The Commissioning of a Masterwork
The remarkable events surrounding the origins of Erminia and the Shepherds reveal Guercino's popularity among noted collectors and patrons of 17th-century Italy. The painting is well documented: references to it appear in correspondence from the artist as well as in collection inventories.
In the summer of 1648, the renowned Sicilian art collector and patron Don Antonio Ruffo (1610-78) ordered a painting from Guercino for his collection. In a letter dated August 1, 1648, Guercino tells Ruffo that he is in the process of painting Erminia and the Shepherds for him. However, writing again on November 4, 1648, Guercino excuses his lateness. He is being pressed to finish another large canvas and cannot possibly complete Ruffo's work on time.
What Guercino declined to reveal was that the newly installed Bolognese papal legate, Cardinal Fabrizio Savelli (1607-59), also a renowned art collector, had seen the unfinished canvas in the artist's studio and insisted on acquiring the work for his own collection. Guercino was then obligated to quickly complete the painting and produce a second version for Ruffo. The artist's account book (his Libro dei conti), indicates that both canvases were probably delivered by January of 1649.
Two years later, Guercino wrote in his account book that Savelli had ordered a pendant, or companion painting, for Erminia and the Shepherds. That work, Erminia and the Wounded Tancred, hangs today in Castle Howard in England, but Savelli's version of Erminia and the Shepherds is now considered lost. The Minneapolis Erminia is in all likelihood Ruffo's. Through its provenance, or ownership history, the painting can be traced to a collection in the late 18th century in Naples, where a number of paintings from Ruffo's collection had eventually appeared on the market.