Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad, Dollar Princesses?

  • Posted by: Amanda Norbutus
  • Posted Date: August 5, 2014
  • Filed Under: History

      On March 2, 1901, the New York Times announced that Miss Jennie Berry Bruton of Oak Hill, Georgia made a smart marital match when she wed Prince Enrico Ruspoli of Rome, Italy.[1] During the Gilded Age (roughly from 1870-1914), America was not only the land of opportunity for domestic and foreign laborers seeking high-wage, industrial jobs, but also poor royal immigrants who were willing to trade their noble titles for the dowry of an American heiress. The Dollar Princesses, as they were known at the time, were usually the daughters of millionaire businessmen who ran industries vital to the age of Industrialism, such as iron and steel manufacturing, oil production, and shipbuilding. Many dollar princesses, including Consuelo Vanderbilt (the wife of Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough) and Lady Randolph Churchill (the mother of British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill), possessed elite social status as the daughters of millionaires, and often they married princes, dukes, and earls to attain the ultimate form of social respect by becoming European aristocracy.[2] Jennie Berry became Princess Eugenia Ruspoli, but unlike many dollar princesses she married with the intention of gaining international prominence and competing against male socialites as an avid art collector and philanthropist of great personal wealth.            

      During the Gilded Age there were many names for women like Jennie Bruton who were worth millions, but married into the aristocracy: Gilded Age Heiress, Buccaneer, Title Hunters and Dollar Princess.[3] Unmarried, dollar princesses wanted a royal title because in an American society where nobility status never existed, such a title signified social eminence on an international scale.  These women read pamphlets that identified several European men as royal bachelors and sought out self-help guides that educated dollar princesses about the etiquette of the aristocracy.[4] On the other hand, several European nobles, like Don Enrico Ruspoli, inherited a royal title, but they did not have the money American heiresses possessed so they travelled to America to find a spouse. While America was economically prosperous from 1870-1914, Europe saw an economic downturn because it had not fully transitioned from an agriculture-based economy to an industrialized one.[5]

            Jennie Berry may not have been the daughter of a multi-millionaire businessman, but she was a dollar princess. In the first place, all dollar princesses inherited their wealth from a male relative in the Gilded Age. In 1892, Berry became an affluent widow when her husband, Henry Bruton, died from an ulcerative colon at the age of forty-two. At the time of Bruton’s death, Jennie inherited millions from her husband who was a business partner in the Nashville-based, tobacco company, American Snuff Manufacturing.[6] The second characteristic of a “buccaneer” was that she practically “auctioned off” her dowry to the most notable, but impoverished prince she could find, resided in Europe, and then willingly paid for all of their marital expenses in exchange for the title of princess. When Jennie wed the poor prince Enrico in 1901, she moved to Rome and used her own money to purchase all their necessities, including the 85-room, Castle at Nemi where they resided together for eight years until Enrico died of an unknown illness at the age of 31.[7] Even after Enrico’s death Eugenia sought to marry the most prominent nobleman she knew because in 1913 she became engaged to (but never married) 69-year-old spendthrift, Don Filippo Orsini, the eighteenth Duke of Gravina, Italy.[8] Even though the Ruspolis did not have any children of their own, Jennie still took advantage of her privilege by passing down the title of princess to her adopted daughter (in actuality, her niece) Maria Theresa (1923-2004) who later reaffirmed the royal status Jennie gave to her when she married Russian prince, Alexis Droutzkoy (1898-1976) in 1945.[9]

