There is a debate as to whether Giaquinto, a Neapolitan artist who spent most of his career in Rome, should be regarded as Roman or Neapolitan. Hersey, curator of the 1987 exhibition A Taste for Angels, in which this painting was included, believed the latter. Clark, on the other hand, was unequivocal that Giaquinto was essentially a Roman artist despite his southern roots. There can be no doubt that St. Cecilia, as a subject, had a particular appeal in Rome. The saint, a pious Roman Christian, who lived around 225 A.D., inspired her husband Valerianus through music to convert to Christianity on their wedding day. She was later martyred but venerated as early as 545 A.D. In the 9th century her remains were taken to the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome which became a center of her cult.
Music was St. Cecilia’s attribute, and she is usually portrayed looking heavenward while playing the organ. Raphael showed her with musical instruments, including an organ while Guido Reni showed her with a violin in 1606. Rome in the 18th century was an important center for music. Scarlatti and Gluck opened operas there, Pier Leone Ghezzi was known as an accomplished performer, but the primary center of music in 18th-century Rome was the Vatican with its support for the performance of liturgical music. The fourteen-year- old Mozart famously witnessed a performance of Allegri’s Miserere in 1770 and is said to have later put the score down on paper from memory. That year he was awarded the Order of the Golden Spur by Pope Clement XIV. In 1727 Sebastiano Conca had been commissioned to decorate the ceiling of the titular church in Trastevere with a fresco depicting the Glorification of St. Cecilia.
This canvas, clearly intended for private devotion, shows Giaquinto at his most Roman. It relates to two similar, earlier compositions by Sebastiano Conca painted ca. 1740 (Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 88.342) and can be compared in its palette and elegant drawing to works by Giaquinto like the Medea (Hinton Ampner Place, National Trust, 1530091) also a single seated female figure dateable to ca. 1750–52. The palette of salmon pink, pale blue and orange and the elegant French draftsmanship shows a departure from Conca’s cool tonalities, even if Giaquinto achieves here what Hersey characterizes as a ‘sumptuous clarity worthy of Maratti or Sacchi’.❖