Luca Giordano

(Naples 1634 - 1705)

The Legend of Perseus

Oil on glass, 55 x 63,6 cm (21.65 x 25.04 inches)

  • Reference: 651
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In the centre there is the largest glass sheet, representing “Perseus fighting against Phineus and his companions”; on the right, anticlockwise, there is “Perseus setting Andromeda free”; “Ariadne asleep” follows below; on the left there is “Pan and Syrinx”; above there is “Ulysses and his companions attracted by the Sirens at Scilla and Charybdis”. The object's assemblage procedures raise the issue of understanding its original utilization. Being the five sheets arranged in order to form – if considered in section – the volume of truncated pyramid seems to allude to the lid of a casket or of a sumptuous safe (if this lid was on the top of this safe), or to the central section of a grand moneybox. Without the aid of diagnostic tools, at the moment it is impossible to determine if and to what extent is the perfect framing we are currently observing – probably dating back to the end of the Eighteenth century, maybe slightly later – bearing parts of the original object. In any case, around the central image a quartet of scenes linked to loves and legends belonging to the classic myth comes to life, and nothing contradicts the idea that our object, whatever its original function, was made of the same elements that we are now observing, in the same position. The first observation on this object is that it is in exceptional conditions of preservation , allowing us to verify to the full its author's intentions. Then, we have to point out that the formal care in making the paintings elevates them to a level that is quite different from the usual one in painting on glass for a figurative decoration on furniture or other fittings, although our work's utilization was probably this as well. In any case, though with differences in the pictorial ductus deriving from the usage of glass as a support, the paintings show stylistic features typical of the Neapolitan painting of the second half of the Seventeenth century, and I believe they should be attributed to Luca Giordano (Naples, 1634–1705) and probably in part to his workshop. From Bernardo de’ Dominici's Life of the artist it is widely known that Luca Giordano was a virtuoso of glass painting, and that his activity in this field developed to such an extent that he started a specific workshop specialized in this technique. Under the master's supervision, Carlo Garofalo, Andre Vincenti, Domenico Perrone, Francesco della Torre and Domenico Coscia used to work there (cf. de’ Dominici 1742-44: III, 452). Modern critique practically just glanced at this branch of Giordano's production, actually, thanks to above-mentioned Carlo Galofalo's intercession, reason for the artist to move in Spain as the King's painter between 1692 and 1702, characterizing his production in this decade as well (cf. A. Gonzalez-Palacios in Mostra Napoli 1984: II, 293-296; L. Martino in Mostra Napoli 1984: II, 422-430; Martino 1992; mentions in Ferrari-Scavizzi 1992, I: 123, 232 note 10; Martino in mostra Napoli-Vienna-Los Angeles 2001-2002: 248-249, n. 80). Among the few glass paintings considered originals of Giordano there are the “Adoration of the three Kings” and the “Adoration of the Shepherds” in Granja's Saint Ildefonso, dating back to 1688 (cf. Ferrari-Scavizzi 1992, I: 322, A435; II: 705, ims. 567-568). Lately, attributions to Carlo Garofalo have been attempted as well (cf. The four mythologic stories in Madrid, at Artemisia Gallery, and the “Adoration of the three Kings” in Rome, Funaro Collection); again, a “Hercules and Omphale” in octagon, correctly attributed to Luca Giordano, in Milan, Giulini Collection; and Prof. Riccardo Lattuada attributed him a “Piety” exposed in 2011 in Vienna's Dorotheum. Without being able to discuss each attribution of glass paintings to Giordano, we must say that the issue we are facing here is of establishing if our work is entirely or in part by Luca Giordano or his assistants, and where does it stand compared to the artist's oeuvres. So, lets move now to situate stylistically the stories forming the painting, starting from “Perseus fighting against Phineus”. Giordano made various versions of this story: in London, National Gallery; in Genoa, Palazzo Reale; in South Hadley (Mass.); in Mount Holyhoke College Art Museum; and in Madrid, Prado (cf. respectively Ferrari-Scavizzi 1992: 617 im. 381; 618, im. 383; 797, im. 790; 619, im. 387). We know of another version only through a print. Our version cannot be assimilated with the those we know of, and none of its details can be mechanically superimposed to details in other works by Giordano, yet the protagonists', especially Perseus', physiognomies are completely in Giordano's style. As for the chromatic point of view and for the architectures in the background, the strongest stylistic bond is sensed with Giordano's paintings made between 1670-1680, in other words with those distinctly more in neo-Veronesi style, from which many skilfully reused details derive. However, the models for the figures are mostly comparable with those of the paintings made in 1680-1690. For example, the detail of the head wearing the blue turban of the warrior facing backwards on the foreground carrying the tortoise shield is linked with the one of the boatman on the right in the “Call of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew”, already on the market in London, dating back to 1685 (cf. Ferrari-Scavizzi 1992: 312, A371; II, 109, tab. LXVI). In many details of the central part an extraordinary expertise comes out; for example, in painting Phineus' companions' faces turining into stone by looking at Medusa's head, becoming therefore gradually grey: this effect is dramatically objective on the face of the warrior looking for the spear, still only spotted with grey. As for the four sheets on the sides, it