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Bartholomeus Breen­bergh, Dutch, 1598-1657

View from Inside a Vaulted Chamber, Possibly the Villa of Maecenas in Tivoli, 1657 

Land­scape painter Bartholomeus Breen­bergh found inspi­ra­tion in the nat­ur­al and human-made tun­nels, cav­erns, and vaults he encoun­tered while liv­ing in Italy dur­ing the 1620s. The large, broad vault here appears to be one of the cham­bers found in the lower level of what Breen­bergh and his con­tem­po­raries believed was the Villa Mae­ce­nas in Tivoli, now iden­ti­fied as the Sanc­tu­ary of Her­cules Vic­tor. Bold in its exe­cu­tion, this draw­ing was pro­duced almost entire­ly with vary­ing shades of wash, or dilut­ed ink. The dark, cool atmos­phere of the inte­ri­or space encom­pass­es most of the com­po­si­tion, yet the focus of the work rests on the sun­shine and warmth just beyond the large entryway.

Signed with one of Bartholomeus Breen­bergh’s most promi­nent sig­na­tures, this draw­ing offers an evoca­tive sense of the cooled inte­ri­or of a large vault on a sunny day. Mar­cel Roeth­lis­berg­er called it a stun­ning sheet, its pow­er­ful com­po­si­tion cre­at­ing a mys­te­ri­ous­ly resound­ing hol­low space.”1

The set­ting is no doubt Italy, drawn from Breen­bergh’s expe­ri­ences there in the 1620s. In sev­er­al of his draw­ings of ancient ruins, he explored view­points from just with­in the struc­tures show­ing an open-air prospect, and used inno­v­a­tive com­po­si­tion­al for­mu­las and per­spec­tive­ly rich schemes to cre­ate bold con­trasts between inside and out­side.2

Some other note­wor­thy exam­ples dated 1627 can be found in the Rijksmu­se­um, Ams­ter­dam, and the Muse­um of Fine Arts, Boston Fig. 9.1,Fig. 9.2.3

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, View in the Colosseum in Rome
Fig. 9.1

Bartholomeus Breen­bergh, View in the Colos­se­um in Rome, 1627. Brush and pen in brown ink over black chalk or graphite, 236 × 175 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. rp-t-1989-91.

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Roman Ruins (“Coliseo”)
Fig. 9.2

Bartholomeus Breen­bergh, Roman Ruins (“Col­iseo”), 1627. Brush with brown and gray wash over black chalk or graphite, 238 × 184 mm. Boston, Muse­um of Fine Arts, inv. no. 1983.410.

Breen­bergh’s sub­tle appli­ca­tion of brown and gray wash­es in these works is the key to their effec­tive­ness in terms of mod­u­lat­ed light­ing and a per­cep­ti­ble sense of sur­face and texture.

The Ams­ter­dam draw­ing clear­ly depicts the Colos­se­um in Rome, and the Boston draw­ing prob­a­bly a vault from the same, indi­cat­ed by an early inscrip­tion on the verso. An iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the site in the present sheet, how­ev­er, has not been argued in the pre­vi­ous lit­er­a­ture. The large, broad vault appears to be one of the sta­bles” found in the lower level of the Villa of Mae­ce­nas in Tivoli, now prop­er­ly under­stood to be the Sanc­tu­ary of Her­cules Vic­tor.4

Due to the mas­sive size of the com­plex, it was long assumed to have been a villa rather than a tem­ple, but it served a vari­ety of func­tions over the cen­turies. In Breen­bergh’s day it was part of the pon­tif­i­cal armory from 1612 onward.5

Immense struc­tur­al changes to the site over the years have been too dras­tic, unfor­tu­nate­ly, to iden­ti­fy with cer­tain­ty exact loca­tions with­in the com­plex. From many of his other draw­ings of the area, we can nev­er­the­less state with con­fi­dence that Breen­bergh was indeed in Tivoli at some point.6

He depict­ed the town and its water­falls, and the famous Tem­ple of the Sibyl that had already long been a favorite sub­ject of artists. He also appears to have used the vaults of the Villa of Mae­ce­nas in anoth­er draw­ing, the impres­sive sheet in the Fon­da­tion Cus­to­dia mono­grammed and dated 1627 that Rem­brandt pupil Philips Kon­inck (1619 – 1688) described as being one of the artist’s best Fig. 9.3.7

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Roman Ruins in Tivoli
Fig. 9.3

Bartholomeus Breen­bergh, Roman Ruins in Tivoli, 1627. Pen and brush in brown ink over black chalk, 352 × 505 mm. Paris, Fon­da­tion Cus­to­dia, inv. no. 3032.

