The Giant Orion, c. 1616-17
(Presumably) commissioned from the artist by a Roman patron.
Ricchini collection, Villa Cheirasca, Italy.
Romanengo collection, Genoa, since 1873.
Their sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 2 Feb. 2018, lot 274.
Y. Primarosa, ‘Nuova Luce su Carlo Saraceni: la Madonna del Pilar di S. Maria in Monserrato e altri inediti’, in Storia dell’Arte, Winter 2018, pp. 74-75 (illus. fig. 7; as Carlo Saraceni, painted in Rome).
According to the lost Astronomia by the Greek author Hesiod, the giant Orion was a hunter and the son of the sea-god Poseidon and a Princess from Crete. After walking over the waves to the island of Chios, Orion attacked Merope, daughter of the ruler Oenopion, in a drunken stupor. Oenopion blinded Orion in retribution, and the injured giant made his way to Lemnos where Helios, the Sun, restored his vision at the break of dawn. After Orion was killed by a scorpion’s sting, Zeus elevated Orion to the Heavens as a constellation. The scorpion was placed alongside him. This painting is likely to represent the moment Orion’s vision is restored, as he shields his gaze from the glare of the rising sun.
A number of sources appear to have inspired Saraceni’s composition and handling. For instance, Saraceni would have been aware of the Belvedere Torso, which is documented in the collection of Cardinal Prospero Colonna in Rome from the 1430s, and which was widely influential on artists including Michelangelo and Raphael. Saraceni would also have known the work of the Carracci, and that of Giovanni Lanfranco, who returned to Rome from Parma in 1612. Indeed, he worked alongside Lanfranco on the decorative scheme of the Sala de’ Corazzieri and the Sala Regia of the Palazzo del Quirinal in 1616-17. The landscape background can be compared to that seen in Saraceni’s Diluvio universale (Deluge), in particular the treatment of the breaking dawn light along the horizon. Further to this, the gesture of the figure at far left, with his hands raised, is directly comparable to the gesture made by Orion.
The painting was presumably intended to hang high on a wall, making the dramatic foreshortening all the more intense. This also rendered a detailed landscape irrelevant, and the background is painted fairly sketchily in comparison to the figure, which makes a secure identification of the building more difficult. Based on a date of execution towards the end of Saraceni’s life, it is reasonable to presume the Orion was commissioned by a Roman patron. More recently, the painting is recorded in the Ricchini collection, Villa Cheirasca; and subsequently in the Romanengo collection, Genoa, since 1873.
We are grateful to Prof. Giulia Aurigemma for endorsing the attribution of the figure of Orion to Saraceni on the basis of photographs, pointing to the influence of Orazio Borgianni around this time; see, for instance, his St. Christopher (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) (written communication, June 2018). Prof. Aurigemma wonders whether another artist may have been responsible for the landscape background, although she is unable to rule definitively without a first-hand inspection. We are also grateful to Dr. Yuri Primarosa, who endorses the attribution to Saraceni and has published it as such.