Alessandro Magnasco, Genoa 1667 - 1749
Monks in an Architectural Capriccio
Magnasco’s ebullient pictorial world is conveyed through an unsettled and enigmatic technique, the roots of which are yet to be fully understood, and reflected in a style that has no contemporary equivalents, nor worthy followers. It is a world animated by disjointed figures, outlined with fast and darting brushstrokes, and characterised by an understated and refined palette unique for his time. The hues of the present canvas contrast throughout, from the burnished gradations of the foreground, in differing shades of brown, to the brighter strokes that highlight the monks’ habits and the intense blue sky beyond the colonnades that enhances the atmosphere and, for an instant, shows influences of the rococo style that was so dominant in that period.
Through the passing of time, and most noticeably from the beginning of the 1730s (one of the few periods in which the artist’s movements are certain, due to the Furto sacrilego from the Archbishop of Milan that refers to an actual occurrence on 6th January 1731 at the Abbey of Campomorto), Magnasco’s style is characterised by an ever more persistent fragmentation of the figures into luminous filaments and dense clumps of matter. The forms distort further with an exacerbated stylisation, as is the case with the figures of these monks with shaved heads and faces marred by hardship, illuminated by shocks of light that penetrate the scene from the left, digging deep into the shadowy folds of the tunics.
This considerable painting, in an untouched state of conservation, is stylistically comparable with Penitent Capuchin monks in praying in front of their superior from Academia de San Fernando, Madrid from around the same time, in which “the movement of the figures is suggestively outlined by broken brushstrokes, filaments of light flickering in the darkness that corrode and break up the forms” (Cfr. F. Franchini Guelfi, in Alessandro Magnasco…, op. cit., 1996, p. 238). As in the Spanish painting, Magnasco has divided the composition into two symmetrical parts, marked on the present painting by the large globe in the background.
This canvas was originally part of a series of four works in a private collection, that have since been separated (Camillo Manzitti, oral report). Two of the paintings, which are currently at the National Gallery of Stuttgart, depict soldiers, beggars and storytellers (117 x 146 cm. Cfr. L. Muti - D. De Sarno Prignano, Alessandro Magnasco, Faenza 1994, cat. nos. 328-329, figs. 102 & 396). Unfortunately the subject and actual location of the fourth work are no longer known after it was acquired by a Genoese private collection. However it is likely to be a monastic subject that accompanies the two works of the German museum, thereby creating a series of four: two of soldiers and two of monks.
Franchini Guelfi underlined (Cfr. F. Franchini Guelfi, La pittura di Alessandro Magnasco dalle fonti figurative e culturali alle tenebre della realtà, in M. Bona Castellotti (ed.), Alessandro Magnasco 1667-1749, exhibition catalogue, Milan 1996, p. 30) the artist’s tendency to execute scenes of Trappist and Capuchin monks. The scholar published, for example, a pendant previously from the Palazzo Archinto, Milan, and currently in a private collection depicting Trappist monks in a retreat and Capuchin monks on the road. The reason behind this juxtaposition of subjects is that the reform of Armand Jean Le Bouthillier De Rancè at the end of the 17th century led to the monks returning to the strict observance of the primitive rules of the Cistercian monks of the Abbey of Notre Dame de la Trappe. By contrasting the two Capuchin and Trappist orders, the most widespread in Lombard at that time, Magnasco demonstrated his support for those advocating a radical upheaval in the behaviour of the Franciscan orders.
Critics are unanimous in agreeing that the Stuttgart works were executed after Magnasco’s return from Genoa at the end of the 1730s. The artist was probably pushed into leaving Milan following the beginning of the War of Polish Succession, and the arrival of the Franco-Piedmontese army in November 1733. Despite probably leaving behind numerous commissions in Milan, a city animated by an “enlightened” aristocracy and a vibrant middleclass, Magnasco left for Genoa, which at that point was in full economic decline and inhabited by a conservative ruling class.
The “fraterie” of Magnasco are “so original that it is impossible to relate them to any previous iconographic traditions and can only be understood from within the cultural context of Lombard society (Cfr. F. Franchini Guelfi, Alessandro Magnasco, Genova 1977, p. 235). They are particularly sensitive to the moral values expressed in the works of Ludovico Antonio Muratori and Carlo Maria Maggi. The works do not depict a realistic representation of the monks’ lives, nor evidence of an ascetic or mystical vocation of the Genoese painter.