       Unlike many other dollar princesses, Princess Ruspoli was deeply interested in art collecting and philanthropy. Eugenia shrewdly managed her wealth and assets like a businesswoman. Throughout Ruspoli’s life she maintained her finances well by not overspending and going into debt. Eugenia also made financial investments in stocks, real estate, and prized European art that would have yielded millions if she sold them. With five locations to store her artwork (the Castle of Nemi, two American residences, a New York art salon, and Lincoln Warehouse in New York), Princess Ruspoli was able to house many paintings, large and small, that could decorate entire walls.[10] Eugenia’s art collection consisted of a majority of religious paintings produced by mostly Italian and Flemish painters from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Although historians are unsure of how many paintings Eugenia owned, we do know that many of her paintings initially resided in the Castle of Nemi, along with some Italian furniture and sculptures.[11] Besides being an art collector, Princess Ruspoli was also a philanthropist. Like many famous art collectors, Eugenia believed in making art accessible to the public by donating several of her paintings to churches, universities, and museums. She strove to foster some kind of education and appreciation for Baroque and Renaissance art in church parishioners, students, and museum-goers.[12]       

      As a dollar princess, Eugenia Ruspoli created a name for herself as an art collector and philanthropist during the male-dominated Gilded Age. When multi-millionaire businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick flaunted their wealth to the world via purchasing residential estates, acquiring countless paintings, and donating artwork to non-profit organizations, Princess Ruspoli did the same.[13] Eugenia ambitiously worked to make financial agreements and create political alliances with individuals who enabled her to increase her social status domestically and abroad. First, Ruspoli’s royal marriage afforded her the opportunity to meet and buy a castle filled with valuable European paintings from the famous Orsini family in 1902.[14] Then Eugenia used her personal wealth to purchase private homes in America and collect other artwork over the span of thirty-two years.[15] And lastly, Princess Ruspoli gave countless paintings and Italian furniture to museums, colleges, and churches she deemed worthy of owning treasured items from her private art collection. Furthermore, Eugenia wanted more than a royal title to enhance her elite status; she desired to compete with the male millionaires of her time who were favorably portrayed as big spenders and philanthropists. Overall, as a woman, Ruspoli proved to the world that millionaire American women could not only be as wealthy, cultured, and philanthropic as men, but also more cunning than these businessmen because they married European royals in order to be forever remembered as aristocrats in America and Europe.


Menika Dirkson

Graduate Student

History Department

Villanova University


[1] “DON ENRICO RUSPOLI WEDS.; Is Married in Washington to Mrs. Bruton of Nashville, Tenn,” The New York Times, (Washington, D.C.), (March 2, 1901), accessed March 13, 2014, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F6071FF73B5D12738DDDAA0894DB405B818CF1D3&action=click&module=Search&region=searchResults%230&version=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fquery.nytimes.com%2Fsearch%2Fsitesearch%2F%3Faction%3Dclick%26region%3DMasthead%26pgtype%3DHomepage%26module%3DSearchSubmit%26contentCollection%3DHomepage%26t%3Dqry326%23%2Fruspoli.

[2] Ruth Brandon, The Dollar Princesses: Sagas of Upward Nobility, 1870-1914, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1980.

[3] The History Chicks, “Shownotes-Episode 9: Gilded Age Heiresses”, The History Chicks.com, posted 2 June 2011, accessed March 13, 2014, http://thehistorychicks.com/?tag=gilded-age-heiresses.

[4] Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace, To Marry An English Lord, New York City: Workman Publishing Company, 2012.

[5] Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like It In The World; The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863–1869, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

[6] Ancestry.com, Tennessee, City Death Records, 1872-1923 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA, accessed January 23 2014, ancestry.com

[7] Mary Alsop King Waddington, Italian Letter’s of a Diplomat’s Wife, January-May, 1880, February-April, 1904, New York City: C. Scribner’s sons, 1905.

[8] “La Marquise De Fontenoy”, Chicago Daily Tribune, (June 27, 1913), Newspapers.com, accessed March 24, 2014, www.newspapers.com/image/#28633639.

[9] “Deaths Elswhere: Italian Princess Dies in New York,” The Miami News, (Jan. 27 1951), GoogleNews.com, accessed March 13, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2206&dat=19510127&id=F6IyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IewFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4820,6538404.

[10] International Foundation for Art Research, “Nothing But Empty Frames,” Stolen Art Alert 5.4 (May 1984): 1-28. 

