The portrait of Luca Pacioli with a student is undoubtedly the most debated painting by Jacopo de’ Barbari, regarding both the attribution of the work and the identification of the figures, the inscription on the piece of paper and its stylistic characteristics.
The painting represents the famous mathematician and Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli (1445-1517) Piero della Francesca’s and Leonardo da Vinci’s friend, standing in front of a table full of tools supposed to demonstrate the eight propositions from the book XIII of the Elements by Euclid to a student, who is identified (almost unanimously) as Guidobaldo da Montefeltro.
There is a copy of Summa de arithmetica, geometria. Proportioni et proportionalita on the table, published by Pacioli himself in Venice in 1494 and dedicated to the young student.
In the foreground you can see different objects: mathematical tools such as protractor and compass, a goose feather and two particular details, a wooden dodecahedron and a glass rhombicuboctahedron hanging over the table, half-filled with water and widely studied by Pacioli in his treatises. De’ Barbari was able to create a composition resembling a mathematical theorem and to include the erudite climate that surrounded these intellectuals and scholars of the era.
On the bottom right there is a piece of paper and a big fly sitting on it (one of the most preferred virtuosities used by the painters to demonstrate their skills with irony) and there’s a writing that seems to include signature and a date. Iaco. Bar. Vigennis p. 1495. This is certainly the most debated aspect of the work.
Based on radiographic studies, some historians have claimed that the writing was added afterwards (which is unlikely, given that if they wanted to distort the work, they would have done it with a more flattering reference). Apart from this detail, other topic of discussion has been the date which the historians have tried to make coincide with the artist’s biography.
From the stylistic point of view, the painting has been influenced by the works of Piero della Francesca, Melozzo da Forlì, Berruguete and Bramante.
The painting was mentioned in the inventories of the Palazzo di Urbino for the first time in 1631. The possible relationship of commission between de’ Barbari and Pacioli is not proven by any source. There was possibly a contact between the two as they both were involved in the field of book production. If this was the case, some compositional, schematic and almost mathematical choices would be justified, in compliance with the personality and the interests of the painting’s protagonist.
Venturi L., Le origini della pittura veneziana, 1300-1500, Venezia 1907, p.404;
Crowe J.A., Cavalcaselle J.B., A History of Painting in North Italy…, vol. I, 2’ ed., a cura di Borenius T., London 1912, p. 234;
Venturi L., Storia dell’arte italiana, VII, 2, Milano 1913, pp. 122-123;
De Rinaldis A., Pinacoteca del Museo Nazionale di Napoli, catalogo, Napoli 1928, pp. 9-13;
Servolini L., Jacopo de’ Barbari, Padova 1943, pp. 143, 147-152;
Benesch O., A new Contribution to the Problem of the Portrait of Fra Luca Pacioli, in “Gazette des Beaux-Arts”, XLIV, 1954, pp. 203-206;
Zeri F., Italian Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, I, Baltimore 1976, p. 276;
Mackinnon N., The portrait of Fra Luca Pacioli, in “The Mathematical Gazette”, LXXCII, 1993, pp. 130-219;
Gamba E., Pittura e storia della scienza, in M. Bona Castellotti – E. Gamba – F. Mazzocca (a c. di), La ragione e il metodo.Immagini della scienza nell’arte italiana dal XVI al XIX secolo, Milano 1999, pp. 43-53;
Jacopo de’Barbari was a painter and engraver, but his date of birth and death are uncertain. The most accepted hypothesis indicates the date of birth somewhere in the middle of the 15th century, probably between 1440 and 1460. Thanks to references on documents related to Dürer and Michiel, it is known that his roots were in Venice.
Jacopo de’ Barbari studied under the influence of Alvise Vivarini, Antonello da Messina, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, while following Mantegna for the style and technique of his engravings. He left Venice to travel to Germany in 1500 and since then his life has been more documented.
His approach to Venetian renaissance made him very popular in Germanic courts, which were attracted to Italian art. He worked in Germany during the first year of the Emperor Maximilian I of Nuremberg where he took the role of court portraitist and miniaturist, from 1503 to 1505 he worked for Frederick III the Wise of Saxony, and in 1506 he moved to the court of Joachim I of Brandenburg, where he stayed until 1508. In Germany he was also known as Jacopo Walch, which probably came from the word Wälsch, foreigner, an epithet often used for Italians.
His first dated work is the xylography of the Perspective View of Venice (1500), which was the first of its kind in Italian art and even in the north for its compositional and atmospheric sense. It is considered a synthesis between two styles; the result of a Venetian artist who deeply understood the intentions of northern art.
De Barbari’s encounter with Dürer is a fundamental part of his history. This happened perhaps during the German painter’s first visit in Venice in 1494-1495; certainly, the two painters were in Nuremberg in 1500 and attended the same circles. Other than Dürer, Jacopo influenced many other German artists: he probably met Cranach in Wittenberg, Hans von Kulumbach was one of his students, Peter Vischer the Younger copied one of his engravings for a sculpture and Hopfer copied numerous engravings.
Among his works are the Christ Greeting the Mother, situated in Venice, the Still Life Hanging on the Wall, Munich, the Portrait of Fra Luca Pacioli, a controversial work preserved in Capodimonte of Naples, dated 1495.
After the years spent in Germany, Jacopo moved to Flanders, between Antwerp and Brussels, where he was appointed the court painter of archduchess Margaret of Austria, regent of Holland. In 1511 he fell ill and made his will. Margaret’s inventory from 1516 mentions his works as “They were by Master Iacopo” suggesting he had died shortly before.
The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period.
In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection.
The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade.
The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.
During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum.
In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte.
Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.
For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.
The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.