Gaetano Gandolfi

(S. Matteo della Decima 1734 - 1802 Bologna)

St. Mary Magdalen

Oil on canvas, 58 x 46 cm (22.83 x 18.11 inches)

  • Reference: 652

D. Biagi Maino, "Rileggendo Diderot", in "Gaetano e Ubaldo Gandolfi: opere scelte", by Donatella Biagi Maino, Exhibition catalogue (Cento), Turin 2002, pp. 16-17, fig. 3

Mary Magdalene, painted still young and with tears streaming down her face, is represented reading the Holy Scriptures while holding on her hand a skull, traditional tool for meditation on the fleeting existence. Magdalene’s hermitage, started 14 years after the end of Jesus’ terrestrial life is reported into details in a passage of the Golden Legend (XCV, III) by Jacobus de Voragine: once reached Marseille for divine intercession after having been abandoned by the pagans on a boat without oar and helm in order for her to die, the penitent girl spends the rest of her life between the work of evangelizing the Provence and a yearned isolation from the world. At the moment of her death angels reach her in the cave she decided to live in and bring her to heaven, with the privilege of assumption. This precious painting is a work of Bologna’s painter Gaetano Gandolfi, master that just like Batoni, Tiepolo and De Mura can be with good reason rated among the small group of the greatest Italian artists of the Eighteenth Century. The seductive freshness in the linear definition but also the very subtile use of highlights make the canvas a real masterpiece, example of the sensuality of the baroque's last season. Gaetando Gandolfi was born in San Matteo della Decima (part of San Giovanni in Persiceto) and when he was around 14 years-old he went to Bologna to follow his older brother Ubaldo . His talent was quickly noticed in the Accademia Clementina, mainly thanks to his artistic versatility: he was able to stand out, even at a young age, also as skilled sculptor and pattern maker . Through his long training he passed from studying Bologna’s tradition’s masterpieces to Venice’s masters. In fact, his friendship with the Venetian merchant Antonio Buratti allowed him to spend a year in Venice, following an habit that became frequent among the best Bologna’s minds from the Carracci cousins on. For a young painter, already well-known as a design virtuoso, getting in contact with 1760 Venice’s cultural context meant to get to know both the great texts of the Sixteenth Century (Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese) and the new season of Ricci, Piazzetta and Tiepolo’s magnificent works. And it is precisely from the Eighteenth Century's masters that Gandolfi seems to make the most of. If we confront the works made in Bologna before leaving for Venice, such as the canvases – however magnificent - of the Oratorio del Suffragio in Bazzano, with those made immediately after his return, only three years later, as the Crucifixion, once in Holy Mary of Grace’s church in Reggio Emilia and today in the Fontanesi Gallery , we get the impression of standing in front of two different artists: the first still connected with the tradition of the Incamminati and more in general with the various “returns” to the Carracci cousins that marked Bologna’s painting between the Seventeenth and the Eighteenth Century (and Bazzano’s paintings recall precisely the works of Annibale and Lodovico); the second artist, instead, is completely inserted in the context of the Eighteenth Century, showing the typical fluidity of the European painting by the end of the Ancien Régime. It is evident that Gaetano – much more than his brother Ubaldo, excellent witness of Bologna's school's vitality until the 80s – used to rather set himself in an European context. His reference points, much more than the Seventeenth Century masters, seem to be Tiepolo and Amigoni, by no accident the most highly regarded Venetian figure painters abroad. And if we are able to sense this aptitude in Bologna's altar pieces, in the (few) fresco works and in the mythological paintings commissioned to Gaetano mainly by foreigners, it is far more manifest in the “room paintings”, often featuring religious topics and with one figure, apparently the subject which the artist was most keen on between 1760-65. Therefore our Magdalene is part of a group of works very similar for structuring and formal outcomes. We are thinking of course of the Magdalene (Bologna, private Collection) displayed around ten years ago in an exhibition in Cento (during this occasion our canvas was shown by