Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait minature of Saint Cecilia playing a viol with a cherub holding music, 1757 

Orsola Urbani 

Portrait minature of Saint Cecilia playing a viol with a cherub holding music, 1757, Orsola Urbani
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
5 3/8 x 4 in (13.5 x 10.2 cm)
Private collection, UK.
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Although very little is known about the life and career of female miniaturist Orsola Urbani, the subject of this work is well-known. St Cecilia playing a viol with a cherub holding music derives from a work by the seventeenth-century Italian baroque painter Domenico Zampieri (or Domenichino as he is popularly known), a painting initially owned by Louis XIV and which is now in the collection of the Louvre, Paris.

Urbani was undoubtedly a talented student, known to have been working under Pompeo Batoni in 1738, the year that she completed a portrait miniature of Henry Benedict Stuart [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]. It is likely that Urbani and Batoni worked on several miniatures together during the 1730s. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of extant works by Urbani, including portraits of a young girl in the Burghley Collection and Prince Victor Amadeus of Savoy (1725-1796) which was for sale at Christie’s in 2004.

The original painting of St Cecilia by Domenichino is thought to have been commissioned by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, an Italian cardinal and statesman and art connoisseur. It was brought to France in the mid-1650s and was acquired by Louis XIV in 1662. It is possible that Urbani saw Domenichino’s painting whilst travelling or studying in France and made sketches of it before producing her own work in her studio in Rome at a later date – this could explain some differences between the miniature and the original painting, such as the lower dress being painted grey instead of red and the positioning of the eyes. On the other hand, Urbani may have copied this composition from a print, as Catholic imagery was widely circulated at this time across Europe, particularly, of course, in Rome.

This miniature was painted in 1757 and was probably commissioned as a portable image or memento of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Saint Cecilia holds a bass viol with seven strings, the neck of the instrument is carved into an angel’s head, and although a cherub is holding the music score for her, Cecilia looks heavenwards as she sings.
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