[11] George T. Radan and Richard G. Cannuli, OSA, Villanova University Art Collection, Villanova: Villanova University Press, 1986.

[12]Rita H. DeLorme, “The princess, a painting and a Georgia Church,” Southern Cross, (Dec. 22, 2011): 5, accessed, Oct 22 03:35 EDT 2013, diosav.org/sites/all/files/…/A%2012-22-2011%20CROSS%205.pdf‎.

[13] Collecting in the Gilded Age: Art Patronage in Pittsburgh, 1890-1910, Pittsburgh: Frick Art & Historical Center, 1997.

[14] “Biography: Eugenia Ruspoli; Italian Countess,” Berry College Memorial Library, August 29 2013, accessed Oct 22 02:16 EDT 2013, http://libguides.berry.edu/content.php?pid=426504&sid=3489581.

[15] DeLorme, “The princess, a painting and a Georgia Church”‎.

Generous Support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation Allows Conservation Team to X-Ray “Triumph of David”

We are most pleased to announce that, in May 2014, the project Conserving a Giant: Resurrecting Pietro da Cortona’s “Triumph of David” was awarded a substantial grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. These funds will be utilized in a number of ways, to help both produce and disseminate further information knowledge about Villanova University’s large canvas – and no doubt about seventeenth-century Italian painting more broadly – to in a number of arenas and in a variety of audiences, both general and academic. 

The Kress foundation praised the interdisciplinary nature of the project, which has involved thus far a number of department and offices at Villanova, and the participation of scholars and students of art conservation, chemistry, history, and art history. We are very happy that this support will be used to further specifically interdisciplinary investigations, and that it will continue to allow Villanova faculty to engage this painting in both teaching and research, with both undergraduate and graduate students, and with both the public at large and the wider academic community.  This grant will allow us to involve even more students, professors, and departments on campus, and it will enable us to develop further cooperation with art historians of Roman Baroque painting, art conservators, and scholars at institutions with connections to the painting and its donor. 

Most immediately, the Kress funding will allow for technicians from General Electric to perform X-radiography and other technical analysis on the gigantic canvas, and other early modern paintings in Villanova’s collection. Several large canvas paintings by Pietro da Cortona were examined using X-radiography during a technical study in 1997-8, revealing characteristic unique to the artist’s working method.  X-radiography of the Villanova painting will allow the conservation to establish a dialogue with other scholars and art historians who are more familiar with Pietro da Cortona as well as artists related to his circle.

With this grant, members of the Conserving a Giant conservation team and Falvey Library will collaborate with Villanova University’s Computing Sciences Department and with UNIT (the IT Department) to create a “webexhibit” exploring the Triumph of David. This website will enable members of the conservation team as well as chemistry and art history faculty and students to compile, organize, and share their research with a wider audience. The “webexhibit” will remain a permanent fixture on Villanova’s server, thus providing an attractive and interactive site for prospective students, outside scholars, and the general public, and moreover, serving chemistry and art history courses for years to come.

Funding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation will allow members of the team at Villanova to travel to Rome in spring of 2015, to view a number of frescoes and canvas paintings by the artist, and by important members of his workshop, to gain further insights about his painting methods.  We will be meeting with art historians and conservators who have worked on seventeenth-century painting, to learn from them and, with what we have discovered through conservation and research undertaken at Villanova, to share our own experiences and knowledge. The grant, together with support from Villanova University, will additionally fund an international, interdisciplinary symposium investigating Pietro da Cortona’s workshop in seventeenth-century Rome. This symposium will involve a number of scholars and students from various fields who have contributed to the Conserving a Giant project, and we will be able to invite eminent scholars of Baroque painting. The symposium will serve as both a culmination to the multi-year conservation project, and at the same time a new beginning, with new knowledge and insights shared among and between established and emerging art historians, scientists, and conservators, and, indeed, with all of the Villanova community.    


