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Pair of Atlantes - Allegories of Virtue
(Domenec Rovira)

Description

DOMèNEC ROVIRA
(Sant Feliu de Guíxols 1608 – 1678 Barcelona)
28. Pair of Atlantes – Allegories of Virtue
c. 1640–1650
Wood, polychromed
Each 147 cm (approx. 57 ¾ in.)
PROVENANCE: Santa María del Mar, Barcelona?; Collection María del Carmen Alfonso, Madrid;
Juan Salas; Pedro Gento
These two figures of atlantes were sculpted for a single location by Domènec Rovira, an artist
whose surviving works are extremely rare. Even photographic evidence is rare since the
majority of his work was destroyed during the Civil War. The use of male caryatid figures,
or atlantes, was not uncommon in Catalan art and there are several other published examples
of this type, such as the single surviving (in photograph) element of Rovira’s Sant Pau altarpiece1 for
Santa María del Mar, Barcelona (Fig. 1). Generally incorporated into the lower level of a retablo or
flanking the central elements therein, these figures could take the form of herms, if engaged, or
caryatids and atlantes, if free-standing.
As with Italian examples of the form, these figures were derived from those known ancient examples,
the most iconic being the classical sculptures of the Erechtheum on the Athenian Acropolis, and in Villa
Albani, Rome. According to Vitruvius, caryatids originally represented the women of Caryae, who were
doomed to hard labour because the town sided with the Persians in 480 BC during their second invasion
of Greece, and therefore are iconographically slaves. He went on to elaborate that this motif found
further variation in the wake of the Greco-Persian wars,2 when these female figures became male figures
that, in their capacity to support a roof, recalled Atlas supporting the Earth, hence atlantes.
While there are some medieval examples of atlantes, they were primarily revived during the
Renaissance, both as an architectural element and as a feature of wall paintings, and often carried
various symbolic meanings. During the sixteenth century, when, as part of their artistic training, artists
made studies after the antique, they also made studies after Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine
Chapel, his sculptures for the tomb of Julius II, Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican – which also featured
atlantes – and Giulio Romano’s herms for the ‘secret garden’ at the Palazzo del Te, Mantua
(1528–1530), the first true anthropomorphic supports to appear since the ancient world. It was through
these careful, if subjective, studies after ancient, Renaissance and Mannerist models, which were
engraved (and often re-engraved) and then published individually or incorporated into editions of
Vitruvius and other architectural and decorative canons, that atlantes became widely known outside
Italy and eventually emerged in Spanish Baroque art, albeit to varying degrees of formal accuracy and
logic.3

Conventional wisdom has it that it was Agustín Pujol who first introduced atlantes into Catalan
altarpieces, but we cannot be sure of this on account of the widespread destruction of buildings, art
works and archives during the Civil War.4 It is Aurora Peréz Santamaría’s opinion, however, that
atlantes, caryatids and even herms all carried symbolic meaning in Catalan altarpieces, often as symbols
of virtue, that is, up until the very late seventeenth century where they come to symbolize continents,
such as the figures in the altarpiece of Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Mataró (1691).5
Writing in the seventeenth century, the Spanish ecclesiastic man of letters Juan Caramuel cited Vitruvius
to maintain that the earliest examples of atlantes always held a symbolic function: ‘The Persian
sculptures served to remind Greek or enemy citizens of the virtue of fortitude’.6 Nearly half a century
later, Athanasio Genaro Brizguz y Bru stated that ‘caryatids no longer symbolize slavery but instead are
representations of the virtues such as Wisdom, Justice or Temperance. Nor do the Persian-type columns
or atlantes represent slavery either, but, instead, virtues such as Joy, Valour or Strength.’7 More recent
authorities, such as Luciana Müller Profumo and Professor John Varriano, concur with this opinion,
but are less insistent on the symbolism, stating only that such figures are symbolic in so far as they are
supports in human form, and therefore evoke the burden of the enslaved, imprisoned or the
vanquished.8 However, none of these authorities doubt that Renaissance artists were incorporating
symbolism into this sculptural form, and even Michelangelo, in his figures of the Bound Slave and the
Dying Slave for the tomb of Julius II, which could be considered prototypes for our atlantes, imbued
such figures with symbolic meaning.9

The type of atlantes that Rovira embodied in the present sculptures
was based on a sixteenth-century Italianate Mannerist model, and
differs from the later Catalan Baroque examples produced by Grau
and Rovira the Younger after 1680. As atlantes, the present figures
sport cushions upon their heads, rather in the manner of sombreros,
which serve to replace the usual classical capitals. It is possible that
these figures were meant to represent two of the moral virtues, which
Peréz Santamaría believes would not have been unusual in the specific
context of Catalan art during the early seventeenth century. The lack
of specific attributes and the rather devout attitude expressed in both
figures further indicates that these sculptures were meant to illustrate
allegories of virtues, rather than specific saints.
