Allegory of Prudence, c. 1682
Luca Giordano, Italian (Neapolitan), 1634–1705
Oil on canvas
36 9/16 × 36 9/16 in. (92.9 × 92.9 cm) frame: 43 1/4 × 43 1/4 in. (109.9 × 109.9 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund
Habits of Mind
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
Allegory of Prudence
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Luca Giordano was one of the most celebrated and prolific painters of his time. He was a versatile artist who created altarpieces, mythological paintings, and decorative frescoes for palaces and churches. Giordano began his career in Naples. During his extensive travels, he learned not only to imitate the styles of others artists, but also to absorb their influences. Working throughout Italy and Spain, his rapid technique and enormous output earned him the nickname Luca fa presto, meaning “Luca works quickly.”
Giordano was best known for his large-scale ceiling paintings. Allegory of Prudence is a preliminary oil sketch for part of a ceiling created for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. The former Medici palace was purchased by the Riccardi family in 1669. That same year, construction began on a new wing intended to house an art collection and reception rooms that were to be open to the public. In 1682 the Riccardis commissioned Giordani to paint the gallery ceilings in fresco, a method of painting directly onto wet plaster. Giordano completed the work in 1685.
A number of Giordano’s oil sketches for this commission survive, including Allegory of Prudence. In the center of the composition is Prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues (the others being Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance). Personified as a woman, Prudence is shown with her usual attributes, a mirror, signifying the idea that wise people are able to see themselves as they really are, and a serpent, from the biblical passage in Matthew 10:16, which exhorts “Be ye wise as serpents.” (The Latin word for “wise” is prudentes.) Next to her is a deer, another symbol of prudence because it has to move cautiously in order to steady the weight of its antlers to retain its balance. At Prudence’s feet is a two-faced figure with animal feet that represents Fraud. In the shadows to the right is Ignorance (also called Obstinacy), holding a donkey’s head. At the lower left are two philosophers, one with a quadrant and the other with a compass, perhaps depicting Archimedes and Euclid, who personify Order and Reason (or Experience). In the sky, from left to right, are Abundance, with a cornucopia and caduceus (a staff with two serpents, symbol of the medical profession); Grace, carrying flowers and a key (the Riccardi family symbol); and Health, holding a shield and a cup.
Allegory of Prudence exemplifies Giordano’s mastery of the Baroque, a style that flourished in Italy during the 17th century. The Baroque style stresses balance and wholeness within a work of art. The writer Giovanni Bellori, a contemporary of Giordano, likened this quality to the harmony of a choir, with no particular voice being distinguishable. Instead, what is important is the blending of elements to create an overall effect. The Baroque style contains strong diagonal lines and curves, such as those created by twisting limbs and swirling drapery of the figures in this painting.
Giordano seldom made preparatory drawings, preferring to paint directly onto canvas. For large-scale works, including the Riccardi commission, he created fully realized oil paintings. Careful study of Allegory of Prudence reveals several changes made by Giordano, indicating that the painting truly is a preliminary drawing. For example, it is evident that Prudence was once shown facing in the other direction, looking up toward Abundance.
- Make a list of all of the figures, animals, symbols, and other objects found in this painting. Where are they located? Which do you think are the most important?
- Describe the composition. Is it balanced or unbalanced? Does your opinion change if you consider the small details, compared to when you only consider the arrangement of figures?
- Look at the shapes made by all of the figures, and try to trace a line between all of the major shapes. What shape do they make, generally? Which figures are most important or highlighted in that shape?
- Choose your favorite symbol. What does it mean to you? Why do you think Giordano chose the colors he did for the figures and the background?
- As a group, pick a symbol or two to dissect. Why, for instance, might Fraud have two faces? Why might Prudence be seated with a mirror and a deer?
- Visually trace the diagonals created by Prudence’s staff, the deer’s antlers, and the arms and legs of the various figures. Now, look for the curving lines in the background and drapery. What effect do these repeated and various lines have on the painting at large? What feeling do they add to the scene?
• Research the four cardinal virtues and their symbols. Why were they created? Look at the representations of Fraud, Ignorance, Order, Reason, and Health in Giordano’s painting. Why would he paint these symbols? What are they meant to teach the viewer?
• Giordano earned a living by painting decorative works commissioned by wealthy Italians. Pretend you have received a commission to paint a mural in your city. What would you choose to paint? What message would you want to convey to the viewer? When painting Allegory of Prudence, Giordano received special requests from the Riccardi family—such as the inclusion of a key, the family symbol. What special requests might your patron make?
Resources Available to Order
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.