Porta Virtutis is among the most original works of the Italian Renaissance, and it is undoubtedly the emblem of a well-thought and merciless revenge of a painter, Federico Zuccari, who was humiliated by the harsh criticism he received for his art.
It all began in 1580 when Zuccari was staying in Rome completing the decoration of the Pauline Chapel with the Stories of St. Peter and Paul for Pope Gregory XIII, invited by Paolo Ghiselli, the pontiff’s carver. He received a commission for an altarpiece depicting the Procession and Vision of St. Gregory the Great, destined for the church of Santa Maria del Baraccano in Bologna. We don’t know what happened to the artwork and there are only a few engravings left proving its existence, but we know that once it reached its destination in December 1580 it was met with a cold reception. A few months later the work was replaced with another painting and it was sent back to Rome with an anonymous letter that mentioned the envy and rivalry of the Bolognese painters aroused by the work.
Zuccari was deeply offended, and he planned revenge. On 18 October 1581, the day of St. Luke, the patron saint of artists, he exhibited on the façade of the church dedicated to the saint, which at that time housed the University of Painters where Zuccari was a consul, the large cartoon of the Porta Virtutis, in which he ferociously and quite openly criticized Ghiselli’s incompetence in terms of taste and artistic matters.
Zuccari depicts a powerful allegory where he represents a door in the background that recalls Roman architecture and decoration. This is the Door of Virtue (Porta Virtutis) as stated on a sign hanging from the archway. It is no coincidence that the artist prefers the door to the triumphal arch because it is the place par excellence of passage and works as a contrast between opposites, good and evil, right and wrong, inside and outside.
Behind the door, there is an Italian garden with a villa and in front of it the three Graces embracing each other, a naked young man who is inviting people to enter with a gesturing hand, while four angels in flight, representing the qualities of painting, Drawing, Invention, Decorum and Color, are raising Zuccari’s rejected altarpiece to the sky, celebrating it as it should have been done according to the painter. The front side of the door is full of other figures: doubled Fame, the two figures playing the trumpets on the upper corners of the painting, the Virtues in bronze decorating the door itself, the Fatigue, Diligence, Love of Study and Intelligence, the eternal companions of the artist, carved in marble.
Guarding the Porta Virtutis and the Garden of Virtue is Minerva, depicted in the centre with a helmet, shield and spear, according to a motif used also by Andrea Mantegna in the Studiolo of Isabella D’Este in Mantua, which Zuccari may have seen in engravings. The goddess, who prevents the access of the satyrs and monsters seen in the foreground fighting against Ignorance, a terrible creature of half-deformed man and half snake, which she pierces with her spear.
The lower part of the painting is filled with evil satyrs and other horrendous creatures, symbolizing Blame, pictured with donkey ears and coloured skin like the devils that Zuccari had painted in the Last Judgement in Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Slander who is close to him pictured with a spear and blades because he “cut and sew the clothes on his victims”, and Envy, the person responsible for replacing the painting, with a loose tongue.
On the left are Adulation and Persuasion, two seductive women embracing a naked man with brushes in hand and long donkey ears referring to ignorance. The man represents Paolo Ghiselli, his client, to whom the two women are whispering bad advice, while Persuasion is showing him a white panel, the altarpiece that replaced Zuccari’s painting in Bologna, on which you can see the word “Calumny”. Between the legs of a man, whom Zuccari defined “refuge for the evil ones” in a drawing relating to the work conserved in Oxford (Christ Church, inv. n. 0212, Bell F26), there are a fox and a wild boar, animals linked to Ignorance, while at the centre Envy, the eternal opposite of Virtue, is squirming attacked by snakes.
The reaction of the Vatican was immediate. Zuccari was instantly denounced and put on a trial and on November 27, 1581, he was exiled by the Papal States. The artist found refuge in Florence, where he had just finished decorating the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and where he hoped to receive help from the Grand Duke Francesco I Dei Medici. Then he travelled to Venice, before returning to Rome in 1583 thanks to Francesco Maria II Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who had already helped him to receive a commission for the Pauline Chapel.