– Tim McCall

Professor of Art History

Villanova University




Introducing American Royalty

  • Posted by: Maggie Bearden
  • Posted Date: February 10, 2014
  • Filed Under: History

In 1950, Princess Eugenia Ruspoli, an American-born woman who became an Italian noble through marriage, donated Pietro da Cortona’s Triumph of David painting to Father Daniel P. Falvey of Villanova College as one of many artistic gifts to decorate the walls of the newly established Falvey Library. Throughout Princess Ruspoli’s life she was not only an art lover, but also a collector of rare, eloquent, religious paintings.[1] In fairytales, young women who marry princes live happily ever after, but Princess Ruspoli’s story was nothing of that sort. Princess Ruspoli’s family came from old money, and they were prestigious militarily and notorious politically. Eugenia’s prince chased after her, yet he likewise took advantage of her financially. Prince Ruspoli unexpectedly died in the prime of his life, and in his will ousted Eugenia from the majority of their marital property.[2] Princess Ruspoli had her wealth, fame, and share of legal woes, but one mystery about Eugenia remains – was it egoism or her Catholic faith that led her to give much of her prized art collection to churches, colleges, and museums during her lifetime?

The life of our philanthropist began on October 19, 1861 when Princess Ruspoli was born Jennie Enfield Berry to Frances Rhea (1838-1926) and Thomas Berry (1821-1887) on her family’s Turkey Town Plantation in Etowah County, Alabama.[3] The eldest of eight children, Jennie came from two socially-prominent family lines. Her mother was the daughter of affluent plantation owners in Alabama, while her Tennessee-born father was a first lieutenant in the Battalion of Georgia Mounted Volunteers during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and a captain in the Confederate Alabama Infantry during the Civil War (1861-1865).[4] To add more glory to her family’s name, Jennie Berry’s paternal grandfather, James Enfield Berry (1790-1857), was the first mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee (the fourth largest city in Tennessee today) when he occupied the position for one year in December 1839.[5]

By 1870 Jennie Berry was documented in the U.S. Federal Census as living in Rome, Georgia on her family’s estate, Oak Hill. At this time, Berry’s father was a merchant who worked with a group of business partners (including two of his brothers) in Berrys and Company, an entity that functioned as a grocery wholesaler and buyer and seller of cotton. Berry’s family was so well-off that the family now lived in a Greek revival home with two live-in servants. Also, Berry’s mother held $1,000 in real estate while her father held $4,500 in real estate and had $15,000 in personal estate; in today’s figures, the Berry family’s total property wealth would be $372,000! Furthermore, Berry had a stable family life and throughout her youth her parents cultivated a cosmopolitan sensibility in Jennie by sending her to study in Europe.[6]

At the age of 27, Berry wed for the first time on May 7, 1889, to the Dublin-born tobacco manufacturer Henry Bruton, in Nashville, Tennessee.[7] Bruton was a partner in the American Snuff Manufacturing Company along with his brothers and businessman Martin J. Condon – until his death from “outer colitis” (simply put, an ulcerative colon) on December 5, 1892.[8] After Bruton’s death, Berry inherited millions and became an American socialite in her own right. By 1901, she had met the Italian noble Don Enrico Ruspoli, a 23-year-old prince associated with the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C. who came from a “financially poor” branch of the Roman Ruspoli family. Berry and Ruspoli parted ways, yet Ruspoli later followed her to Georgia to ask for her hand in marriage.[9] On March 2 of that same year, the couple was married by Monsignor Martinelli before the Nuncio of the Holy See in Washington, D.C., and Jennie became an Italian citizen and princess. The Ruspolis later moved to Italy and took up residence in Rome.[10]

