Saint Peter's Square, Rome
Willem van Nieulandt the Younger
Signed, in the centre at the bottom of the panel: G.V. NIEULANT f 1612
Oil on panel, 25⅝ x 20¼ ins. (67.6 x 51.1cm)
Inscribed (lower left, on the obelisk) SIXTUS V.P.M./ AN MDLXXXVI/
PONT II/ECCE CRVX DO/ MINI EVGITE/ PARTES ADVERS/
Æ VINCIT LEO / DE TRIBV.IUDA
Anonymous sale, Sotheby’s, Amsterdam, 29 October, 2007, lot 17
Private collection, Italy, until 2017
The versatile artist, poet and playwright Willem van Nieulandt the Younger was born in Antwerp in 1584. Most of his working life was spent in Antwerp, or in Amsterdam, but a brief sojourn in Rome around 1601-04 laid the foundations for the rest of his career. Having begun his artistic education with Jacob Savery (1565/67-1603) in Amsterdam, the eighteen-year-old artist travelled to Rome in 1601 to continue his training and see at first-hand the art and architecture of Antiquity and the Renaissance. While in Rome, he lived with his uncle and teacher Willem van Nieulandt the Elder (1560-1626) on the Via Paolina (now Via del Babuino), a colourful area situated near the Piazza del Popolo, where many of the foreign artists living in the city congregated. Among the community of northern artists living there was the talented and influential Flemish landscapist Paul Bril (1553/54-1626), who had arrived in Rome around 1582. Bril ran a busy workshop and, for about a year, Willem became his pupil. The experience was, however, to have a lasting influence on both his subject matter and style. As Karel van Mander rightly observed in his Schilderboeck of 1604, Willem van Nieulandt “took his master’s manner very naturally” (i).
Whilst in the Eternal City, van Nieulandt recorded his impressions in numerous pen and wash drawings that were to provide him with a portfolio of motifs long after his return to his homeland. He was an accomplished draughtsman and his sketches of the sites of Rome are in a detailed and descriptive idiom. For the rest of his career, architectural motifs drawn from such material form the backdrop to almost all his paintings, whether biblical or mythological narratives, allegories, or scenes of contemporary life. However, whilst the artist’s drawings are topographically accurate, his paintings are invariably more fanciful, often placing familiar monuments amidst invented structures in imaginary settings. After his return to the north, a number of the artist’s drawings of Rome were engraved and included in his series of views of Rome.
This depiction of St. Peter’s Square was painted in 1612, eight years after van Nieulandt’s return to The Netherlands. The artist has taken a view from an elevated vantage point looking towards the Basilica of St. Peter’s and the Papal Palace. A multitude of people has gathered in the square to witness an important ceremonial procession. The crowd’s attention is focused on the centre foreground, where the Pope - an old man with a beard - is being carried on a throne, beneath a canopy, surrounded by footmen and members of the clergy, and flanked by members of the Swiss Guard in striped breeches. The Holy Father and his entourage are progressing slowly towards the viewer preceded by a phalanx of cardinals, three of whom bear a papal tiara. On either side, scores of the faithful kneel to receive the papal blessing. The head of the procession, having turned about the obelisk, is now making their way back to the Basilica. On the far right, canons firing a salute emit clouds of grey smoke.
The square appears as it would have been in the early seventeenth century, before the construction of Bernini’s grand colonnades which enclose the space in front of St. Peter’s today. In the background, we see the Basilica of St. Peter’s, with its mighty dome, designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564) and completed by Giacomo della Porta (c. 1537-1602) in 1569, and on the right, the complex of buildings that make up the Vatican Palace. The foreground is dominated by the so-called Vatican obelisk, an Egyptian obelisk originally brought to Rome in 37 BC by the Emperor Caligula and erected in the Circus of Nero. Its move to its present location was ordered by Pope Sixtus V in 1586, under the direction of his favourite architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607). It stands on a base designed by Fontana and is surmounted by a Christian cross atop the Pope’s family (Chigi) coat of arms – a star above three small mountains. The inscription in the painting, which is an abbreviated form of the actual inscription on the base of the monument, refers to Pope Sixtus V and the year 1586 in which the obelisk was erected in the Square, and quotes the words from a Latin prayer - ECCE CRUX DOMINI FUGITE PARTES ADVERSAE/ VICIT LEO DE TRIBV IVDA …(Behold the Cross of the Lord! Be gone all evil powers! The Lion of the tribe of Judah …) – which Sixtus had carved on the base of the obelisk. The Renaissance fountain seen in the right foreground was built in 1490 during the time of Pope Innocent VIII, but was replaced in 1613 by one designed by Carlo Maderno (1556-1629).
This painting is highly characteristic of Van Nieulandt’s painted compositions in which Roman architecture, both ancient and modern, plays a prominent role. The underdrawing, which is clearly visible beneath thinly painted washes of delicately coloured, transparent oil glazes, reveals the artist’s preoccupation with the precise delineation of architectural features. Also typical of the artist’s style are the stylized figures, with slim elongated bodies, pictured here in contemporary dress.
As Dr. Luuk Pijl and others have observed, this painting from 1612 appears to be closely related to several other Roman views, painted by van Nieulandt within a few years of each other. These include a View of the Pantheon, with Townsfolk at a Market (ii), and a View of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, dated 1610, in the Groninger Museum, Groningen (iii). All three paintings are executed on panels of near identical dimensions and share certain characteristics: in all three compositions a similar prominence is given to the main architectural feature, and there is a similarity in the scale of the figures, as well as in the general tone and colouring. In short, it seems probable that they were originally conceived as part of a series of views of contemporary Rome. With his topographically accurate views of this kind, van Nieulandt can be seen as a precursor of the genre of Italian city view – or vedute – that developed later in the seventeenth century in the work of the Dutch-born Gaspar Van Wittel , or Gaspare Vanvitelli (1652/3-1736), and was popularised in the eighteenth century by Canaletto (1697-1768), Guardi (1712-1793) and others.
The son of Adriaen van Nieulandt the Elder (c. 1562-1603?) and Geertruyd Loysen, Willem (or Guilliam, as he was known during his lifetime) van Nieulandt the Younger was born in Antwerp in 1584. His father, who was described as a quill merchant (penverkoper), seems to have been quite well off. After the birth of a second son, Adriaen van Nieulandt the Younger (1586-1658), the family moved to Amsterdam in 1589, probably for religious reasons. A third son, Jacob, was born in Amsterdam in 1593 or 1594. All three sons would become painters. In 1599, Willem II became a pupil of Jacob Savery (1565/67-1603) in Amsterdam. In 1601, he travelled to Rome, where he continued his training first with his uncle, the painter Willem (or Guilliam) van Nieulandt the Elder (1560-1626), and then with the gifted and influential Flemish landscapist Paul Bril (1553/54-1626). While in Rome, he shared a house with his uncle on the Via Paolina (now del Babuino), in which the Flemish painter Abraham Janssens (c. 1575-1632) also resided.
In 1604, Willem II left Rome and returned to Amsterdam. On 28 February 1606, he married Anna Hustaert, who had like himself been born in Antwerp but brought up in Amsterdam. Later the same year, after officially testifying that he had converted to Roman Catholicism, Willem II and his new wife returned to their place of birth, where Willem II became a member of the Guild of St. Luke and immediately took a pupil, Peerken Hermans. In the following years four children were born to the couple, of whom only Constantia (1611-1657) survived to adulthood and married the still-life painter, Adriaen van Utrecht (1599-1651) in 1628.
Besides being a painter, draughtsman and engraver, van Nieulandt was also a successful playwright and rhetorician, who wrote a number of tragedies. He was for many years a member of the Antwerp chamber of rhetoric, The De Olyftack, and later, a member the De Violieren. In 1629, van Nieulandt and his wife moved back to Amsterdam, where the artist remained active as a painter for another six years. On 24 October 1635 he drew up his will and died shortly afterwards (iv).
i Van Mander, Het Schilder-Boeck, Haarlem, 1604, I, p. 427, fol. 292r.
ii Willem van Nieulandt, A view of the Pantheon, Rome, with townsfolk at a Market, signed and dated G. V. NIEVLANT. 161, on panel, 51.1 x 67.9 cm, sold Christie’s, London, 28 April, 2006, lot 17.
iii Willem van Nieulandt, View of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, on panel, 50 x 68 cm, Groninger Museum, Groningen, inv./cat. no. 1931.0117.
iv Biographical information drawn from the article by Eric Jan Sluijter, “Career choices of migrant artists between Amsterdam and Antwerp The Van Nieulandt brothers” in De Zeventiende Eeuw 31 (2015), p. 101-137.
Willem van Nieulandt the Younger
Antwerp 1584 – 1635 Amsterdam
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