A. Loda, in L. Fornari Schianchi-N. Spinosa (ed.), Luce sul Settecento. Gaspare Traversi e l’arte del suo tempo in Emilia, exhibition catalogue (Parma), Naples 2004, p. 148, no. 46 (ill.);
Robilant+Voena, Italian Paintings from the 17th to the 18th Centuries, catalogue of the exhibition at Sperone Westwater, New York, 2011, p. 40.
Set in a dark interior with just a single source of light coming from the left, the painting depicts a violent fight between two relatively young men. The standing figure is grasping the kneeling man’s hair with his left hand and is pointing his pistol at him, ready to fire, with his thumb raising the hammer. In response to the assault, the second figure - who has a gun in his tailcoat pocket - holds a knife to his rival’s chest, but the other man’s dog bites him, effectively thwarting his counterattack. Although their clothing would identify the two adversaries as members of the middle class, we must not ignore the untidy hair, the kneeling man’s earring and the torn sleeve of his jacket that speak to the dissolute lifestyles of both figures.
Traditionally attributed to Giacomo Ceruti (as per a nineteenth century label on the back of the stretcher, indicating that it was in Vienna and identifying it as: “Italienische schüle. J. Ceruti gennant Pitocheto”), this author recognized the canvas (oral communication to the owners) about ten years ago as an example of the early years of the Milanese painter’s career. Later, the painting was shown with the same attribution at the exhibition on Gaspare Traversi held in Parma in 2004, with a catalogue entry by Angelo Loda who emphasized the relationship with the artist’s earlier works in Brescia and specifically the paintings from the Padernello cycle.
The reference to Ceruti is justified in the first place by the way the scene is framed and in the resulting compositional and spatial arrangements. As Loda has already noted, the choice of a raised and very close viewpoint (the scene seems to “slide” downwards on the floor) is a feature common to most of the artist’s early genre scenes in which - just as in this painting - this expedient serves to accentuate the way the protagonists loom up in the foreground and hence emphasizes their powerful presence. In this sense there are very significant comparisons that can be made with similar solutions we see in the Women Working on Pillow Lace (The Sewing School) and in Tapping Wine (private collection; M. Gregori, Giacomo Ceruti, Cinisello Balsamo 1982, pp. 433-434, nos. 55, 57), two paintings in the so-called Padernello cycle, the large series of pauperistic canvases Ceruti painted during his long stay in Brescia from 1721 to 1736.
The congruity with Ceruti’s language suggested by these compositional choices is confirmed even further on the basis of the more strictly stylistic prerogatives of the canvas characterized by a diluted and essential texture, achieved with great speed and in some points limited to little more than a light glaze, completely à plat (see, for example, the kneeling man’s blue breeches). These features are all shared by the painter’s early works, from the portraits done at the beginning of the 1720s to the earlier examples of the Padernello cycle such as the Two Old Beggars or The Dwarf (private collection; Gregori, 1982, pp. 432-433, nos. 50, 53).
The most interesting fact, however, is that as in the Beggars, in our painting the restrained use of the medium blends not only with a surprising narrative immediacy, but also with a great ability in naturalistic study that comes across here in the rapid but extremely effective and accurate rendering of the details of the clothing such as the shoes with metal buckles, the hose cross-gartered below the knee, or the worn tailcoat made of shoddy fabric. Not to mention where the artist achieves his most remarkable results in this scene as he captures reality in rendering the dog’s thick coat with magnificent effects of realism and light
Ceruti also emphasizes the definition of the rough, gnarled hands which recall those of the Cobblers in the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia (Gregori, 1982, p. 435, no. 61; fig. 1). However, this harmony with the language of his early canvases is broken by the faces of the two protagonists distinguished by enraged and almost caricatural expressivity: this is quite unusual in the Lombard painter’s work that is usually free of similar physiognomical exaggerations. Based on the “customs” of earlier genre scenes and specifically the slightly stereotyped repertoire of a specialist such as Giacomo Francesco Cipper, called Todeschini (1664-1736), this more anecdotal component should actually be interpreted as a clue to a very early dating for the canvas making it reasonable to assume a date prior to even many of the earliest paintings in the Padernello cycle and therefore, not far from 1720.
Recent studies have, in fact, focused on the important role that the vast Lombard output of the prolific Todeschini played in Ceruti’s development as a genre scene painter. In addition to serving as a fundamental reference in terms of subject choices, Todeschini - at least in the beginning - gave his young Milanese colleague important suggestions in the area of stylistic guidelines. A precise indication in this sense comes from a painting such as the Card-players formerly in the Sciltian Collection (and now at the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia; Gregori, 1982, p. 431, no. 44; fig. 2). That canvas is unanimously dated nearly at the beginning of Ceruti’s catalogue and it seems very important to note (especially in the face of the boy on the right) a propensity for a highly charged and overstated rendering of the faces which in many ways is similar to what we see in The Brawl.
Furthermore, that the typologies of the figures in our painting are not foreign to Ceruti’s language is confirmed by the comparison offered by one of the rare religious paintings from the artist’s Brescia period, that is Saint Apollonius Blessing Saints Faustinus and Jovita in the parish church at Bione (Gregori, 1982, p. 442, no. 91), which is most likely datable around the 1720s. The gaunt profile of one of the two martyred saints is surprisingly similar to that of the standing man in The Brawl, almost allowing us to understand how in the earlier days, the artist had not yet entirely separated the expressive key of his genre scenes from the more flowing and more relaxed, so to speak, modus operandi of his religious scenes.
Finally, the iconographic contents of the painting deserve a word or two: they are based on a very unusual theme in the vast repertoire of genre scenes. Although it had already been dealt with by some leading genre scenes painters in the first half of the seventeenth century (for example, there is The Musicians’ Brawl by Georges de La Tour; Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 1625-1630), the brawl as a subject did not seem to enjoy consistent success in the following decades. From our standpoint and in light of the foregoing considerations, it is worthwhile to mention that Todeschini himself dealt with the theme on several occasions, giving the finest interpretation in the big The Card-players’ Brawl conserved in a private collection in Bergamo for which a dating has been proposed in the mature phase of his career (M.S. Proni, Giacomo Francesco Cipper detto il “Todeschini”, Soncino 1994, pp. 114, no. 37). However, it is entirely likely that the Austrian painter had worked on the same subject in earlier years and in this way blazed the trail for the younger Ceruti who, in turn, and certainly after the painting presented here, would return to the depiction of a fight in more subdued tones in The Brawling Porters painted for the Padernello cycle (Gregori, 1982, p.435, no. 62).
The presentation of the subject in this Brawl appears decidedly more original: what is usually portrayed as a barehanded fight is transformed into a scene of fierce violence abetted by the gun. This detail, which gives the scene a surprisingly modern accent contributes, to transforming it into a “snapshot of crime news” and which the painter magnificently succeeds in conveying its crude and almost unseemly intensity.
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