By 1902, she solidified her status as a princess by changing her name and religious affiliation and by acquiring historic and artistic treasures. First, Jennie renamed herself “Eugenia,” which means “well-born” and is also the name of two famous Christian saints, Saint Eugenia of Rome (d. 258 AD) and Blessed Eugenia Smet (1825-1871). Second, she converted to Catholicism to coincide with the faith of her husband. And third, Princess Ruspoli bought from the Orsini family the 85-room, Castle of Nemi (located in the province of Rome, overlooking the famous lake of the same name) with her own funds, but the purchase was filed under Prince Ruspoli’s name.[11] After obtaining the castle, Princess Ruspoli collected several rare paintings created by Italian and Flemish Baroque artists including as Giambattista Pittoni (1687-1767) and Pieter Neeffs I (1578-1656).[12]

On December 4, 1909, Eugenia became a widow again when Prince Ruspoli died in Nemi Castle after suffering from a long-term, unknown illness.[13] Not long after the prince’s death, Princess Ruspoli learned that her husband had left most of their marital property, including the castle, to his siblings. Thus began a prolonged legal dispute over the castle where she resided and housed her art collection. The quarrel ended seven years later, at which time Eugenia was granted the castle she had originally bought with her own money.[14] By 1931, Eugenia regularly travelled from Italy to the United States and she maintained her own art salon in New York City. During that same year Ruspoli also began to donate her art collection, including what seems to be a sixteenth-century copy of Correggio’s altarpiece known as Il Giorno, or the Madonna of St. Jerome (originally for Parma’s church of Sant’Antonio Abate but now in the town’s Galleria Nazionale), which was granted to Father Joseph Cassidy of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rome, Georgia.[15]

By 1942, with World War II raging, Princess Ruspoli resided in the United States, having fled Italy under the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. She soon encountered further troubles when the Castle of Nemi was “requisitioned” by the Italian government and “turned over” to the German Luftwaffe. Her family would later claim that the Nazis looted and/or destroyed “over a million dollars in art treasures, paintings and the like and only five pictures were salvaged.” These paintings, with Pietro da Cortona’s canvas among them, were shipped to the U.S. once the war was over.[16] As late as 1949 (five years after the Germans vacated the structure), it was reported that sixteen, bombed-out refugee families were still living in the castle as squatters. Even though Princess Ruspoli was never absolutely certain who extensively damaged the castle, she went after the Italian government for over $1,000,000 in compensation for her war-torn castle.[17]

Despite the various legal disputes troubling Eugenia Ruspoli late in her life, she continued to donate her art treasures. In 1949, she granted two paintings to Villanova University, and in the following year additional works, including Pietro da Cortona’s Triumph of David.[18] On the night of January 26, 1951 – at the age of 89 – Princess Ruspoli died in her New York City apartment. Before her death, she wanted to continue giving, and she planned, once pending litigation was settled, to donate the Castle of Nemi to the Holy See, to be used as an American-Italian educational center.[19] A few years later, in memory of the generous Eugenia, her family her family paid $900 ($7,600 in today’s figures) for the framing and conservation of Pietro da Cortona’s The Triumph of David, and they and donated additional early modern European paintings to Villanova.[20] In the end, no one knows exactly why Princess Ruspoli gave Villanova so many valuable artworks. Historians are currently not aware of any journals or letters she authored that may provide insight into her motives for making charitable donations to the university. Therefore, the reader of her tale must weigh, did Eugenia donate those paintings just to receive accolades from local newspapers and her peers, or did Ruspoli give them away in her old age to educate young college students?  Overall, it can safely be said that Princess Ruspoli, a millionaire and a Catholic convert, chose to donate her collection because she did not need it financially, and she wanted a Catholic educational institution to treasure the religious paintings as she once did.

By Menika Dirkson


[1] Rita H. DeLorme, “The princess, a painting and a Georgia Church,” Southern Cross, (Dec. 22, 2011): 5, accessed, Oct 22 03:35 EDT 2013, diosav.org/sites/all/files/…/A%2012-22-2011%20CROSS%205.pdf‎.

[2] La Marquise De Fontenoy, “Wills Relatives His Wife’s Money: Don Enrico Ruspoli Makes a Pauper of His American Wife,” The Time Dispatch (Richmond, VA), (Dec. 25, 1909): 6, accessed Oct 22 03:49 EDT 2013, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038615/1909-12-25/ed-1/seq-6/.