The documents of the trial against the artist are still preserved today and they have represented, together with the autographed drawings which are fundamental documentation for understanding the history and iconography of the work. Zuccari’s letters to Francesco I Dei Medici and the Duke of Urbino are also an important testimony, in which he strongly defends the artist’s freedom and virtue, undermined by an ignorant client and influenced by slanderous and envious people, convinced of the painter’s right to express himself freely “if he doesn’t give names or paint portraits”. The satirical cartoon that Zuccari hung on Esquiline Hill has now been lost, as well as all traces of the painted version. Only in 1998, a small canvas was recovered from the collection of Camilla Bruschi D’Anna in Florence and purchased by the Italian State in November 2007 to be placed in the National Gallery of the Marche.
According to Cristina Acidini and Elena Capretti, it is probable that the painting is a reduced version of Zuccari’s cartoon that he sent to Francesco Maria II Della Rovere in 1585 after the unfortunate events, in recognition of his patron who always supported him and allowed his return to Rome. The replica is recorded in an inventory of 1599 and among the paintings that Vittoria Della Rovere, the family’s last descendant, brought to Florence from Urbino as her dowry for the marriage to Ferdinando II Dei Medici in 1634. The wedding was publicly celebrated in 1637.
The destination of the work purchased by the State to the National Gallery of the Marche represents a return to Urbino, the city where Zuccari himself wanted it to be by donating it to Duke Della Rovere.
Federico was born to an artistic family and his father was a painter. Federico moved to Rome at a very young age where his older brother Taddeo lived and worked as an artist. Zuccari trained with his brother with whom he immediately began to work on projects in the city, such as the frescoes in the tower of Niccolò V (1555-1556). He also obtained independent commissions, such as the decoration of the Casino of Pius IV and the Belvedere apartment in the Vatican.
At the beginning of the 1560s,’ the artist moved to Venice where Giovanni Grimani had invited him to decorate his palace and to paint him the Adoration of the Magi which he signed and dated 1654. The work was for the family chapel in the Church of San Francesco Della Vigna, and it showed that he had been influenced by the principles of local painting. The stay in Venice was also an opportunity for Federico to study and meditate on the great masters of colour and on the Flemish painters of the Grimani collection, whose works he reproduced in his famous travel notebooks.
After Venice, Zuccari stayed in Verona, Lombardy, and Florence, where he was appointed Academic of Drawing and where he worked on the apparatuses for the wedding of Francesco I de Medici and Giovanna of Austria. He then returned to Rome towards the end of 1565 to help his brother Taddeo. Together they worked on important collaborations at the Pucci-Cauco Chapel, Trinità dei Monti and Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola for Cardinal Alessandro. After the death of Taddeo in 1566, Federico continued the decoration of Palazzo Farnese but his continuous interruptions and the conviction of not being appreciated enough caused disagreements with the prestigious client. Finally, they settled and in 1573 Federico received the commission for the magnificent Flagellation of Christ in the Oratory of the Gonfalone from the Farnese family. However, the cardinal interrupted the assignment and entrusted it to Jacopo Bertoja, leading Federico to paint the Calumny of Apelles.
Around 1570 the painter moved to Orvieto to paint the Resurrection of the Son of the Widow of Nain (Orvieto, Museo Dell’Opera) for the city cathedral, while in the Church of Santa Caterina Dei Funari, working together with Raffaellino del Reggio, he painted the frescoes with the Stories of St. Catherine and two figures of Evangelists.
In 1572 Federico moved back to Rome and painted Pope Gregory VII Absolving Emperor Henry IV in the Pauline Chapel. In the summer of 1573, he moved to Paris at the service of Cardinal Carlo Di Guida and after a year to Antwerp and England where he painted the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and the Count of Leicester dated 1575 and preserved in the British Museum in London.
