The Descent from the Cross, by Domingo Valdivieso, Oil on canvas, 254 x 343 cm, 1864. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Together with Madrid and Paris, Rome was one of the principal centres for Spanish art in the 19th century. The unique significance of the Eternal City was the result of its centuries-old importance as a venue for the training of artists. By the 19th century, however, the period spent in Rome was considered the final phase in an artist’s academic training and marked the start of professional maturity.

The Spanish artists who came to Rome were generally the recipients of official study grants and were thus obliged to produce a large narrative composition that justified their funding. Some opted for historical episodes while others, influenced by the all-prevailing presence of religion in Rome, selected sacred episodes. From 1852 onwards, and following the discovery of the original burial place of Saint Cecilia and of the papal crypt in the catacombs on the Via Appia, there was a frenzy of interest in subjects from biblical history, which would acquire enormous appeal for almost all the artists based in Rome at that time. As a result, religious paintings with a historical/archaeological focus, among which scenes of the early martyrs were particularly favoured, became one of the principal areas of interest of the Spanish painters in Rome. Such compositions allowed them to comply with the requirement for erudite content with the degree of historical accuracy required by academic exercises, but at the same time to depict episodes profoundly imbued with the religious emotion that was inherent to the European mindset in the middle years of the 19th century. From this point onwards a large number of artists succumbed to the attractions of episodes from biblical history during their Italian soggiorno.

The religious paintings produced by Spanish artists in Rome marked a highpoint in the genre throughout the 19th century and were not only limited to Early Christian themes. Biblical history in its entirety, encompassing the Old Testament, the gospel episodes of the life of Christ and stories from the lives of the saints began to be depicted with this new historical rather than solely devotional focus. Artists thus included a wide range of archaeological details taken from sources believed to be absolutely reliable at this date and which allowed them to imbue their religious scenes with a high degree of realism. It was during this period of interest in historical realism in the mid-19th century that a major stylistic change came about in both Spain and the rest of Europe.

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