behaviour – are presented as a young couple about to come out but who are not yet aware of the role awaiting them in the outside world. The naturalness of their childish faces and Ferdinand’s attitude with his arm outstretched allude to a very famous work in Florence, Luca della Robbia’s babies in swaddling clothes in the medallions of the Loggia degli Innocenti (1487). Here we find arms stretched out, chubby faces, fine, wavy hair and that trusting, but at the same time rather uncertain expression (fig. 3) that the young Ferdinand also conveys with his head inclined towards his little sister as he holds a black hat in his hand. The similarity with the babies in swaddling clothes suggests that the painter has benefited from looking at these works which were part of the outdoor museum that Florence offered a careful observer such as Mengs was. Apart from his gifts as a portraitist and his interest in the ancient statuary in the Florentine collections, he was also open to new artistic directions, actively taking part in the rediscovery of the Florentine fifteenth-century art, an aspect that is examined in depth in the exhibition catalogue [5].

The exhibition also offers a highly enlightening combination of Mengs’s famous, and often copied, self-portrait with the drawing folder (Fig. 4) with Johan Zoffany’s self-portrait with lemons and his little dog (Fig. 5), both in the collection of self-portraits at the Uffizi, now undergoing reorganization. While Mengs’s self-portait, given to the Gallery’ staff in 1773 and arranged by him personally and intentionally below the self-portrait by Raphael, expresses his ambitions as a re-inventor of painting, Zoffany’s self-portrait (Fig. 4), appearing in the Florentine collections only since 1909, conveys an entirely opposite message. The lemons and the dog are talking symbols of the false friendship we find in the sixteenth-century literature, but in addition,  and especially, in the eighteenth-century English painting, to which Zoffany certainly refers, the little dog means faithfulness to nature. The style followed by the painter is therefore that of naturalism while Mengs refers to drawing and academic tradition. However, the fact that both these painters of German origin, who had probably already met in Rome after 1750, took such different paths not only in painting but also in life is worthy of comment. When Mengs went to Spain in 1761, Zoffany arrived in London at the same time, gradually adapting to the rather sterile English taste compared with the Roman-style academic tradition.

The last work on display is a small unpublished painting which is the model for the panel with the Lamentation of Christ commissioned from Mengs by Carlo Rinuccini; this remained unfinished because of the painter’s death. The large chiaroscuro cartoon created to perfection in pencil could be seen in Florence until well into the 19th century in the Rinuccini art collection. The model gives documentary evidence of the colour in this painting which was to be the pendant for a Holy Family by Raphael.



[1] Quadreria 2015. Documents d’art et d’histoire, G. Porzio, Galleria Carlo Virgilio & C (eds.), published for Paris Tableau, Paris, Palais Brongniart, 11-15 November 2015, pages 57-59.

[2] Ritratto di Doňa Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, Duquesa de Huescar, in: Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, K. Baum, A. Bayer, S. Wagstaff (eds.), New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016, no. 68.

[3] D. Toccafondi, I Lorena in Toscana: potere e rappresentazione. Scene da una dinastia (The Habsburg-Lorraine Family in Tuscany: Power and Representation. Scenes from a Dynasty), in I Nipoti del Re di Spagna. Anton Raphael Mengs a Palazzo Pitti (The King of Spain’s Grandchildren: Anton Raphael Mengs at Pitti Palace), curated by M. Ceriana and S. Roettgen, exhibition catalogue, Livorno, 2017, Figures 4-5, pages 66-67.

[4] S. Roettgen, “Non mi scorderò mai delle belle cose di Firenze”. Anton Raphael Mengs e Firenze (“I will never forget the beautiful things in Florence”, Anton Raphael Mengs and Florence), in Op. cit., page 22.

[5] Ibidem, pages 28-32.

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