Gaspar Van Wittel, Called Vanvitelli
Messina from the Sea, with the Church of Santa Maria della Grotta, circa 1720
Oil on canvas
66.5 x 173.3 cm / 26.2 x 68.2 in
Sale Jacob Hecht, Berlin, sometime between 1925 and 1929 (printed label on the stretcher);
Private collection, Berlin.
This impressive view of Messina, which was rediscovered in a private collection in Berlin only a few years ago, is certainly a major addition to the catalogue of the Dutch artist. We scarcely have any information on its history and provenance: a printed label on the stretcher testifies that the painting was sold by the auctioneer Jacob Hecht in Berlin sometime between 1925 and 1929 (the Hecht auction house was only active during this short period of time) after which it was kept in a private collection in Berlin until its more recent sale.
The painting was en pendant with Antonio Joli’s View of Naples (fig. 1) recently sold by Robilant + Voena to a New York private collector. The two views, even if painted at least 20 years apart, have a similar composition, a large part of each being taken up by light blue sea upon which numerous shipping vessels glide, as well as both having identical measurements. Therefore it seems reasonable to argue that the first owner, probably a German Grand Tourist, already had Vanvitelli’s View of Messina in his collection around 1740 and commissioned Antonio Joli’s View of Naples as a pendant.
As pointed out by Charles Beddington, who first recognised this painting as one of Vanvitelli’s major works, seven other views of Messina by the artist are already known. Vanvitelli used at least five different viewpoints to depict the Sicilian city. In the present painting the view is taken from the North, the foreground showing the church of Santa Maria della Grotta, erected by Simone Gullì between 1622 and 1639. Following the shoreline to the hills one can see the Forte di Montegrifone and on the waterfront the Palazzata, also built by Simone Gullì which comprised a spectacular complex of palaces with 18 monumental doors that fronted the port (fig. 2) and was destroyed in the earthquake of 1783. At the centre of the view is the port, enclosed by the Castello di San Salvatore which was built in 1546. Also visible on at the end of the port, towards the open sea is the tower of the Lanterna, the lighthouse erected in 1555 as part of a project by Montorsoli. The left hand side of the view is occupied by the Strait of Messina, which divides Italy and Sicily, upon which can be seen many different types of vessels and fishing boats, whilst the hills of Calabria and the city of Reggio Calabria on the other side of the strait can be seen on the far left.
Two other paintings with the same viewpoint are known. One smaller version is at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Toulon, dated 1712, and another of similar dimensions dated 1720, which is part of a private collection in Prague. Both are en pendant with a View of Messina from Borgo San Leo (cfr. G. Briganti, Gaspar Van Wittel, ed.by L. Laureati – L.Trezzani, Milan 1996, pp. 279 -280, Nos. 403 – 406).
The Messina views are come from one of the least documented parts of Vanvitelli’s career. None of his contemporary biographers record the Dutch painter travelling to Sicily and the early provenance of his views of the city is entirely unknown. Furthermore, these views of Messina are not recorded in the inventories of the collections of his main patrons, the Colonna family, Don Livio Odescalchi and the Duke of Medinaceli. Some scholars such as Walther Vitzhum and An Zwollo have even advanced the hypothesis that Vanvitelli never in fact travelled to Sicily at all and that he painted his views working only from the drawings that his friend Filippo Juvarra may have given him.
The number of the views, eight are recorded to date, the varied viewpoints and the very detailed depiction of the city seem however all to be very solid arguments against this hypothesis. Furthermore all the most authoritative scholars from Giuliano Briganti to Laura Laureati and Ludovica Trezzani accept the idea that Vanvitelli did indeed travel there. This trip could have taken place before 1712, the date attributed to the View of Messina from Borgo San Leo (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Toulon), perhaps as an extension of his second stay in Naples in 1711. However it is also plausible, that his first visit was at some point between 1699 and 1702.
It should be remembered that during the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries, Messina was the commercial and artistic capital of Sicily and seen as even more important than Palermo, the political capital and seat of the Viceroy. During the 16th century artists such as Polidoro da Caravaggio and Giovanni Montorsoli spent a large part of their career in Messina and it was at the beginning of the 17th century that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted two exceptional altarpieces for the churches of the Padri Crociferi and of Santa Maria della Concezione. It was during the middle of the 17th century that Don Antonio Ruffo di Bagnara amassed his remarkable collection of paintings, which included works by Rembrandt, Jordaens, Titian, Mattia Preti, and Guercino amongst others. However, the uprising of 1674-1678 against Spanish rule, and the subsequent invasion by Spanish military forces, saw severe disruption to the growth and cultural activity of the city. By the beginning of the 18th century Messina had recovered its position as an active cultural centre, a city with a wealthy aristocracy, whose members could have potentially been collectors and patrons for Vanvitelli’s work.
Vanvitelli’s views of Messina also hold outstanding importance for further historical reasons. It is well known that Messina suffered two great earthquakes, one in 1783 and one in 1908, the latter being one of the most violent in European history and which almost completely destroyed the ancient city. Paintings like the present view or the View of Messina from Tirone hill (fig. 3 sold by Christie’s; New York, 12 January 1996, lot 35) are the best documentation to reconstruct the image of a city that during the 16th and 17th centuries was one of the main artistic centres in Italy.
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