Jusepe de Ribera (called Lo Spagnoletto) (Spanish, active 1591–1652)
Etching, only state
6 1/8 x 4 7/8 in. (162 x 125 mm)
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1930 (30.54.69)
Dressed in voluminous robes, crowned with laurel, and leaning on a stone with head in hand, Ribera's poet is one of the most striking images of the artist's early career. Although Ribera painted numerous isolated figures of philosophers, this moody portrayal of a writer stands apart. The image is particularly compelling in early impressions, such as this, which is printed with tone on a grayish white paper, accentuating the folds of the robe and the deep shadows around the face.
The iconography, a synthesis of the attributes of Melancholy and Poetry, has been explored in detail by scholars, who have found literary parallels ranging from verses by Walther von der Vogelweide (1170?1230) to works by Petrarch and Lorenzo de' Medici. An alternative suggestion that the poet is Virgil seems a viable one, especially since his tomb was traditionally thought to be in Naples. Generally identified with a columbarium, or dovecote mausoleum, above the "Grotto," or tunnel, of Posilipo, this purported burial place of the famous poet was a tourist attraction beginning at least in the sixteenth century. A well-known legend had it that on top of the tomb grew a bay tree that continued to blossom over the centuries while its roots forced their way through the stone, causing fissures to appear.