Gate of Virtue


July 5, 2022

The Porta Virtutis is an oil painting on canvas (159x112 cm) by Federico Zuccari, datable to around 1585 (post 1581) and kept in the National Gallery of the Marche in Urbino. It is the reproduction of a previous satirical cartoon that caused a scandal for the artist and involved him in a process that made him leave Rome.


In 1578 the Bolognese Paolo Ghiselli commissioned from Zuccari, at the time one of the most prominent painters on the Roman scene, an altarpiece for the church of Santa Maria del Baraccano in Bologna depicting the Procession and vision of St. Gregory the Great. The painting was sent in 1580, but and in February-March 1581 it was rejected, accompanying it with a written, but unsigned opinion, which defined the work as shoddy and unworthy. Zuccari's offer to redo the painting was also declined, which was finally entrusted to a Bolognese, Cesare Aretusi. Zuccari, who had not been paid, retaliated at the subsequent feast of St. Luke, the patron saint of painters, on October 18 of that year, when he posted a large cartoon on a satirical theme in the church of San Luca in Rome, drawn by him and colored by his assistant Passignano, with the theme of Porta Virtutis, spending the whole morning explaining the meaning of representation to his colleagues who converged in the church. A scandal was born, the echo of which is very much alive in the correspondence of the time, which highlighted the climate of heated rivalry and extreme competition of the artists and their respective circles, organized in real regional groups in the lively Roman scene, where they converged the best talents from all over Europe. Fierce rivalries that had already taken place at the time of the disputes between Raphael, Michelangelo and their respective supporters, which will erupt exacerbated at the beginning of the following century, with the troubles that involved, among others, Caravaggio, Guido Reni, Bernini and Borromini. Ghiselli, offended by the offense, managed to have the cartoon seized, which only years later returned to the artist's availability, only to disappear in unspecified events. The scandal turned against his lifter, who, guilty of having insulted the Bolognese painters, fellow citizens of Pope Gregory XIII, was sentenced to exile, moving first to Florence and then to Venice. He then received pardon from the pope in 1583 and was able to return to Rome. There are preparatory drawings and copies of the original cartoon, including in particular that of Urbino, made on a reduced scale for Duke Francesco Maria II Della Rovere a few years later (in which, however, a thin lower strip is missing where there are the artist's tools ), by the hand of Zuccari himself, as recalled by a letter sent by the artist himself to Giulia Veterani on 20 August 1585. The work arrived in Florence with the dowry of Vittoria della Rovere, but then disappeared from the Medici inventories, only to reappear in 1978 in the auction catalog of the assets of Villa Il Paradiso in Pescia and, after a few passages, in the collection of Camilla Bruschi, before returning to Urbino.


The complex allegory is explained by inscriptions and scrolls, the meaning of which is further clarified by testimonies and descriptions, including the deposition of Zuccari himself in the minutes of the trial that concerned him. The Porta Virtutis is the large triumphal arch opening that leads to the garden of Virtue, guarded on the threshold by Minerva, as a symbol of Wisdom, which does not let in the Vices and which crushes the monster of Ignorance. The arch is decorated with allegorical statues of Fame, Love and Study, Intelligence, Fatigue (Labor) and Diligence. In the walled garden are the Graces, the Spirit, and four figures that raise a white painting with the eloquent inscription Tabula Zuccari: they are the Invention, the Drawing, the Color and the Decor. In the foreground, outside the door, stand three groups of monstrous figures. Left flattery and persuasion