AFTER 200 YEARS, THE MASTERPIECE OF VINCENZO CAMUCCINI, THE HORATIUS COCLES, COMMISSIONED BY MANUEL GODOY IN 1813, RE-EMERGES
One of the most important and representative paintings by the Neoclassical painter Vincenzo Camuccini (Rome, 1771-1844), the Horatius Cocles, was previously known only from documentary sources, a few preparatory sketches, and an engraving of it; in fact, traces of the work had already been lost just a few years after its completion in 1815. The painting has now re-emerged from oblivion after remaining for most of the twentieth century in a Danish private collection, without the Roman painter being recognized as the author of the work, nor having its genesis connected to an exceptional client, the Spaniard Manuel Godoy, Prince of Peace.
Because the Horatius Cocles was painted in Rome, between 1813 and 1815, while Godoy, the erstwhile powerful Prime Minister to the King of Spain, Charles IV of Bourbon, was in exile in the papal capital along with the sovereign and his court, ousted from the throne by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808. A skilled politician, a bulimic upstart of power, before his ruinous fall, Godoy had also distinguished himself in Spain by his appetite for collecting. In Madrid he had put together an immense collection of over 1,000 paintings, including famous ancient masterpieces such as Velázquez’ Venus at her Mirror(Rokeby Venus) or Raphael’s AlbaMadonna, obtained through not always transparent means, as well as contemporary works commissioned from the leading artists of the time, first and foremost Goya, who painted several portraits for Godoy as well as the famous Majas, nude and clothed.
Having lost all his possessions with the exile of 1808, in Rome Godoy assembled a new collection of works of art, kept at the noble residence on Monte Celio purchased in 1813, the famous Villa Mattei known today as the Villa Celimontana. Camuccini’s Horatius Cocles also hung here, unquestionably the most significant of the many works by contemporary artists which Godoy commissioned in Rome.
Indeed, at that time, Camuccini was the virtually undisputed star of contemporary painting in the pontifical capital, a city which still played a decisive role in the artistic hubs of European culture in the early decades of the nineteenth century, based on the shared, fertile roots of classicism. The classical past of ancient Rome, consolidated by the exceptional artistic season of the Renaissance, made Rome at that time a formidable magnet for the international artistic community and for collectors from all over Europe. In the eyes of his contemporaries, Camuccini represented the most worthy heir to that noble tradition. His works with historical subjects, most of which feature virtuous characters from Roman history, such as Horatius Cocles, adopted the modern style developed in France by David and his followers such as Drouais or Suvée, but also paid an explicit, cultured homage to ancient statuary, and above all to the Renaissance tradition, particularly Raphael. It was precisely the latter artist, deeply assimilated by Camuccini in his formative years and forever revered, who constituted the model for many details of the Horatius Cocles, unmistakably inspired by the Battle of the Constantine, the last of the frescoes in the Vatican’s Raphael Rooms. The Raphaelesque model became transfigured in the rhetorical and severe language characteristic of Camuccini, based on a perfection in the drawing, a balanced distribution of the figures, a careful representation of the expressions and movements of the soul, means for achieving that sustained, cultured classicism which remained the conscious goal of much art of the time. In the Horatius, however, there are also passages of emotional involvement and uncommon sensuality, such as the splendid figure of the young Etruscan lying dying in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, already an unequivocal sign of that Romantic sensibility which, precisely in those years, was delivering a real shot in the arm to the creativity of European artists, even breaching the stronghold of Roman classicism of which Camuccini was undoubtedly one of the greatest exponents.