[3] “Biography: Eugenia Ruspoli; Italian Countess,” Berry College Memorial Library, August 29 2013, accessed Oct 22 02:16 EDT 2013, http://libguides.berry.edu/content.php?pid=426504&sid=3489581.

[4] “Biography: Capt. Thomas Berry (1821-1887): Soldier, Farmer and Merchant, Father of Martha Berry,” Berry College Memorial Library, January 23 2014, accessed Oct 22 02:16 EDT 2013, http://libguides.berry.edu/content.php?pid=426504&sid=3489581.[3] “Biography: Eugenia Ruspoli; Italian Countess,” Berry College Memorial Library, August 29 2013, accessed Oct 22 02:16 EDT 2013, http://libguides.berry.edu/content.php?pid=426504&sid=3489581.

[5] “Biography: James Enfield Berry (1790-1857): First Mayor of Chattanooga,” Berry College Memorial Library, January 23, 2013, accessed Oct 22 02:16 EDT 2013, http://libguides.berry.edu/content.php?pid=426504&sid=3489581.

[6] Washington, D.C., National Archives, U.S. Census Bureau, 1870 US Census, accessed January 22, 2014, http://www.ancestry.com.

[7] “Biography: Eugenia Ruspoli; Italian Countess.”

[8] Ancestry.com, Tennessee, City Death Records, 1872-1923 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA, accessed January 23 2014, ancestry.com

[9] “Titled Husband Wanted the Dot: Rich Georgia Woman Contest Will of Enrico Ruspoli That Made Her a Beggar,” The San Francisco Call, (Feb. 26, 1910):43, accessed, Oct 22 03:53 EDT 2013, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1910-02-27/ed-1/seq-43/.

[10] “Mrs. Jennie Barton Will Wed Don Enrico: Wealthy Southern Widow and Son of Italian Prince to Be Married at Washington,” The San Francisco Call, (Mar. 2, 1901):2, accessed, Jan 23 13:11 EDT 2014, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1901-03-02/ed-1/seq-2/.

[11] “Biography: Eugenia Ruspoli; Italian Countess.”

[12] George T. Radan and Richard G. Cannuli, Villanova University Art Collection: A Guide, Villanova: Villanova University, 1986.

[13] Mary Alsop King Waddington, Italian Letter’s of a Diplomat’s Wife, January-May, 1880, February-April, 1904, New York City: C. Scribner’s sons, 1905.

[14] “Biography: Eugenia Ruspoli; Italian Countess.”

[15] DeLorme, “The princess, a painting and a Georgia Church.”

[16] Sanford Schnier, “Caught in Italian Red Tape: Russian Prince Wants His Castle Returned,” The Miami News, (Oct 27, 1957): 15A , accessed, Jan. 23 2014 15:14 EDT, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2206&dat=19571027&id=EJQzAAAAIBAJ&sjid=neoFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2376,4592300.

[17] George Bria, “Castle Squatters a Problem for Italian Government,” St Petersburg Times, (Dec. 13, 1949):18, accessed, Jan. 23 2014 14:57 EDT, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=888&dat=19491213&id=NBxPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ek4DAAAAIBAJ&pg=5011,2097931.

[18] Radan and Cannuli, Villanova University Art Collection, 39.

[19] “Deaths Elsewhere: Italian Princess Dies in New York,” The Miami News (Jan. 27, 1951):7A,accessed, Jan. 23 2014 15:44 EDT, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2206&dat=19510127&id=F6IyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IewFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4820,6538404.

[20] “McClees Galleries Frame Receipt June 26 1956,” Ardmore: McClees Galleries, 1956.

