Sunday, 8 December 2013

Visions, Families and Torments: Carracci and Saints

Perhaps it's just me, or the pernicious influence of academia but sometimes the actual paintings can get lost in the amount of theory whirring around. To clarify my thoughts, I've started by going to the paintings and looking at them carefully to see what is in them. The paintings I'm talking about are the ones mentioned in my previous post. They were all painted around the same time, using the same materials and have been well known, even when thought lost, through the written descriptions of Giovan Pietro Bellori and Carlo Cesare Malvasia from the 1600s.

Bellori was aware of the limitations of pictorial description, as he says, 'the delight of painting resides in sight, which has little to do with hearing', and I would add reading to that observation. However, he offers a brief overview of these works on copper and we are able to identify the three works of interest from his remarks,

Worthy of the highest acclaim is the little painting on copper in the Villa Borghese of St Anthony tormented by monstrous demons lying with his arms open towards the Lord who comes to his aid. And with this one there are two other paintings on copper belonging to the most illustrious Monseigneur Lorenzo Salviati; in one of the virgin is painted sitting with the child on her lap blessing St Francis. The St bends one knee to the ground and he's swooning with divine love, with his hands on his breast, accompanied by an angel with a hand on his shoulder...In the other painting on copper there is the virgin seated on the cradle, and while she embraces Jesus on her lap, who holds an apple, the young St John gazes at him and tugs at the virgin's mantle, and at the side Joseph pauses from reading a book, with his spectacles in his hand. Because of its beauty this little picture was copied continually while it was at the villa Montalto , it was already then been worn away in the hands of copyists.1 
I'd like to spend a little more time on the descriptions of each and highlight specific points of interest which I will return to later. The small-scale 'Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist' or 'The Montalto Madonna' (35 x 27.5cm), according to the National Gallery, London notes, is dated to about 1600 - mistakenly in my view if it is part of this collection of copper works done in 1597-98. They add, 'this small devotional work is one of Annibale Carracci's most celebrated and copied easel paintings. It was made for Cardinal Alessandro Pereti Montalto, a major patron of painters and sculptors in Rome'. Their useful technical bulletin was produced to reintroduce it to the art historical world and demonstrate its provenance after its rediscovery and purchase in 2004.2 Nothing has been produced academically on it recently but as Bellori wrote in the 1670s, it was copied and engraved so extensively, it is and has always been, extremely well known.

What was lost with the original over the intervening few hundred years, was the rich colour, subtlety of tone and the raphaelesque sweetness of the Madonna and Child which copyists had failed to capture. The familial composition is enhanced by the balance of colours; the gold of Joseph's cloak and the burnished curls of the children, the white of the linen and pages of Joseph's book and Mary's entire swirl of red and blue are perfectly harmonious. In the centre of the painting, with a classical column rising behind her, Mary is barely seated on the edge of the woven crib. Her pose of bent foot and knee, with 'active' drapery suggests that she is about to rise and meet the viewer to invite them into what is clearly an intellectual family disputation. Bearded Joseph, leans earnestly through a red draped opening, appears to be in serious conversation with St John and they seem unaware of the viewer. Clutching his russet coloured apple, Jesus seems to both embrace his mother and the viewer because of his elegantly twisted pose, despite avoiding our direct gaze. In the background there is a landscape of hills, trees and classical remains. 

Bellori is very clear regarding his description, however Malvasia is far more opaque. There is confusion as to his descriptions of various holy family paintings, as many versions are mentioned. For instance, 'a little Madonna, Saint John and the head of Saint Joseph on panel; another one, also on panel'. Under the Parma catalogue he listing items sent there from Rome and describes 'a very small copper, in an ebony frame, of the Madonna with the Christ child dressed in a smock, whom she holds standing on his feet while she looks at the infant Saint John.3 Such broad brush descriptions are unhelpful in identifying specific paintings and quite surprising given its fame. 

