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Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi arrived in Rome from Bologna around 1626. Throughout his career he primarily devoted his attention to fresco painting, executing fine compositions that often included striking landscapes for palaces such as those of the Borghese and the Pamphilj families. Among his most notable decorative schemes were those for the Santacroce ai Catinari palace in Rome of 1640–41, depicting Old Testament scenes in panoramic landscapes; those in the Villa Pamphilj comprising a series on Hercules of 1645–47; and those in the Muti-Papazzurri palace of 1660–80. Grimaldi also worked in Paris between 1649 and 1651 in the residence of Cardinal Mazarin and in the Palais du Louvre. In comparison to his extensive output in mural painting, few easel paintings have been attributed to this artist.
The story of Tobias is taken from the Old Testament Apocrypha. Son of Tobit, Tobias travelled from Nineveh to Media to collect a debt on behalf of his father. Tobias was accompanied on his trip by a young man who was in fact the Archangel Raphael, and by a dog. When they reached the banks of the Tigris, Tobias went to bathe and was almost devoured by a huge fish. Raphael instructed Tobias to catch it, cut it up and keep the heart, liver and gall. Tobias used the heart and liver to drive away the curse from his new bride, Sarah, while the gall was used to cure his father’s blindness.
Grimaldi depicts Tobias and the Archangel in the lower right corner of his composition at the moment when the young Tobias has followed Raphael’s instructions and opened up the fish’s stomach. Raphael, who in the original account reveals his divine status after their return to Nineveh, is here already depicted with his wings and a tall staff. The rest of the canvas is occupied by a sweeping landscape with two secondary scenes that are difficult to associate with the story of Tobias. The view that frames the principal incident and which seems in fact to be the main subject of the composition, extends from the banks of a river with a waterfall on the right to a leafy bank on the left. Grimaldi created a sensation of depth by alternating different passages and elements such as the five groups of figures that lead into the landscape, starting with Tobias and the Archangel in the foreground, and which create a visual link with the more distant elements such as the waterfall and behind it the tower, mountains and sky.
As Contini noted, the overall conception of the landscape is characteristic of Grimaldi. He also mentioned the similarity between Tobias and a figure of Tobias by Domenichino in an oil on copper in the National Gallery, London. Another painting by Grimaldi on the same subject (Hunterian Collection, Glasgow) is similar with regard to its composition.
The present canvas entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1977.