This intensely poetic depiction of the Jesuit patron saint of Roman Catholic youth, St. Louis (also known as Aloysius) Gonzaga, comes from the apogee of Batoni’s early maturity. Batoni had moved to Rome in 1727 and in the 1740s established himself as the preeminent painter of altarpieces and history paintings in Rome. It was not until about 1750 that he turned his attention to the lucrative business of painting the portraits of foreign tourists.
The tender gaze of the delicately drawn young saint, the refinement of the still life details and the Subleyras-like white folds of his surplice show the virtuosity of the artist at his most appealing. It is datable to ca. 1744 when an untraced version of the same subject is recorded as having been painted for one of the artist’s most important early Lucchese patrons, Francesco Buonvisi, whose wife was the artist’s godmother. Buonvisi would commission from Batoni two great scenes from the story of Achilles now in the Uffizi (Vasari Corridor, nos. 544 and 549).
Batoni seems to have favored the oval format at this moment in his career, using it in the 1743 Ecstasy of St. Catherine of Siena (Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, Lucca, 302) the 1743 Annunciation commissioned by Pope Benedict XIV and the more domestic Penitent Magdalene (private collection, New York) painted in 1750. The Sacred Heart of Jesus of 1765–67, painted for Il Gesu and one of the most venerated images of the eighteenth century shows Batoni turning to the same format for another Jesuit commission.
The original destination for this painting is not documented. We know that he painted a smaller depiction of the subject for Francesco Buonvisi but the inscription on the back of this painting almost certainly places it in the collection of a well-known British collector and Grand Tourist, Sir Charles Turner. Turner was portrayed with his friend John Woodyeare of whom Batoni painted a portrait formerly owned by Anthony Clark (Minneapolis Institute of Art, 78.24; fig. 1) and two other visitors in a caricature by Reynolds (see cat. 39) from 1751. It is entirely possible that Charles Turner, who was in Rome in 1751 and had a friend who was painted by Batoni in 1750, bought this painting directly from the artist. The British taste for Catholic subject matter, notwithstanding their Protestant faith, was enthusiastic and Italian paintings from all periods with religious imagery were acquired by milordi on the Grand Tour. Not only Carracci, Domenichino and Reni but works by Maratti, Imperiali and Masucci.
St. Louis Gonzaga figured prominently as a popular Jesuit saint around the world following the approval of his cult in 1621 which led to his canonization in 1726. The eldest son of the Marquis of Castiglione he renounced a military career for a Jesuit novitiate at S. Andrea al Quirinale in Rome. He nursed the sick in the Jesuit hospital of S. Maria della Consolazione during a plague epidemic in 1591 to which he himself succumbed. During his sickness he was ministered to by the celebrated cardinal, theologian and Doctor of the Church Robert Bellarmine who testified to the young man’s holiness. He was interred in the Jesuit church of S. Ignazio in Rome where his resting place was adorned with one of the masterpieces of late baroque sculpture in Rome, The Apotheosis of Saint Louis Gonzaga by Pierre Legros carved in 1698 (fig. 2). The celebration of the saint’s feast day there on 21 June is now an occasion for the supplication for and remembrance of AIDS victims.❖