More open to the sky, it shows fig­ures under a broad vault with a stream or ditch run­ning through the mid­dle, sim­i­lar to the one faint­ly vis­i­ble in the Peck sheet, though a dif­fer­ent vault.

These works illus­trate how Breen­bergh inno­vat­ed in find­ing engag­ing view­points, and in apply­ing wash­es in cre­ative ways to sug­gest light and tex­ture. Most artists mak­ing draw­ings in Rome focused on ancient mon­u­ments as dis­crete works of notable archi­tec­ture in their own right, or (if not clear­ly iden­ti­fi­able mon­u­ments) on Roman archi­tec­ture gen­er­al­ly as a high point of ancient cul­ture. On occa­sion, Breen­bergh focused instead, as here, on the expe­ri­en­tial nature of such struc­tures, find­ing view­points that enhance one’s sense of direct per­son­al pres­ence, and that facil­i­tate a sense of won­der through tan­gi­bil­i­ty rather than fram­ing the archi­tec­ture with a doc­u­men­tary eye. The almost claus­tro­pho­bic sense that Breen­bergh man­ages to impart in this draw­ing enhances the awe­some grip of ancient archi­tec­ture in a man­ner that could be said to antic­i­pate, to some degree, the famous prints and draw­ings of Gio­van­ni Bat­tista Pirane­si (1720 – 1778). 

There has been some debate over the date of this draw­ing, whether 1627 or 1657, since the year writ­ten below the sig­na­ture is almost entire­ly cropped. Roeth­lis­berg­er declared the lat­ter date impos­si­ble given the Ital­ian sub­ject mat­ter and the vari­ant spelling of his name as Breen­borch instead of Breen­bergh, but nei­ther argu­ment is con­vinc­ing in itself.8

Breen­bergh was in the habit of mak­ing repli­ca draw­ings of his Ital­ian sub­jects after he returned to the Nether­lands in 1629.9

He also used slight vari­a­tions of the spelling of his name through­out his career.10

Franklin Robin­son argued the date as 1657, putting the draw­ing in the last year of the artist’s life.11

Indeed, it is eas­i­er to read the top part of the third digit as that of a 5.” The ear­li­er date of 1627, how­ev­er, is cer­tain­ly the cor­rect one. His other dis­tinc­tive vault inte­ri­or draw­ings dis­cussed above bear auto­graph dates of 1627.12

Breen­bergh signed his full name (rather than mono­grammed or abbre­vi­at­ed) on only four other known sheets, and each of these also bears the year 1627.13

He occa­sion­al­ly made slips of the pen or flour­ish­es on his dig­its, some­thing that bet­ter accounts for the strange appear­ance of the top of the third digit here.14

Fur­ther­more, the sub­ject mat­ter and sig­na­ture of his one known draw­ing from 1657 are entire­ly dis­sim­i­lar.15

A close­ly relat­ed draw­ing attrib­uted to the British artist Fran­cis Place (1647 – 1728) recent­ly came to light Fig. 9.4.16

Francis Place, A Grotto (The Stables of the Villa Maecenas, Tivoli?)
Fig. 9.4

Fran­cis Place, A Grot­to (The Sta­bles of the Villa Mae­ce­nas, Tivoli?), c. 1700. Pen and brown ink with brown wash over graphite, 189 × 340 mm. Wash­ing­ton, Nation­al Gallery of Art, inv. no. 2018.175.2.