Domènec Rovira the Greater was born in Sant Feliu de Guíxols in
Catalonia along what is now known as the Costa Brava. He travelled
at an early age to Barcelona, where he became apprenticed to Augustín
Pujol.10 Despite the fact that few works by Rovira survive, we
fortunately have some idea of their appearance thanks to surviving
contracts for their commissions. These same contracts also allow us to
place the atlantes chronologically within Rovira’s oeuvre. The first
document dated 1638 describes a shrine (sagrario) for the Church of
Sant Jaume (Saint James) in Barcelona.11 The following year the artist
signed two contracts, one for the high altar of the Monastery and
Convent of Bon Succés in Barcelona12 and the other for the altarpiece
dedicated to Sant Pau (Saint Paul) in the Church of Santa María del
Mar in Barcelona. Even though these works no longer survive, the
sculptures and reliefs are described and we also have some old archival photographs. A piece of the
central part of the Sant Pau altar survives and it is this work that permits us to attribute the two
Atlantes considered here (Fig. 1), although the description in the contract makes no mention of works
such as the present sculptures.13 It is not possible to place our Atlantes in the context of the altarpiece
executed in 1665 for the Chapel of the Holy Cross and Mary Magdalen in the parish church of
Figueres, whose commissioning contract was published by Madurell,14 nor indeed as part of the large
altarpiece in the Church of Sant Feliu de Guíxols (1657–1678), the artist’s birthplace, which is
described by Barraquer.15 Fragments from the base of this last work are preserved in the town museum.
Martinell mentions a number of additional works, which had not been previously documented, among
these a retablo for the high altar at L’Arboç commissioned in 1670 from the artist and his nephew,
Domènec Rovira (the Younger). Still incomplete at his death in 1678, Rovira’s nephew finished the
work by 1681.16 Despite the fact that no photographs survive of this work we know that it included
jasper or marble decorations in its base, and atlantes which, having been executed after 1670 in the
later Baroque style, were quite different from the present works.

Based on information gleaned from the church archives of Santa María del Mar, which he consulted
prior to their destruction in the Civil War, Bonaventura Bassegoda i Amigó studied the retablo and
sagrario, or tabernacle, that replaced the earlier Gothic example and published his findings in his
monograph dedicated to the building. This work was executed at the same time as the altar dedicated
to Sant Pau, and at a time that coincides stylistically with the present Atlantes. The Baroque
replacement retablo and furnishings were begun in 1630, but not completed until 1682–1683 with the
intervention of a number of differing hands in the later period.17 The base or plinth was made of jasper,
while the remainder was made of wood. The tabernacle or ciborium was originally intended to have
been made of silver and placed in the central niche of the first level but for reasons of cost it was instead
made of carved wood. Domènec Rovira was put in charge of this project on 28 May 1645 and the work
schedule he signed, together with the other craftsmen, stipulated that forty-eight statues carved in the
round should grace this tabernacle.18 From this description we may deduce that this was a work of truly
monumental size. The base was to be graced by four angels bearing candelabras, six figures of
worshipers, and a further six with musical instruments, four Old Testament priests or prophets, a
frequent aspect of Catalan tabernacles, and six figures of the virtues. The remaining figures were of
putti or angels gracing cartouches. The first and second orders and the cupola were usually intended to
represent the Judaic tent over the tabernacle.19
On account of the fact that we do not have the specific measurements or dimensions of the Santa María
del Mar retablo, the proposal that our Atlantes once formed part of this structure must remain a
hypothesis, yet in altars of this type the tabernacle alone could easily exceed two metres in height and
therefore the present Atlantes could very well have formed part of the set of the virtues, which may have
been made up entirely of other atlantes, or, alternatively, an even number of caryatids, as in the Nuestra
Señora del Rosario altarpiece and the main altarpiece, both of which are in the Church of Santo
Espiritu, Tarassa.
Alas, the Santa María del Mar retablo was yet again replaced at the end of the eighteenth century and
only a few fragmental elements and figures have survived. The jasper plinth with its angels was
incorporated into the new work while the figures of Saint John the Evangelist, the Virgin surrounded
by angels, and a relief representing the Circumcision were moved elsewhere in the church.20 Bassegoda
cites the detailed testimony of an eyewitness, Father Pedro Serra i Postius, who, while describing the
retablo only mentions the tabernacle in passing.21 Despite Father Pedro Serra i Postius’s admiration for
the piece, it must have seemed archaic by the end of the eighteenth century and we do not know where
the dismembered parts have gone, though some may have been stored in the church and evaded
Bassegoda’s notice. The subsequent events of 1936 destroyed much of what survived in Santa María del
Mar. A few elements of the eighteenth-century plinth have survived together with some fragments
whose origins are unclear, and these are now housed in the Museo Marès. It is evident that wood
sculptures such as the Atlantes or virtues do not take kindly to the ravages of history.
Analysing our Atlantes we are struck by the originality of the cushion they wear on their heads intended
to suggest their support of an architectural element above. Both figures stand barefoot and cross their arms over their chests in an act of devotion. In Catalan art, the lack of other attributes attesting to their
status as allegories of virtue is not unusual in atlantes, but would have been more so for caryatids; the
figures in the altarpiece at Tarassa, for example, bore attributes. Rovira has, instead, appeared to place
particular naturalistic emphasis on the cushions and the thick locks and lush facial hair that lend a
venerable mien to the faces, which appear concentrated in deep thought or veneration. The artist
reveals a good classical appreciation of anatomy in the nude torso of the older bearded Atlante, while
the deep, wide, diagonal folds of the drapery have a controlled Baroque sensibility. The figure is of high
quality and the hair and facial features in both works are strongly reminiscent of Rovira’s Sant Pau.
The expression of the younger moustachioed Atlante, while serious, is more serene and focused
downwards. The figure is more youthful, is not bearded and is therefore rather less comparable to the
aforementioned Sant Pau. However, his drapery – a tunic and a mantle – gathered in severely incised
but elegant folds over the left arm, is remarkably similar to that worn by Sant Pau. In addition, the
treatment of the polychromy is also similar to the Sant Pau, so that it is quite clear that all three works
are by the same hand.
In conclusion, these figures of Atlantes, as well as the extraordinary representation of Sant Pau (which
is considered by the many authorities that have published it to be of exceptional quality) are not only
sculptures of beguiling elegance and beauty in their Baroque severity, but also sculptures that retain a
sense of classicism. It seems clear to the author that they must have been executed between 1640 and
1650 and that they should be attributed to Domènec Rovira. Our suggestion that they probably formed
part of the sagrario of Santa María del Mar must for the time being remain a hypothesis, but the
inherent quality of the figures merits further investigation in this vein.

1 Other Catalan altarpieces including atlantes or caryatids
that survive only in photograph are those attached to the
former Convent of Bon Succés, in Barcelona; in the parish
church of L’Arboç, (photograph in the archives of the
Institut Amatller d’Art Hispànic, Barcelona); the Church of
Santa María, Mataró; and in the Church of Espíritu Santo,
Tarrasa. See A. PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘Alegorías en los órdenes
atlántico y paranínfico del retablo catalán (1611–1740 ca.)’,
in Los clasicismos en el arte español, X Congreso del CEHA,
1994, p. 261–266; A. PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘Tradición e
influencias en el retablo de San Martín de Palafrugell’, in
Estudios de Arte. Homenaje al profesor Martín González,
University of Valladolid, Valladolid 1995, pp. 407–412; and
A. PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘L’art religiós a Palafrugell’, in
Quaderns de Palafrugell, Ajuntament Palafrugell/Diputació
Girona, 2007, no. 16, p. 64–72.
2 VITRUVIUS, The Ten Books of Architecture (Spanish trans.
by J. L. OLIVER DOMINGO, with introduction by D. RODRÍGUEZ
RUIZ), Alianza, Madrid 1995, chapter I, pp. 60–62. Known
as Persae or Statuae Persicae, these figures were used in place
of columns and, depending on their gender, were termed
either caryatids or atlantes and telamones. Vitruvius reported
that atlantes derived from the Porticus Persica built at Sparta
out of the spoils of the battle of Plateae and, again, described
these figures as conquered and enslaved Persian soldiers
(VITRUVIUS, Book I, chap. 1, no. 6). Pausanias, however,
describes these same statues as identified Persian nobles: ‘On
the pillars are white-marble figures of Persians, including
Mardonius, son of Gobryas. There is also a figure of
Artemisia, daughter of Lygdamis and queen of Halicarnassus.
It is said that this lady voluntarily joined the expedition of
Xerxes against Greece and distinguished herself at the naval
engagement off Salamis’ (Descriptions of Greece, trans. W.
H. S. JONES and H. OMEROD, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, William Heinemann Ltd.,
London 1918, 3.11.3). Architectural historian Luciana
Müller Profumo however, believes that such figures have a
different antecedent, see L. MÜLLER PROFUMO, El ornamento
icónico y la arquitectura, 1400–1600, Cátedra, Madrid 1985,
pp. 203, 206–207.

3 The main illustrative source for ancient architecture in
Spain was Cesare Cesarino’s 1521 translation of Vitruvius,
which, as Cesarino had never been to Rome, possibly
contributed to several anachronisms and anomalies in
Spanish architecture during the reign of Charles V regarding
their antique and Renaissance source material. See MÜLLER
PROFUMO, El ornamento icónico cit., pp. 204–209,
216–217; PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘Tradición e influencias’ cit.,
p. 410; ID., ‘L’art religiós a Palafrugell’ cit., pp. 65–66. See
also examples of atlantes in engravings by Marcantonio
Raimondi, in A. BARTSCH, The Illustrated Bartsch, New
York 1978, vol. XXVI, pp. 296, 298; and Ibid., vol XXVII,
p. 221, and by Giulio Bonasone, Ibid., 1982, vol. XXIX, p.
149.
4 PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘Alegorías en los órdenes atlántico’
cit., pp. 262–263; ID., ‘Tradición e influencias’ cit., p. 411;
and ID., ‘L’art religiós a Palafrugell’ cit., p. 69.
5 The altarpiece of the parish church at Alcover (Tarragona),
contracted in 1679 from the sculptors Francesc Grau and
Domènec Rovira (the Younger), incorporated niche figures
that we conclude are atlantes in the guise of the moral
virtues. See PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘Alegorías en los órdenes
atlántico’ cit., pp. 263–264. This tradition possibly began
with their sculpting of the tomb of Diego Girón de Rebolledo
(the iconographic programme of which Bosch has made a
study). While the figures included on the lower level of the
tomb do not carry specific meanings, they are repeated on the
base of the Alcover altarpiece. See also J. BOSCH BALLBONA,
Els tallers d’escultura al Bages del segle XVII, Caixa
d’Estalvis de Manresa, Manresa 1990, pp. 226–228.
Regarding the atlantes at Mataró, see PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA,
‘Alegorías en los órdenes atlántico’ cit., pp. 264–265; and
ID., ‘L’art religiós a Palafrugell’ cit., pp. 69–70. Again, these
would appear to symbolize the continents and we have no
further information. Also during the same period of the
altarpiece of Mataró we find other symbols, like the tribute
to the faithful (fishermen) who defrayed the costs of the
retablos. See PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘Tradición e influencias’
cit., p. 411; and ID., ‘L’art religiós a Palafrugell’ cit., p. 70.
6 J. CARAMUEL, Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua…, (imp.) C.
Corrado, Vegeven 1678, p. 79.
7 A. G. BRIZGUZ Y BRU, Escuela de Arquitectura Civil (1st ed.
1738), p. 70.
8 MÜLLER PROFUMO, El ornamento icónico cit., pp.
203–205; J. VARRIANO, Italian Baroque and Rococo
Architecture, Oxford University Press, New York 1990, p.
188.
9 MÜLLER PROFUMO, El ornamento icónico cit., pp. 216–217,
220–221.
10 According to Garriga, Rovira was possibly a pupil of
Agustín Pujol the Younger, see J. GARRIGA RIERA, ‘Escultores
y retablos renacentistas en Cataluña (1500–1640)’, in M.
CARMEN LACARRA (coord.), Retablos esculpidos en Aragón:
del gótico al barroco, Institución Fernando el Católico
(C.S.I.C.), Excma Diputación Zaragoza, Zaragoza 2002, p.
299. Bosch provides what he considers evidence to believe
that Rovira apprenticed in the workshop of Pujol, see J.
BOSCH BALLBONA, Agustín Pujol. La culminació de l’escultura
renaixentista a Catalunya, Universitat Autònoma, Survey of
Publications, Bellaterra (Barcelona) 2009, pp. 316–317.
11 Most of the documentation is located in the stores of the
Archivo de Protocolos de Barcelona (henceforward AHPB)
J. M. Madurell Marimón. In this case there are only two
receipts so there is no information on the work, AHPB:
Amell, not. 613, vol. XIV, 14 March, 20 June.
12 AHPB, Lluis Collell, not. 636, vol. XIX, 1638–1640, 5
March 1639.
13 AHPB, Francesc Tries, not. 661, vol. XLVII, fols.
160–162.
14 This contract also describes the iconography. See J. M.
MADURELL MARIMÓN, ‘Retablos gerundenses (1570–1752)’,
in Anales del Instituto de Estudios Gerundenses, 1951, pp.
247–270.
15 C. BARRAQUER Y ROVIRALTA, Las casas de religiosos en
Cataluña durante el primer tercio del siglo XIX, I, Altés y
Alabart, Barcelona 1906, p. 179.
16 C. MARTINELL, Arquitectura i escultura barroques a
Catalunya. I. Els precedents. El primer barroc (1600–1670),
Alpha, Barcelona 1959, vol. I, pp. 106–108
17 B. BASSEGODA I AMIGÓ, Santa María de la Mar. Monografía
històrico artística, 2 vols, Fills J. Thomas, Barcelona
1925–1927, vol. I, pp. 228–235, and vol. II, appendix of
documents, pp. 473–485; MARTINELL, Arquitectura i
escultura barroques a Catalunya cit., pp. 70–73.
18 BASSEGODA I AMIGÓ, Santa María de la Mar cit., vol. I,
pp. 232, 246, and vol. II, pp. 479–480; MARTINELL,
Arquitectura i escultura barroques a Catalunya cit.
19 BASSEGODA I AMIGÓ, Santa María de la Mar cit., vol. I, pp.
232, 246, and vol. II, pp. 479–480.
20 Ibid., vol. I, pp. 235, 238.
21 Ibid., vol. I, pp. 234–235, 247 under note 26. See also P.
SERRA I POSTIUS, Historia Eclesiástica del Principado de
Cataluña, Antigüedad, fundación y grandezas del templo de
Santa María del Mar, MS 186 in the Biblioteca Universitaria
de Barcelona, c. 1708, fols. 15–16.
257
arms over their chests in an act of devotion. In Catalan art, the lack of other attributes attesting to their
status as allegories of virtue is not unusual in atlantes, but would have been more so for caryatids; the
figures in the altarpiece at Tarassa, for example, bore attributes. Rovira has, instead, appeared to place
particular naturalistic emphasis on the cushions and the thick locks and lush facial hair that lend a
venerable mien to the faces, which appear concentrated in deep thought or veneration. The artist
reveals a good classical appreciation of anatomy in the nude torso of the older bearded Atlante, while
the deep, wide, diagonal folds of the drapery have a controlled Baroque sensibility. The figure is of high
quality and the hair and facial features in both works are strongly reminiscent of Rovira’s Sant Pau.