The slightly larger 'Christ appearing to Saint Anthony Abbot during his Temptation' (49.5 x 34.4 cm) is dated to 1598 by the National Gallery, London. Anthony Abbot was a 3rd-century saint who adopted the ascetic life of a hermit in the desert, where he suffered great torment at the hands of the Devil. Artists appeared to enjoy creating terrible creatures which the visions of St Anthony conjured. Certainly Bellori admired Carracci's version and Malvasia describes it, 'and the superb picture on copper of a recumbent Saint Anthony dressed in a hair shirt being tempted by devils in sundry forms – harpies, a bizarre lion, and a remarkably muscular naked devil in a lovely landscape – and above, Christ in a glory of angels'.4 Christ has arrived at the very moment when the saint was about to be devoured by the snarling, red eyed monsters. The scaly beasts behind him are retreating into the dark cave and the muscled yet oddly full breasted demon has been surprised in the daylight of Christ.

The National Gallery observes that the pose of Saint Anthony recalls Michelangelo's Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and given that the earthy twilight colours of the saint and monsters contrast with the heavenly pinks and blues of Christ and his angels above, the echo is pronounced. The gleaming white book lying by the saint seems to reflect the light of Christ. There are some interesting observations to be made about the appearance of a book in connection with this saint. Anthony was famous for his eschewing of written knowledge, preferring to rely on natural wit, good sense and simple trust in God. So it is quite an unusual addition.

The Vision of St. Francis (46.8 x 37.2 cm) is dated to 1597-1598 by the National Gallery of Canada. Their notes say, 'this devotional scene depicts, in an original and personal manner, a popular theme in 17th-century Christian iconography. St. Francis is more often shown taking the Christ Child in his arms, but here he appears to swoon at the sight of the Virgin and Child, and is supported by an angel'. This echoes the description of Malvasia to a point, he says 'a very beautiful picture on copper of St Francis in a swoon being supported by an angel, with three little angels in the sky gazing down in wonder'.5 I don't know where his other angels are but they are not in this version.

Regardless of the confusion around Malvasia's description, this painting is clearly related to Carracci's Montalto Madonna; the classical landscape, the reading of a book, the Holy Family's identical clothing, aside from Mary's head covering which emphasises her modesty. The glowing pink and blue colours with heavenly light shining on the mother and child leaves the grey swooning saint in shadow, emphasising his earthliness. Joseph resumes his stance as saint on the periphery, still in his yellow robes but standing aside from this episode in the life of Saint Francis.

It seems odd that it is St Francis's vision and yet we get as much information as we did when it was a depiction of the Holy Family. We are seeing both his vision and the surrounding scene in fine detail. In essence, then, this painting is a narrative piece rather than a psychological insight into the intense emotions that Francis would be experiencing. In comparison to a painter like Carravagio who pulls no emotional punches, this quaint historical scene would be unthinkable, so it begs the question why did Carracci paint it in the way he did?

Already there are some interesting questions, themes, differences, similarities raised in these small pieces of art. I have already mentioned the material similarities but the themes I am now thinking about are the appearance of books, poetry, music, prayer, patrons, psychology, collections, devotion. Most interesting is intellectual aspects of the artist's life, along with his rich and highly classically educated patrons. Specifically the links with the poetic philosophy of Torquato Tasso, eg., this sonnet is stunning in its neoplatonic imagery and echoes the love which pours out of the Holy Family painting. As it is pointed out in the introduction to the 2009 Bellori translation, 'the principal purpose of [Bellori's] lecture was to clarify to artists themselves the intellectual quality of their work, not denying but exulting their adherence to nature. Sifting whatever in nature they wish to imitate through the selective and speculative sieve of the inner idea, painters are like poets who exercise the imagination, and not like artisans who engage in a physical practice.'6 (my emphasis).

Who knows where this is going? Answers on a postcard...

1 Hellmut Wohl, ed., et al., Giovan Pietro Bellori, Lives of the modern artists, architects and sculptors: A new translation and critical edition, (Cambridge University Press, 2009), p101
2 L. Keith, 'Annibale Carracci's "Montalto Madonna"', National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Vol 29, pp46–59, accessed 7/12/13
3 Anne Summerscale, Malvasia's Life of the Carracci: commentary and translation, 1672, (Pennsyvania State University Press, 2000), p321
4 Anne Summerscale, p324
5 Anne Summerscale, p332. FN 634 says that this painting has not been traced and various versions have been attributed to Annibale, none of which everyone 'accepts as autograph'. Given that the St Francis in the National Gallery of Canada has clear provenance, this is an odd footnote.
6 Hellmut Wohl, ed., et al., Giovan Pietro Bellori, p10

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