Through a remarkable selection of paintings and sculptures, the exhibition 'From Caravaggio to Bernini. Masterpieces of the Italian Seicento from the Spanish Royal Collection' reflects the close political links and cultural strategies established by the Spanish court and the Italian states over the course of the 17th century.
The art collections of the Hapsburg dynasty were enriched by the frequent diplomatic gifts from Italian rulers striving to earn the favour of the Spanish overlords, who with their domains – the Viceroyalty of Naples and the State of Milan – conditioned the development of the complex political situation in Italy from the mid-16th century onwards. This is the case with two of the most spectacular paintings on display, Guercino's Lot and His Daughters and Guido Reni's Conversion of Saul, which Prince Ludovisi donated to Philip IV with the aim of ensuring Spanish protection over the tiny State of Piombino.
A large number of other artworks – including the magnificent Crucifix by Bernini from the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a work rarely accessible to the public – were commissioned or acquired by envoys of the king. Other works were commissioned or purchased – as in the case of Caravaggio's Salome – by representatives of the Spanish crown in Italy (ambassadors and viceroys), who were either despatched to the papal court or Naples, or bequeathed the works to the royal collection.
The Spanish sovereigns' interest in Italian culture is further reflected by the invitations to work at the court which they addressed to masters such as the Neapolitan Luca Giordano, who was active in Spain for a decade. Finally, this interest is also witnessed by the journeys to Italy made by some Spanish artists, such as José de Ribera, who reached Rome in 1606 and spent most of his life in Naples. The exhibition features five masterpieces by this artist, including the celebrated Jacob with the Flock of Laban.
Velázquez's first sojourn in Italy, between 1629 and 1630, proved crucial for his painting career, as is shown by the outstanding Joseph's Tunic, which marks one of its high points. The painter then enjoyed his triumph as a portrait artist at the papal court at the time of his second Italian journey, in the years 1649-1650.
In 1819, Ferdinand VII founded the Museo Real – later known as the Museo del Prado – which for the most part brought together works from the Royal Collection. Those which were not transferred to the museum remained in the royal residences, the so-called Reales Sitios, for the monarchs' own enjoyment. In 1865 Queen Isabel II renounced her ownership of the goods she had inherited from her ancestors and entrusted them to the state, thereby laying the foundations for what is now the Patrimonio Nacional. It is from this remarkable collection, still under the protection of the Patrimonio Nacional, that the masterpieces now presented in Rome have been selected on the basis of their outstanding artistic and historical value.