The artist moved to Florence in the autumn of 1575, where he bought a house in Via Del Mandorlo which once belonged to Andrea Del Sarto and which he then decorated with the symbols of the three arts (Painting, Sculpture, Architecture) and allegorical scenes. In the Tuscan city, Federico completed the decoration of the cathedral’s dome which was left unfinished by Giorgio Vasari who died the year before.
The ambitious commission on which he worked ardently caused the painter – who was always seen as a suspicious “foreigner”- disappointment and bitterness for the criticism he received. He even wrote sonnets and poetic compositions which were considered unreadable and not great. The negative comments were also aimed at the lack of use of the “toscanissima” fresco technique, using colour on a dry wall to portray friends, relatives, and famous people in the scenes.
His work titled the Lament of Painting perhaps takes its name from the criticism he received. In Florence, Zuccari studied with dedication the works of Andrea Del Sarto, who became like a master to him.
Back in Rome in 1580, he completed the decoration of the Pauline Chapel, started by Michelangelo, for Gregory XIII, while for Paolo Ghiselli, the pontiff’s carver, he painted the Procession of St. Gregory the Great. The altarpiece was destined for the Church of Santa Maria del Baraccano in Bologna which has now been lost, but it was sent back to the painter with an anonymous letter from the envious local artists. Zuccari’s controversial reaction cost him an exile from the Papal States, which included also Bologna. He was temporarily readmitted by Francesco Maria II Della Rovere who wanted him to decorate the Holy House in Loreto, and then definitively a few years later.
In 1581 Zuccari returned to Venice to paint Federico Barbarossa and Alexander III in Sala Del Maggior Consiglio of the Doge’s Palace, where his rival Tintoretto worked on the Paradise.
Around 1585 the artist moved to Spain, to serve at the court of Philip II, who entrusted him with important commissions at the Escorial, in particular the main altarpiece, the frescoes in the cloister and the figures of the Annunciation and St. Jerome. However, once again his work was subjected to fierce criticism, especially regarding the decoration. In Spain, Zuccari worked on the Divine Comedy illustrations (Florence, Department of Prints and Drawings of the Uffizi Galleries) and became friends with El Greco. He received a medal, a gold chain from the king, and an annual pay of 200 scudi.
Zuccari became rich and returned to Italy in 1589. He was nominated patrician and in 1593 prince of the San Luca Academy. He had achieved a strong social position, so he bought land and houses in Rome and built a small building in Pincio which today houses the Hertzian Library, frescoed with inventions and allegorical and philosophical themes of his refined culture.
In June 1603 the artist left Rome to return to his hometown, Sant’Angelo in Vado, where he painted the Zuccari Altarpiece, a tribute to his beloved family. He then went to Venice, where he made some adjustments to his paintings in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. He continued to travel to various cities of northern Italy, such as Milan, Padua, Verona, Pavia, where he painted the decoration of the Collegio Borromeo with Cesare Nebbia, Mantua and Turin. In Turin, he worked on the decoration of the Great Gallery of Palazzo Ducale of the Savoy family, destroyed in a fire in 1659.
He enrolled in the Compagnia di San Luca in Rome in July 1567 and became a perpetual member of the Compagnia dei Virtuosi at the Pantheon from 1572 to 1584, when he left his position due to disputes concerning his missed payments. Federico embodied the figure of the cultured court artist, who was rich and socially affirmed. He had relationships with artists and writers such as Giorgio Vasari, who is famous for his book Lives of Artists, Anton Francesco Doni, Paolo Veronese and Andrea Palladio. He was a sophisticated and cultured art theorist, author of various essays for the Academy of San Luca, and articles that would be called nowadays “art criticism”, such as his text L’idea de’ Pittori, Scultori e Architetti (1607) in which Zuccari describes Drawing as the idea that impresses the artist’s mind before starting to paint, sculpt, design, which is the foundation of the entire creative process.
National Gallery of the Marche