The expression of the younger moustachioed Atlante, while serious, is more serene and focused
downwards. The figure is more youthful, is not bearded and is therefore rather less comparable to the
aforementioned Sant Pau. However, his drapery – a tunic and a mantle – gathered in severely incised
but elegant folds over the left arm, is remarkably similar to that worn by Sant Pau. In addition, the
treatment of the polychromy is also similar to the Sant Pau, so that it is quite clear that all three works
are by the same hand.
In conclusion, these figures of Atlantes, as well as the extraordinary representation of Sant Pau (which
is considered by the many authorities that have published it to be of exceptional quality) are not only
sculptures of beguiling elegance and beauty in their Baroque severity, but also sculptures that retain a
sense of classicism. It seems clear to the author that they must have been executed between 1640 and
1650 and that they should be attributed to Domènec Rovira. Our suggestion that they probably formed
part of the sagrario of Santa María del Mar must for the time being remain a hypothesis, but the
inherent quality of the figures merits further investigation in this vein.
256
1 Other Catalan altarpieces including atlantes or caryatids
that survive only in photograph are those attached to the
former Convent of Bon Succés, in Barcelona; in the parish
church of L’Arboç, (photograph in the archives of the
Institut Amatller d’Art Hispànic, Barcelona); the Church of
Santa María, Mataró; and in the Church of Espíritu Santo,
Tarrasa. See A. PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘Alegorías en los órdenes
atlántico y paranínfico del retablo catalán (1611–1740 ca.)’,
in Los clasicismos en el arte español, X Congreso del CEHA,
1994, p. 261–266; A. PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘Tradición e
influencias en el retablo de San Martín de Palafrugell’, in
Estudios de Arte. Homenaje al profesor Martín González,
University of Valladolid, Valladolid 1995, pp. 407–412; and
A. PÉREZ SANTAMARÍA, ‘L’art religiós a Palafrugell’, in
Quaderns de Palafrugell, Ajuntament Palafrugell/Diputació
Girona, 2007, no. 16, p. 64–72.
2 VITRUVIUS, The Ten Books of Architecture (Spanish trans.
by J. L. OLIVER DOMINGO, with introduction by D. RODRÍGUEZ
RUIZ), Alianza, Madrid 1995, chapter I, pp. 60–62. Known
as Persae or Statuae Persicae, these figures were used in place
of columns and, depending on their gender, were termed
either caryatids or atlantes and telamones. Vitruvius reported
that atlantes derived from the Porticus Persica built at Sparta
out of the spoils of the battle of Plateae and, again, described
these figures as conquered and enslaved Persian soldiers
(VITRUVIUS, Book I, chap. 1, no. 6). Pausanias, however,
describes these same statues as identified Persian nobles: ‘On
the pillars are white-marble figures of Persians, including
Mardonius, son of Gobryas. There is also a figure of
Artemisia, daughter of Lygdamis and queen of Halicarnassus.
It is said that this lady voluntarily joined the expedition of
Xerxes against Greece and distinguished herself at the naval
engagement off Salamis’ (Descriptions of Greece, trans. W.
H. S. JONES and H. OMEROD, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, William Heinemann Ltd.,
London 1918, 3.11.3). Architectural historian Luciana
Müller Profumo however, believes that such figures have a
different antecedent, see L. MÜLLER PROFUMO, El ornamento
icónico y la arquitectura, 1400–1600, Cátedra, Madrid 1985,
pp. 203, 206–207.

Measurements
Each 147 cm (approx. 57 ¾ in.)
Type
Wood, polychromed
Provenance

Santa María del Mar, Barcelona?; Collection María del Carmen Alfonso, Madrid;
Juan Salas; Pedro Gento

Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Subject
Allegory
School
Spanish
Catalogue
Price band
Sold or not available