Heck of a Find

  • Posted by: Rachel Godat
  • Posted Date: November 18, 2013
  • Filed Under: History

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, The Triumph of Divine Providence and the Fulfillment of her Ends under the Papacy of Urban VIII, 1633-1639, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

Pietro da Cortona, The Triumph of Divine Providence and the
Fulfillment of her Ends under the Papacy of Urban VIII,
Fresco, 1633-1639, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

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.

Conserving a Giant: Resurrecting Pietro da Cortona’s “Triumph of David”


Welcome to our weekly blog detailing the conservation treatment of Pietro da Cortona’s “Triumph of David”, a large-scale oil on canvas that currently resides in “Old Falvey,” Falvey Memorial Library’s original wing. The painting first came to the University in 1956, donated by the late Princess Eugenia Ruspoli who inherited the artwork from her late Italian husband, Prince Enrico Ruspoli. For much of its life, the “Triumph of David” hung within the walls of Castle Nemi. The castle sustained significant damages during World War II which may partly explain the current condition of the painting. Pietro Berrettini da Cotrona was perhaps best known for his work as an architect, however the artist and his workshop executed several exquisite fresco cycles in addition to a number of canvas paintings. As only a hand-full of Pietro’s canvas paintings can be found in museum collections, the University is make a concerted effort to restore the artwork and promote collaborative research amongst art historians, conservators, and scientists. More information can be found in the recent press release.

Villanova now joins a hand-full of cultural institutions and conservation laboratories that have begun to embrace the concept of “visible conservation.” A permanent space in Old Falvey’s reading room has been allocated for the project, allowing students as well as the general public to observe the treatment process and even interact with the conservation team. A schedule will soon be posted, listing dates/times for formal tours and a live web-cam will add an interactive element to the project. This will help to raise awareness of contemporary conservation methods, the history of the painting, and the upcoming renovation of the Library’s reading room.

Collaboration on Campus

An exciting aspect of the project will involve the collaborative efforts of scholars, faculty, staff members, and students, interactions that will occur on a daily basis in the publically accessible conservation space. Dr. Anthony Lagalante, Dr. Amanda Norbutus, and graduate student Kristen Watts from the Chemistry Department will be working alongside the conservation team, performing pigment analysis in an effort to learn more about the materials used by Pietro and his workshop. Dr. Mark Sullivan, Dr. Timothy McCall, and senior undergraduate student Rachel Godat from Art History will be offering their expertise as well, helping the conservation team to gather more information relating to the artist, his workshop, and other aspects of the painting’s provenance. Finally, Darren Poley and the library staff will be integral in the promotion of the project and it’s connection to the upcoming renovation of the Library’s Old Wing. Future events will be announced as the treatment progress and will likely include lectures, symposia, web projects, and/or interactive workshops.

The Conservation Treatment

Detail Showing OverpaintThe treatment of the painting will be carried by painting conservator Kristin deGhetaldi over a period of two years with the help of conservation interns and graduate students (currently Maggie Bearden and Emily Wroczynski). The painting is presently covered with several layers of discolored and degraded over-paint and varnish, unoriginal materials that have aged poorly and now obscure the original colors of Pietro’s vibrant palette. Conservators are professionals who have specialized knowledge and skills in the arts, sciences, and other fields; responsibilities can include establishing appropriate environmental controls, stabilizing the structure of an object, compensating for surface disfigurement from deterioration and/or damage, and undertaking technical studies. A professional conservator conducts these activities according to the Code of Ethics of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

In years past, those interested in becoming a conservator would typically enlist as an apprentice in a restoration studio. Today, however, most students pursue a master’s degree in art conservation after obtaining a bachelors degree in art history, studio art, the sciences, or other related fields. In order to be accepted into a graduate degree program in the United States, students must satisfy extensive course requirements (e.g. organic chemistry, art history/anthropology courses, a studio art portfolio, etc.) and complete a certain number of hours serving as a volunteer/intern in a cultural institution or private studio. This pre-program experience often takes additional time beyond completion of an undergraduate degree. Students who are interested in learning more about graduate programs should also visit the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network blog.


Last Modified: October 11, 2013