It appears to be based on the Peck draw­ing, with its right half match­ing Breen­bergh’s in com­po­si­tion and scale, but with the flat­ter and more ambigu­ous appear­ance of a copy. Place’s author­ship is assumed based on its appear­ance in a group with all of his other known draw­ings, sold by a fam­i­ly descen­dent in 1931.17

The copy is impor­tant for reveal­ing what may have been the larg­er extent of Breen­bergh’s com­po­si­tion. Draw­ings from his Ital­ian peri­od could be quite large and even dou­ble the size of the present sheet. The Peck draw­ing was pos­si­bly cut down sig­nif­i­cant­ly at some point, which would account for the cropped nature of the left edge of the com­po­si­tion. It might also be a par­tial repli­ca by Breen­bergh him­self. That he was appar­ent­ly in the habit of mak­ing par­tial copies of his own works is revealed by a draw­ing in Chica­go that pre­cise­ly repro­duces the left half of the afore­men­tioned Villa of Mae­ce­nas in the Fon­da­tion Cus­to­dia.18

What­ev­er the case, one can­not help won­der­ing if the orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion was once much larger.

End Notes

  1. Roeth­lis­berg­er 1991, 78.

  2. For some other exam­ples, see Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, nos. 12, 101, 113, 152, and 161; and the works illus­trat­ed (includ­ing the present sheet) in Paris & Ajac­cio 2014 – 15, under no. 18.

  3. For the Ams­ter­dam draw­ing, see Schapel­houman & Schat­born 1998, no. 77; the sig­na­ture and date have faded con­sid­er­ably but remain leg­i­ble enough to con­firm they are by the artist’s hand. The Boston draw­ing bears an auto­graph mono­gram and date.

  4. The site has changed much, but for its treat­ment by some other (most­ly eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry) artists, see Cogot­ti 2014, 29 – 32; and for its archi­tec­ture gen­er­al­ly, Giu­liani & Ten 2016.

  5. Giu­liani & Ten 2016.

  6. For Breen­bergh in Tivoli, see espe­cial­ly Alsteens 2015. For other draw­ings set in or around Tivoli, see Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, nos. 45, 52, 87 (as Cor­nelis van Poe­len­burch [1594/95 – 1667], but actu­al­ly Breen­bergh; see Dres­den & Vien­na 1997 – 98, no. 78), 97, 98, 102, 104, 112, and 114.

  7. Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 104; and Brus­sels, Rot­ter­dam, Paris & Bern 1968 – 69, no. 26. See also Chica­go 2019 – 20, 241 – 45.

  8. Roeth­lis­berg­er 1991, 78.

  9. For the issue of Breen­bergh’s repli­ca draw­ings made after his return to the Nether­lands, see Alsteens 2015.

  10. Roeth­lis­berg­er admit­ted this (1991, 78), though it is true that he occa­sion­al­ly spelled his name Breen­borch in the years 1626 – 29, as a sur­vey of his signed draw­ings makes clear.

  11. F. Robin­son in Chapel Hill, Itha­ca & Worces­ter 1999 – 2001, no. 3. The draw­ing was pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished with the date of 1657 in Stock­holm 1953, no. 160; and in the 1974 auc­tion (see Provenance).

  12. Besides the Ams­ter­dam and Boston draw­ings illus­trat­ed in this entry, a sheet in Düs­sel­dorf can be added to this 1627 group; see Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 101; and Düs­sel­dorf 1968, no. 20.

  13. These fully signed and dated draw­ings from 1627 can be found in the Alberti­na, Vien­na (Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 99; and New York & Fort Worth 1995, no. 78); the Muse­um Boi­j­mans Van Beunin­gen, Rot­ter­dam (Jansen & Lui­jten 1988, no. 45; and Lon­don & Antwerp 1999, no. 46); and two in the Rijksmu­se­um, Ams­ter­dam (Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 107; and Schapel­houman & Schat­born 1998, nos. 76, 77). The orthog­ra­phy of the sig­na­tures is also similar.

  14. See, for exam­ple, the date on the draw­ing in Berlin; Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 20.

  15. Roeth­lis­berg­er 1969, no. 166; and Darm­stadt 1992, no. 75.

  16. For this draw­ing, see the deal­er cat­a­logue by Low­ell Lib­son & Jonny Yark­er, Lon­don & New York 2018, no. 34.

  17. Idem.

  18. For this par­tial sheet, see Chica­go 2019 – 20, 244 – 45, 291 (no. 90). Car­los van Has­selt thought it cer­tain­ly by Breen­bergh (Brus­sels, Rot­ter­dam, Paris & Bern, under no. 26); and Roeth­lis­berg­er prob­a­bly so (1969, under no. 104). Whether or not the Chica­go draw­ing was itself ever cut down is also a ques­tion worth posing.