Giovanni Sorbi (Siena 1695-1764 ca.)

"Portrait of the Servant of God Sister Angela Caterina Borgia", 1743

Oil on canvas, 97x73 cm

Rome, Santa Lucia in Selci Monastery, Choir

The oil painting on canvas is kept in the choir of the Augustinian monastery of Saint Lucy in Selci in Rome.

It shows a vivid image of the Servant of God, Sister Angela Caterina Borgia. It was painted by the painter Giovanni Sorbi from Siena.

We can retrace the information about its realization in the documents of the ordinary informative process that was prepared, between 1744 and 1748, after the death in the concept of sanctity of Sister Angela Caterina on January 31, 1743.

In fact, in the transcripts of the various testimonies about the life of the nun, we find the touching statement issued by the artist, who had been committed to report the extraordinary events that occurred «in one morning [...] in the beginning of last year 1743 in the height of winter in a day of extremely cold».

On that day the painter received in his studio in Rome the unexpected visit of "Signor Abbate Borgia", who was accompanied by his brother "Signor Cavaliere".

They had already an previous employment relationship with that painter, which is described as a relationship of "servitude and friendship".

The two noblemen invited him to go immediately with them to make a portrait, but when they clarify that "he had to draw a dead woman", the painter begins to buy time, until he got to know that it was about the sister of the two clients.

Once the conditions are clarified, the three men set off in a carriage towards the monastery, where they can enter thanks to a special license issued by the Cardinal Vicar.

The artist was accompanied in a room with a large open window, in which the woman's body was resting. So he began to do his work, trying to find the best light for the body, but without moving it from that place, but only lifting her head.

The work of Sorbi proceeded quickly. After a break for lunch at noon, he came back to finish the painting in the afternoon.

At the end of his operations, the artist tried to return to his studio, where he wanted to fix the canvas, but received a new request from Alessandro Borgia. The abbot invited him to stay until evening, when the autopsy had to occur and they were hoping to find something special to be drawn.

The autopsy was performed in the presence of a doctor and a surgeon. Immediately it highlighted an extraordinary warmth that Sister Angela Caterina's body had kept, even though many hours have passed since her death.

The two doctors sought something that could have caused the intense pains to her heart. They found in that muscle "three pieces of bloody matter of a two-dimensional length of about one finger, and among these ones there was a little nail which was longer than the other two; the three nails were pointed by feet, and went swelling towards the head. The head formed two labyrinths here and there, and in the midst of these two lips, particularly in one, there was another sharp outgrowth, like a lancet".

The presence of these corpuscles aroused the interest of the doctors, who begin to question themselves about their nature. These elements were then washed, dried and placed on a sheet of paper.

Giovanni Sorbi was invited to draw them with precision and to make some copies for the nuns and for "the Bishops his brothers". Those tiny particles were soon assimilated to the spear that has pierced the rib of the crucified Christ, either because of their shape and because of the memory of what Sister Angela Caterina had confided to her confessor, that "she had tried to meditate on the passion of our Lord and that she was hoping that Jesus impressed it in her heart.

The memory of that experience has certainly impressed deeply the painter and led him to elaborate the peculiar iconography of the servant of God who shows the crucifix with one hand and with the other indicates her own suffering chest.

Thanks to the successful completion of the work done for the Borgia family, Sorbi has also obtained other commissions related to anatomical descriptions.

In this regard, we can mention the illustrations of the volume entitled

"Descrizione d’un feto umano nato colla maggior parte delle membra raddoppiate fatta da Luigi Stampini bolognese professore di chirurgia e dello stesso presentata all’illustriss. e reverendiss. Monsignore Marcantonio Laurenti archiatro e cameriere segreto della Santità di Nostro Signore Papa Benedetto XIV"

(Description of a human fetus born with most of the doubled members, made by Luigi Stampini from Bologna, professor of surgery and presented to Monsignor Marcantonio Laurenti, servant of the Holiness of Our Lord Pope Benedict XIV) published in Rome in 1749.

On page 14 of the introduction we read in fact that Giovanni Sorbi was an excellent painter and an expert of anatomical things.

These incisions are also reported in the same year in Volume 10 of the "Novelle letterarie" (Literary Novels) published in Florence (pages 293-296). We can find there some information about the "famous anatomist" Sorbi.

These very important aspects of Sorbi's career have not yet been put in the right light by the monographic studies about the author, which are due in particular to:

  • Anna Maria Emanuele "Dipinti inediti di Giovan Battista Sorbi: uno spunto per la conoscenza della pittura senese del Settecento" (Unpublished paintings by Giovan Battista Sorbi: a starting point for the knowledge of 18th-century painting from Siena) , in "Bullettino senese di storia patria" (Bulletin of Homeland History of Siena),
  • and Fiorella Pansecchi "Giovanni Sorbi, un pittore senese a Roma e una nota su Nicola Michetti" (Giovanni Sorbi, a Sienese painter in Rome and a note about Nicola Michetti), in "Arte collezionismo conservazione. Scritti in onore di Marco Chiarini" (Art, collecting, conservation. Some writings in honor of Marco Chiarini), Florence 2004, pages 367-373.
  • On the basis of the biography of the Sienese written in 1766 by Orazio Marrini "Serie di ritratti di celebri pittori dipinti di propria mano in seguito a quella già pubblicata nel Museo fiorentino esistente appresso l’Abate Antonio Pazzi, con brevi notizie intorno a’ medesimi, part I, vol. II, XXXXV, Firenze 1766" (Series of portraits of famous painters painted by their own hands following the one already published in the Florentine Museum existing with the Abbot Antonio Pazzi), the scholars have highlighted his first studies done at the workshop of Giuseppe Nasini then at Giuseppe Maria Crespi, called the "Spagnoletto", and finally his itinerary among some Lombard cities, until the stage in Rome, where he came to "copy the paintings, which had to be worked on as mosaic for the church of St. Peter": but for some accidental reason he could not accomplish this work.

The effigy of Sister Borgia allows us to find out the results of the important experiences matured by Sorbi, in particular those of Bologna. We can see it either in the intensity of the chromatic chords and in the force of the expressive performance of the protagonist.

The canvas provides also another important chronological and stylistic element, which will allow a wider reenactment of the artistic and human journey of this worthy painter in the future.