is easier to find direct correspondences with Giordano's paintings: “Perseus and Andromeda” is linked with the homonymous painting already in Naples' Nobilissima Gallery, according to Lattuada dating back to the 1680s, but according to other opinions of the following decade (therefore made during Giordano's Spanish period, 1692-1702), since it is quite similar in the composition to Barcelona's version, University (cf. Ferrari-Scavizzi 1992: I, 347, A620; II, im. 789. A Perez-Sanchez in Mostra Napoli-Vienna-Los Angeles 2001-2002: 338-339, n. 118, traces the origin of the series back from the Prince's Casita to the Escorial; the series was made of four mythologic paintings scattered after 1734's fire, and Barcelona's “Perseus and Andromeda” was one of them). It is more difficult to find a precise anchorage for “Ariadne asleep”, atypical figure in Giordano's figurative world, probably also due to the quite rare iconography of its production (yet clearly deduced by well-known classic models). Instead, the three erotes leading the shell-shaped couch of the sleeping heroine, towed on the water by a couple of dolphins, are entirely typical of Giordano. As far as “Pan and Syrinx” is concerned, there is an easy comparison with Giordano's version and study in Hampton Court, Royal Collection, and more in general with the one in London, Walpole Gallery, dating back to around 1685 (cf. Ferrari-Scavizzi 1992: I, 192, 212, im. 55; A405; 101, tab. LXII). Finally, as for the sheet representing “Ulysses and his companions at Scilla and Charybdis”, we can notice that various details in painting the three figures recur here and there in Giordano's 1660-1670s production. The elaborate hairstyle of the mermaid facing backwards on the foreground is a variation on the drawing of the amazing female figure facing backwards on the foreground, in the center of Naples' “Feast of the Gods with Adonis”, private collection, dating back to the end of the 1650s and the first half of the following decade (cf. N. Spinosa in Mostra Napoli-Vienna-Los Angeles 2001-2002: 116-117, n. 20). At the same time, the figure seems like a clever overturning of the one of the nymph in the said “Pan and Syrinx” in London, Walpole Gallery. It is possible to make various other comparisons for the two other figures of mermaid; among these, the one with the figure in the left lower part of “Persephone’s return”, in Chalon-sur-Saône, Musée Vivant Denon, and with the figure of the Fraud in the “Allegory of Prudence”, sketch for the homonymous compartment frescoed by Giordano in Medici-Riccardi Gallery (cf. respectively D.M. Pagano and G. Finaldi in Mostra Napoli-Vienna-Los Angeles 2001-2002: 118-119, n. 21; 268-269, n. 81m). At this point we have to briefly discuss the following issue: what degree of certainty there is that this is a work directly made by Giordano? I do not think that there is a strong hiatus formal commitment-wise on the five sheets; yes, the central sheet seems more finished off and – probably also by reason of its larger dimensions – it is astonishing for the definition of every detail; for example, Perseus' head, with the blue helmet touched by the reflections on the metal, is a piece of painting not difficult to find, for the quality of the execution and for the strength of definition, in a work directly made by Giordano. The five smaller sheets, probably for reason of the miniature dimensions of the images, are painted in a slightly less elaborated way, and the figures show the slightly round outlines sometimes attributed for stylistic basis to Carlo Garofalo, but the level of execution is definitely superior. If it is true, as it is, that glass painting features a constant reuse of prints, figures, drawings and models deriving from monumental dimension paintings, or in any case not miniatures, we have to admit that in evaluating glass painting the critique didn't particularly linger on the fact that such a technique literally implies a overturning, an inversion in the traditional canvas (or wood) painting executive approach: you start with what in a painting represents the final highlights, then you gradually broaden to the layers that in a painting normally are those of the beginning, such as the figures, the architectures, the background, the preparation and so on. If considered under the light of these considerations, our work is an impressive example of pictorial virtuosity; virtuosity that for Giordano was a feather in his cap. To understand these aptitudes you just have to think of his wicker, terracotta and plaster works made in Florence, in competition with a tradition referring to Giovanni da San Giovanni; and it is no accident that it is told that at the beginning Giordano's reputation reached Spain first of all through his glass paintings. If we wanted to formulate some more hypothesis on the original utilization of our work, we can say that the glass sheets are of such a quality that they let us think of the lid of a casket rather than the door of a piece of furniture: they are made in order to appreciate their technique from a quite close distance, from which neither the possible abbreviations or the care for details can be missed. In conclusion, my opinion is that the central sheet is undoubtedly by Giordano, and that partial interventions by the workshop could be attributed to the four sheets on the sides, yet always under the master's direct control, and in any case with his accomplishment. Therefore we are in front of a piece of work whose rediscovery opens new prospectives and gives us new pieces of information on Giordano's ability in front of such an atypical support as glass, not used here for a simply decorative purpose, but used for an elect exercise of private utilization. Given the interest of this finding, I propose explaining what I have been researching here for you in a next scientific publication. Riccardo Lattuada

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