According to Van Dyck's Italian sketchbook, in Palermo he encountered one Don Fabrizio Valguarnera, a nobleman with a Catalan pedigree dating back to the 14th century. Though he had been born into a noble family and raised as a gentleman, Don Fabrizio did not have enough money to keep himself in the style he wanted. He tried to solve his relative poverty by attempting to obtain a position as a physician at the Spanish court, but was unsuccessful. He had great success, however, operating as an art dealer, orchestrating dodgy deals with paintings, and especially jewels. These were eventually to lead to his downfall because he engaged a thief in Madrid to steal a shipment of diamonds from traders in that city. His friend fled to France, but the impassive Don Fabrizio thought himself above suspicion, that is until the merchants he had stolen from tried several attempts on his life. Don Fabrizio took the hint and made his way via France to Rome where he sought out the studios of famous painters, his aim being to use the proceeds of the robbery to buy paintings from celebrated artists like Poussin, Pietro da Cortona and Lanfranco. A strange aspect of this journey was Valguarnera's decision to murder his accomplice and take the diamonds, but he was swayed from this drastic cause by the appearance of the image of the Virgin Mary in a dream forbidding him to commit murder. What a typical baroque blend of religiosity, violence and art crime. In Rome Valguarnera's past caught up with him. Three merchants from Spain came to Rome and exposed his nefarious activities to the authorities; this resulted in his arrest and a celebrated trial featuring, of all people Poussin, whose Plague of Ashdod, had been sold to the aristocrat for 110 scudi. As Poussin told the court he would not accept diamonds as payment, but waited for real currency. Wise man!
The exact nature of Valguarnera's activities in Palermo are not known, but he seems to have asked Italian and Flemish painters there to make copies of Old Testament stories, presumably for illegal reasons. He may have commissioned copies from Van Dyck although the young artist would have been preoccupied with his greatest painting in Italy: another plague painting showing St Rosalia whose remains were discovered on Monte Pellegrino during Van Dyck's visit to Palermo in 1624. This altarpiece- not widely known outside specialist circles- was based on Rubens's altarpieces from his Italian period. In May of that year the plague broke out which eventually was to kill Van Dyck's benefactor, Emmanuel Filiberto, Viceroy of Savoy, whose magnificent portrait the artist painted a few months before the patron died. Fearing for his own life, Van Dyck lost no time in escaping the plague by returning to Genoa until news of his sister's death brought him back to Antwerp in 1627.
As for Valguarnera, again he thought his aristocratic bearing coupled with hard lies would get him acquitted. Not so: the evidence mounted against him and he died in a Roman prison in 1631 with "no marks on his body." Despite Valguarnera's immorality, Poussin scholars will always be grateful to him because the proceedings of his trial reveal important information about art in Rome. Now if only Valguarnera could have given us a description of Poussin's workshop, which he must have visited during 1630-1.