STROZZI, Bernardo
(b. 1581, Genova, d. 1644, Venezia)

The Charity of St Lawrence

Oil on canvas, 119 x 160 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

St Lawrence was a Christian martyr of Spanish birth who died in Rome in 258, one of the most venerated saints since the 4th century. He was ordained deacon by Pope Sixtus II and met his death shortly after the pope's own martyrdom. Tradition has it that the pope, when arrested, instructed Lawrence to give away to the poor the church's treasures, consisting of precious vessels and money, for which, as deacon, he was responsible. No sooner had he done so than Lawrence was ordered by the Roman prefect to surrender them to him, whereupon Lawrence, indicating the poor and sick around him, said, 'Here are the treasures of the Church'. For this he was condemned to be roasted on a gridiron, a torture he underwent with equanimity, merely observing, 'See, I am done enough on one side, now turn me over and cook the other'.

This is one of the earliest and best versions of a painting by Strozzi that enjoyed great popularity and that was repeated many times by the artist. In this series of similar versions the Rome painting was probably preceded only by a canvas in the Royal Palace in Genoa, which has a reversed composition. The proposed dating of the picture is 1615-20, before the creation of most of the other replicas and before the creation of a later, completely different version of the same subject that belongs to the artist's Venetian sojourn (c. 1630-1644). This dating places the canvas in a period when Strozzi was adopting a new naturalism after coming into contact with Caravaggio's works in Genoa. At the same time, however, he did not abandon the lessons learned from the Tuscans, above all from Matteo Rosselli. The Caravaggesque influences are evident here in the accentuated definition of the light-dark contrasts and in the composition of a scene with four half-figures.

Stylistically close to the Calling of St Matthew now in Worcester, this painting is considered the chief masterpiece of Strozzi's early career.