Attributed to Bartolommeo Baronino, with plaster work by Giulio Mazzoni. Palazzo Spada. 1548-1559; with later additions by Francesco Borromini, Vincenzo Della Greca, and Paolo Maruscelli, after 1632. Rome.

1. Façade / 2. Courtyard

3. Gian Francesco Barbieri, (Il Guercino). The Death of Dido. 1630. Oil on canvas. Galleria Spada, Rome.

4. Guido Reni. Cardinal Bernardino Spada. 1630-31. Oil on canvas. Galleria Spada, Rome. 

On Wednesday, I visited the Palazzo Spada, the former urban residence of the Spada family, and now home to the Galleria Spada, one of the many art galleries––which, as we have seen, include the Corsini and Borghese galleries––that make the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. The palace, known for its incredibly ornate façade, decorated with plaster figures by Giulio Mazzoni and antique statues, entered into the possession of the Spada family in 1632, when it was acquired by Cardinal Bernardino Spada, a brilliant diplomat and art collector who, by employing some of Rome’s greatest architects, notably the taciturn and neurotic Francesco Borromini, as well as architects Vincenzo Della Greca and Paolo Maruscelli, succeeded in giving his new residence an air of princely magnificence, which reflected his eminent position as Cardinal at the papal court in Rome, as well as his important role as papal legate to Bologna. Together with his brother Virgilio, an Oratorian Father who played a major administrative role in the work undertaken at St. Peter’s during the 1630s, Bernardino Spada amassed a spectacular art collection that included sixty-six paintings by renowned Renaissance and modern artists, at least twenty works of sculpture, and over one hundred portraits. As part of his diplomatic duties, Bernardino Spada often took on the role of an art agent or dealer, negotiating commissions for works of art from some of Italy’s greatest artists, on behalf of such illustrious patrons as the Queen of France. If one of such negotiations was to fall through, Cardinal Spada would find himself in a perfect position to get his hands on a singular masterpiece. Such an opportunity presented itself in 1631, for example, when Cardinal Spada, having arranged a commission as apostolic nuncio to the court of Louis XIII of France, for a grand history painting from the artist Gian Francesco Barbieri (known as Il Guercino) on behalf of the Queen Mother of France, Marie de Medici, learned of the Queen Mother’s exile. Unable to deliver Guercino’s painting, The Death of Dido, to his now disgraced client, Cardinal Spada purchased the work for his own collection, and displayed it in his family palace, where it can still be admired today. As papal legate to Bologna, Bernardino Spada came into contact with a number of celebrated artists from the Bolognese school of painting, the most important of whom was Guido Reni. An enthusiastic supporter of Reni, Spada was responsible for convincing Reni to complete his Abduction of Helen in 1631, after the “Divine” artist had refused to finish the work, which he been commissioned for Philip IV of Spain, due to friction between Reni and the Spanish ambassador. The Abduction was ultimately completed, but never made its way into the Spanish royal collection. Instead, as a result of Spada’s diplomatic ties with France, the picture made its way into the hands of a French collector, and can now be seen in the Louvre––Spada was to commission a respectable copy of Reni’s Abduction from Giactino Campana, a Bolognese contemporary of Reni’s, which still hangs in the palace. If Bernardino Spada was unable to secure the original of this Reni masterpiece for his own collection, he was nevertheless able to acquire another gem by the “divine” Guido Reni, a work with a much more personal significance for the Palazzo Spada––Bernardino’s own portrait, painted by the hand of the great Bolognese artist. Painted in 1630-1, just before the acquisition of the Palazzo Spada, the Reni portrait is one of the many masterpieces in this excellent collection of artwork, which forms the nucleus of the Galleria Spada’s present holdings in early modern European art.