Donatella Biagi Maino), painted slightly later than our work; yet, here the Venetian impressions are brought back to a linear hortus conclusus of a Bologna nature. Hence, in my opinion the easiest comparison is the one with the 1763-64 canvases: the Girl's half-lenght portrait (Bologna, private collection) signed and dated 1763 , the Saint Peter penitent up for auction attributed to Ubaldo and then brought back to Gaetano , and specially the wonderful Saint Joseph with the Child, already of Bologna's Lauro Collection, where we can perfectly see the same pattern in the white cuff's pleats embellished by very delicate brushstrokes of golden light . Our Magdalene shares with these works not only morphological aspects, but also an idealogical and cultural infrastructure, sign of a turning point. If compared with paintings featuring private devotion from Bologna's previous season (such as those by Ercole Graziano, at whose workshop Gaetano spent a brief training period ten years before) our penitent girl seems living a much more ineffable ontological dimension. The didactic representation's certainty of the time marked by the pastoral action in Bologna and Rome of Prospero Lambertini, acceded as Benedict XIV to the papal throne, was fading. As I already wrote in another occasion , in the mid-Eighteenth Century the religious painting in Bologna thrives on the “moderate devotion” that Lodovico Antorio Muratori set as the best good christian's attitude in front of the mystery of faith. The immanent representation, even of miracles, by pope Lambertini's painters (Creti in the last period, Graziani, Marchesi, Pedretti, Luigi Crespi) followed Benedict XIV's mirage of brightening the doctrine with the light of the Enlightenment's reason. When this dream faints (basically with the issue of Montesquieu's L’esprit des lois in 1748, quickly blacklisted), the explicative need of the religious painting begins to thrive on the baroque's theory of senses.The Gandolfi brothers begin to work in this new way of thinking. As recently said in a beautiful contribution on Vercelli's cathedral's altar pieces , made by Ubaldo and Gaetano between the end of the 70s and the begin of the 80s, their religious topics, and specially those of the youngest Gaetano, were full of integrally anti-Enlightenment poetics, iconic translation of the closing position towards the new ideas that the Roman church started adopting from the second half of the Century. If reason and faith were on different and antithetic tracks, it might as well leave aside the didactic reasoning and go back to the emotional stimulus. Hence devotion images such as our Magdalene: through tears made by wonderful traces of lights she seems to talk directly to our impulsiveness, seeking in the amazed gaze of us observers an existential tune beyond the cultural values of the various ages. If there was a limit in the doctrine of Enlightenment , it was that it did not managed to look beyond its own time, of being pleased of an eternal present that had nothing to share with the past. Gaetano Gandolfi's sentimental painting, paradoxically for its very being “outside” of history, will find admirers in any time, moved by the lyric of this amazing poet. FEDERICO GIANNINI 1 - P. Bagni, I Gandolfi: affreschi, dipinti, bozzetti, disegni, Bologna 1992, p. 213. 2 - S. Zamboni, in L’arte del Settecento emiliano. La pittura. L’Accademia Clementina, catalogue of the exhibition, Bologna 1979, p. 253, nn. 473-474. 3 - D. Biagi Maino, Gaetano Gandolfi, Torino 1995, pp. 343-344, 346, nn. 2-3, 9, figg. 2-3, 13. 4 - L. Ciancabilla, in Gaetano e Ubaldo Gandolfi: opere scelte, by D. Biagi Maino, catalogue of the exhibition (Cento), Torino 2002, p. 49, n. 3. 5 - G. Zucchini, in Mostra del Settecento bolognese, catalogue of the exhibition, Bologna 1935, p. 81. 6 - Important and fine old master pictures: the properties of the late Alexander Francis St Vincent Baring, 6th Lord Ashburton, Christie’s, Manson & Woods, Londra, 15/4/1992, n. 51. 7 - D. Biagi Maino, in Il bel dipingere. Dipinti e disegni emiliani dal XV al XIX secolo, by D. Benati, catalogue of the exhibition, Bologna 2012, pp. 126-129, n. 32. 8 - F. Giannini, Ercole Graziani il Giovane (1688 - 1765): la “Regolata Devozione” nella pittura bolognese del Settecento, Chieti 2007, pp. 41-43. 9 - F. Conti, Motivi antilluministi nella pittura dei Gandolfi a Vercelli, in “Bollettino storico vercellese”, 37, 2008, pp. 35-57.

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