Very little is known about the painting: not when or why it was painted, where it was originally located (perhaps Castle Nemi, perhaps not?), or even who exactly painted it. A large part of my research will be to unearth key stylistic and technical practices of Pietro da Cortona that will solidify the attribution and help us to situate the painting within the artist’s oeuvre. Additionally, better knowledge of Cortona and his workshop’s practices helps us reconsider what the painting originally looked like.
It is already known that Cortona had a large workshop, meaning that at any given time he had several apprentices learning from him by doing much of his work. Unless otherwise dictated in the contract, an artist would make the preliminary sketches and plans for a commission, hand it over to his apprentices to do much of the work and only come in to contribute to the more important figures. In the case of Villanova’s work, it is currently assumed that Cortona would have worked on Goliath’s head and possibly David and the central figures that support Goliath’s head on the pike. In ascertaining how he managed his workshop for other commissions, I will be able to develop a hypothesis of how much apprentices worked on the painting and which apprentices would have been studying with Cortona at the time. Doing this will aid the conservators should they come across areas that do not match stylistically with the rest of the painting.
Pietro da Cortona is best known for his frescoes and architecture (such as the celebrated fresco pictured here), which is where scholars have typically focused their attention. Using these sources causes problems because fresco requires a different skill set and approach to preparations than oil painting does. That being said, I can still investigate stylistic choices and information about who worked with him during these projects through articles and books that discuss his frescoes. With such limited sources, I have to get creative. For example, there is only one comprehensive book on Cortona, and it’s in Italian,which I fortunately can read. In this book, in fact, I discovered that he painted a Life of David cycle for the Sacchetti family, one of his major patrons. One of them, Triumph of David, is very similar visually to our Triumph of David, with a few compositional changes. This is a recent discovery, so I am still in the process of searching for other references to this project.