Commentary on An astronomer (Un astrónomo)
Alejandro Shaw acquired this painting as a work by Jusepe de Ribera and it was donated to the Museum by his granddaughter. In December of 1973, an Argentinean expert attributed the canvas to Giordano. In 1989, as the result of an examination of a general catalog of Ribera’s work elaborated by Nicola Spinosa in 1978, Museum investigators returned to its previous attribution to Lo Spagnoletto. In 2004, on the occasion of a show of Luca Giordano’s work, Spinosa himself presented a smaller painting, measuring 98 x 81 cm, which is clearly a derivation of the Buenos Aires work that he considered to be by a painter from Naples, identifying the figure represented as an image of the astronomer Ptolomy. Stylistic and historical arguments do exist, however, that support maintaining our painting’s attribution to Jusepe de Ribera as established in 1989.The firm drawing and clean strokes that can be seen in the facial features and thumbs of the person portrayed with their long, dirty nails remit more to the Spanish artist than they do to Luca Fà-presto (as Luca ‘Work-fast’ Giordano was also known). The wise beggar’s posture, with his back to the viewer but turning his head to observe as he holds up a few sheets of paper with drawings, recall that of the Philosopher Holding a Mirror, perhaps Socrates, from the Counts Matarazzo collection in Naples. The series of ancient thinkers in this gallery of art may have been copied from an equivalent work signed by Ribera, made especially for the Duke of Alcalá, the learned Viceroy of Naples from 1630 to 1632. That original body of work traveled to Spain and could be traced no further, although it is possible that one part of it was the group seen and described by Antonio Ponz and Ceán Bermúdez in El Escorial: “[…] Euclid, Archimedes, a blind man palpating a statue’s head, Aesop and Chrysippus considering the nature of fire”. Archimedes is the painting by the same name found in the Museo Nacional del Prado today, the “blind man” is The Allegory of Touch, also at the Prado, and the painting of Euclid may well be the piece acquired by The J. Paul Getty Museum in 2001. The thumbs in our canvas are almost identical to those on the left hand grasping a page of the book shown by Euclid.With respect to identifying our painting’s imaginary portrait, the drawings sketched on the sheet of paper that the man holds up provide us with a clue. On the lower part of that page, there is a circle from which three elongated triangles emerge as if they were projections of three different light sources’ shadows when illuminating a spherical body. In the middle of the page, there is a larger circle, the image of a round body that projects two cones of shadow quite close to one another. In the area opposite the circle, there is a strange figure, an arc from which rays are emitted and some irregular marks in the area delineated inside the large circle. This scheme could be interpreted as a graphic method for measuring the distance between the Earth and the Moon, which Ptolemy articulated in book V of The Almagest which, by way of its predecessor Hipparchus, dates back to Aristarchus, the author of the treatise On Sizes and Distances [of the Sun and Moon]. The procedure consisted of taking advantage of a lunar eclipse in order to measure the width of the shadow on the Earth at a distance from its satellite; that magnitude would allow the parallax of the Moon to be calculated and therefore its distance from the Earth to be deduced. In our drawing, the Earth is shown projecting two cones, corresponding to the two moments when the Moon enters and emerges from the area of the Earth’s shadow, placed on the same plane between the Moon and the Sun, alluded to in the small radiating arc at the shadows’ opposite extremes. Our Astronomer might be Ptolemy, Hipparchus or Aristarchus. Given that Hipparchus and Ptolemy theorized on a geocentric system and were respected by those in power at the time, while Aristarchus, the first to formulate a heliocentric hypothesis, had to confront intense persecution after being accused of impiousness by the stoic Cleanthes, it seems plausible to think that the Museum’s painting refers to Aristarchus, reduced to poverty, an inspired wise man or misunderstood and marginalized madman.Charles Salas’ admirable work on the Euclid at the Getty has raised the issue of the pleasure that Jusepe de Ribera took in engaging in this level of play with iconography. Aristarchus’ imaginary portrait would have had a doubly shocking meaning at the time. On the one hand, it would have been inscribed in the intellectual realm of the baroque period that vindicated the thinkers that Rodolfo Mondolfo called the ancient “proletariat”, from Democritus and Archimedes to Diogenes, a line consecrated with expressing non-conformity with the age, dissent with dogmas or authority, longing for freedom of thought. In the second place, it would have been an encoded mention of heliocentrism and Galileo’s book on the world’s maximum systems, published precisely in the year 1632. Perhaps the markings in the area delimited by the large circle and radiating arc in the drawing in our painting represent the sun spots that Galileo himself had discovered in 1612. It is also possible that the very learned Duke of Alcalá was a partisan of Copernicus’ thinking. Let us not forget the astonishing ancestry of this great-grandson of Hernán Cortés and direct descendant of Perafán de Ribera y Portocarrero, the first Duke of Alcalá who died in 1571 when he was Viceroy of Naples, who successfully refused to implant the tribunal of the Inquisition in the Italian territories under his control in spite of direct orders from Felipe II (1).
by José Emilio Burucúa
1— Works alluded to in the text: Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez, Diccionario histórico de los más ilustres profesores de las Bellas Artes en España. Madrid, 1800, t. 4; René Pintard, Le libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle. Paris, Boinvin, 1943; Rodolfo Mondolfo, En los orígenes de la filosofía de la cultura. Buenos Aires, Hachette, 1960; Nicola Spinosa, L’opera completa di Ribera, prologue by Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez. Milano, Rizzoli, 1978; Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez and Nicola Spinosa, Ribera 1591-1652. Madrid, Museo del Prado, 1992; Nicola Spinosa and Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez, Luca Giordano. La imagen como ilusión. Napoli, Electa, 2004; Charles G. Salas, “Elements of Ribera”, Getty Research Journal, Los Angeles, nº 1, 2009, p. 17-26.