This monumental painting is an exceptionally fine work by Giovanni Bilivert, one of the most intriguing artists of the Florentine seicento. His father Jacques Jansz. Bijlevelt (1550-1603), of Dutch origin, was a successful goldsmith in Florence during the last quarter of the 16th century, working for Ferdinando I de' Medici. It was through the latter's recommendation, in fact, that Giovanni was apprenticed in Florence to Lodovico Cardi, called il Cigoli (1559-1613), and was chosen to accompany him to Rome between 1604 and 1608. There, Bilivert was commissioned by Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605) to execute two altarpieces for the Basilica of Saint Peter's (untraced). In 1609 he returned to Florence, where he enrolled in the Accademia del Disegno. In 1611 he entered the employ of Cosimo II de' Medici (1590-1621), continuing to work for the family as a designer for works in pietra dura until the Grand Duke's death.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a 4th-century Saint martyred at the hands of the Emperor Maxentius, was both a princess and a noted scholar. Her superior intelligence and diligent study, which left her well-versed in the arts, sciences, and philosophy, are evoked here by the large volume at left of the composition. She was imprisoned, but managed to convert everyone who came to visit her, including Maxentius' wife, the Empress. Eventually, she was famously tortured on the spiked wheel, which miraculously broke and became her most frequent attribute, discernible in the shadows at right of the present composition.
The present depiction of the saint is characteristic of Bilivert's later paintings, with their soft, sfumato style inherited from Francesco Furini (1604-1646) and strong contrasts of chiaroscuro. Bilivert's sophisticated, elegant figures and emphasis on psychological introspection are also evident. Catherine's body is draped in a rich red robe that preserves her modesty while exposing her languidly reclining torso. The angel in the background looks up toward her, his mouth open as if he has just spoken to the learned theologian-Saint, inviting the viewer to consider the conversation taking place. In the foreground, a second angel bends down with a silken cloth to cleanse a wound on Catherine's leg, exposing his delicately-colored wings. The unusual interactions between the figures and daring nudity of Saint Catherine imbue the image with a marked sensuality.
We are grateful to Dottoressa Francesca Baldassari, who has confirmed the attribution of the present lot and suggested a date between the late 1620s and early 1630s, corresponding to Bilivert's increased interest during his mature period in biblical and mythological subjects lending themselves to secular interpretation. Dottoressa Baldassari, who has seen the painting first hand, has further observed that it can be compared to the Venus, Love, and Pan in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden (inv. 1722-1728, A 300), in which the foreground angel and physiognomy of the female figure are nearly identical.
M. Gregori, in Storia delle arti in Toscana: Il Seicento, Florence, 2001, pp. 19, 20, fig. 9.
Apollo, CLV, 483, May 2002, p. 4.
F. Baldassari, La Pittura del Seicento a Firenze: Indice degli Artisti e delle loro Opere, Milan, 2009, p. 147.
PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
Private collection, Paris, by 1991.
with Galerie Canesso, Paris, 2002.