Cornelis van Poelenburch (Utrecht 1595 - Utrecht 1667)

A Capriccio View of Rome with the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence

signed with initials 'C.P.F.' (lower right)
oil on panel
35.5 x 58.4 cm (14 x 23 in)

Provenance: In the family of the previous owner for at least 70 years.

From the darkened shadows of the silhouetted columns of what appears to be the Temple of Apollo, a group of figures peer through to the open area beyond where St. Lawrence, his hands tied behind his back, is being lifted onto the gridiron. A mother, her porcelain shoulders highlighted by the sun’s rays, moves to protect her child from the horrific torture that is about to take place, mesmerised and stunned herself by the events unfolding before her eyes. Following the wave of the Roman soldiers’ silhouetted pilums that sweep across the panel, the viewer is inexorably drawn to the scene of Lawrence’s martyrdom. His naked body is being hauled up onto the racks, whilst a figure to the right heaves a bundle of coals to stoke the fire.

Cornelis van Poelenburch offsets the gruesome nature of Lawrence’s martyrdom by setting the scene within an idyllic and romanticised view of Rome. The statues of Castor and Pollux are visible on the Capitoline Hill, as is part of St. Peter’s Basilica to the left, and the Colosseum in the centre. Despite the idyllic landscapes however, the focus remains on the grisly martyrdom. Similarly, van Poelenburch’s Landscape with Diana and Callisto in the Hermitage focuses almost wholly on the figures themselves in spite of the beautiful, architectural landscape in which they are set. Van Poelenburch brings them to life with his use of a rich colour palette and by composing the respective groups in such a way as to create energetic flowing brushwork.

Dr. Nicolette Sluijter-Seijffert confirms the attribution of the present work to van Poelenburch, dating the painting to between c.1622 and 1625. These were the last years of van Poelenburch's sojourn to Rome, and followed on from his period in Florence where he worked for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It is possible that during this period in Florence, whilst working for the Medici, van Poelenburch may have had access to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, the favoured burial place of the Medici dynasty. The present work, A Capriccio View of Rome with the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence may therefore have been influenced in part by Agnolo Bronzino’s colourful and monumental fresco of the same subject matter.

Dr. Sluijter-Seijffert remarks that the work is one of the few figural compositions painted by van Poelenburch. Other figural works by him include the Stoning of Saint Stephen (Musée du Louvre, Paris), The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (Kassel Gallery, Germany) and Clorinda Rescuing Sofronia and Olindo from the Stake (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), which are all commonly set within Rome.