Alessandro Magnasco, Genoa 1667 - 1749
Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the Pharaoh’s Servants Whilst in Prison, c. 1726–31
With frame: 160 x 199 x 7 cm (63 x 78 3/8 x 2 3/4 in.)
André Gaspard Parfait, comte de Bizemont-Prunelé (1752–1837), Orléans;
Marquis de Ganay;
with Adrian Ward-Jackson, London, 1979;
The British Rail Pension Fund Collection;
sold Sotheby ́s, London, 5 July 1995, lot 57;
Alessandra De Bortoli “Aggiunte al Magnasco Milanese” Arte Cristiana 78 (1990), p. 276, no. 739, fig.11 (as Magnasco).
Laura Muti and Daniele De Sarno Prignano, Alessandro Magnasco, Faenza, 1994, p. 340, R. 534 (not by Magnasco, opinion based on a photograph).
Alessandro Magnasco 1667–1749, exh. cat. Palazzo Reale, Milan 1996, p. 168, no. 32, edited by Marco Bona Castellotti, catalogue entry by Fausta Franchini Guelfi (as Magnasco).
On loan, Leeds Castle, Kent 1980–1995.
Mysterious, dark, and imaginatively conceived, the prison in which Magnasco has set the Old Testament narrative is exemplary of his unique and unmistakable style. Unlike his contemporaries, who preferred bright, glowing colors, Alessandro Magnasco favored the dramatic contrast of lights and darks. Magnasco’s small, caricature-like, elongated figures, dwarfed by the expansive architecture into which they have been set, are executed with swift, loose brushstrokes and darting flashes of light.
Fausta Franchini Guelfi (1996) has proposed that the dramatically angled viewpoint of the composition together with the unusually theatrical depiction of Joseph’s prison surroundings suggest this painting documents the opening scene of the popular Milanese stage performance, the oratorio entitled Gioseffo Che Interpreta I Sogni (Joseph Interpreting Dreams). Gioseffo comprised poetic writings by Giovanni Battista Neri and music by Antonio Caldara; performed in Vienna for Emperor Charles VI in 1726, it was later reprised in Milan. The story of Joseph was the subject of at least three oratorios sung for the emperor in Vienna, all with text and music by Italian authors. Giuseppe (Joseph) by Apostolo Zeno (1722), with music by Antonio Caldara, and Giuseppe riconosciuto (Joseph Recognized) by Pietro Metastasio (1733), with music by Giuseppe Porsile, both focus on the end of the biblical hero’s story when Joseph, as the Pharaoh’s chief minister, recognizes his brothers. Meanwhile, the Parte Prima of Gioseffo che interpreta i sogni begins precisely with the scene portrayed by Magnasco, when Joseph sings: “Maybe you are unsettled by your foot being / restrained within these walls? Ah! Be consoled in the knowledge / that every man in this world/ is a prisoner, / and whether his prison / be large or small / there is nothing of more pain or less suffering/ than a chain fixed to a wall.”
The highly cultured Milanese aristocracy of the day closely followed the latest musical events at the Viennese court, and were particularly appreciative of the works of Antonio Caldara (Venice 1670/71–1736 Vienna), named Vize-Kapellmeister to the Imperial Court in Vienna in 1716. The present painting may thus commemorate a specific performance of Gioseffo che interpreta i sogni in Milan, and, moreover, record the appearance of the set made for it. The performance might have taken place at a convent or monastery, but it is more likely to have been performed in the palace of an aristocrat, who hypothetically commissioned the painting as a memento of the event and its related ephemeral scenery.
If this were the case, Magnasco would probably have had the opportunity to use the sketches made by the set designer in devising his painted rendition of the scene. The identify of this hypothetical designer remains to be discovered, but apt comparisons may be drawn between the scenography of the present painting and various drawings and prints recording the set designs of Pietro Righini (1683–1742), who was active in Milan in the late 1720s. For example, distinctive pointed arches prominently featured in the painting appear in Righini’s Corpo di guardia reale (courtyard of the royal guards) and Anteriore di un serraglio di fiere (exterior of a menagerie of animals) designed for Medo, performed at the Teatro Ducale of Parma in 1728, and engraved by Jacopo Vezzani and Martin Engelbrecht (fig. 1). Even more compelling comparisons can be made with a drawing attributed to Righini’s pupil and collaborator Vincenzo Dal Ré (1695–1762) now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 2). This prison interior, like the one in the painting, features pointed arches, albeit wider ones, ramshackle wooden balconies affixed to the stone superstructure, windows inset with wooden chutes, a large sawhorse, and various lanterns, shackles, and other instruments of labor and torture, including a large pulley, suspended from the architecture.
Franchini Guelfi, who excludes the possibility that Magnasco was assisted in the painting’s production by collaborators such as Antonio Francesco Peruzzini or Clemente Spera, dates the painting between 1726 and 1731 on stylistic grounds. She compares it with the series of works concerning life among the capuchins and other religious sects, set in impressive architectural surrounds, which were executed by Magnasco around 1719–25 as a commission from the Austrian governor of Milan, Gerolamo di Colloredo, for the Benedictine abbey of Seitenstetten in Austria. These works, and others completed during the succeeding period, such as the Satire of the Nobleman in Misery (Detroit Institute of Arts) and the Interior of a Synagogue (Cleveland Museum of Art), suggest the artist’s participation in the intellectual debates of the learned circles of his day. During this period in Milan, Magnasco is known to have worked for several aristocratic families of patrons and collectors, executing sarcastic, irreverent canvases that mirrored the secular, enlightened tendencies of the Lombard aristocracy. Significant, too, for their implications on the continuing debate about justice and human rights are his paintings of prisons and interrogations (fig. 3). The present painting, and indeed the oratorio which may well have inspired it, would have resonated with sophisticated patrons already interested in these issues.
Fig. 1. Jacopo Vezzani and Martin Engelbrecht, after Pietro Righini, Anteriore di un serraglio di fiere, ca. 1728, engraving, Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden.
Fig. 2. Vincenzo Dal Ré, Prison Scene, pen and black ink, with brush and black wash, over traces of black chalk, on ivory laid paper, Art Institute, Chicago.
Fig. 3. Alessandro Magnasco, Arrival of of the Galley Slaves at the Port of Genoa, 1720, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux.