Bologna and Carlo Cesare Malvasia

Bologna and Carlo Cesare Malvasia

Dosso Dossi, The Immaculate Conception; restored by Guercino towards 1650. Dresden. Gemaldegalerie. (destroyed)

Bologna and Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Naples and Bernardo De Dominici

The devotional tradition which favoured interventions and even modernizations on paintings, and more specifically on early works, and the tradition in which respect was shown when treating the works of the great masters, would intertwine and influence one another in various ways throughout the seventeenth century. It is not possible really to trace a line of demarcation between these two traditions, as it would vary according to circumstance: whether the painting was seen as an object of worship and part of the church furnishings, or whether it was characterized as a work of art. Moreover, at what point in that nebulous time which is the Classicism of the end of the fifteenth century can one say that the “good style” (“buono stile”), in all its fullness, began to be recognized?

In Malvasia’s Pitture di Bologna, he shows us clearly the strength of the Bolognese tradition of miraculous images, which was revived with the Counter-Reformation; he refers to more than seventy Madonnas transferred from one wall to another, attributing this custom to much earlier times, as though the Bolognese bishops of ages past had been ecclesiastics of the Counter-Reformation, wishing to revive the worship of images. One of the guidelines offered by Malvasia with regard to ancient paintings was that of “poor taste” (“basso gusto”): with such an identification, it is not difficult to imagine the destruction that was meted out to such works, or how they were adapted to a better style. But the other criterion is that of their “curious genius”, which renders some of his pages so vivid, such as the one in which he describes a now lost Nativity by Vitale da Bologna.
Alongside this situation, which reflects the general attitude towards the Early Masters, one can discern a tradition of confidence towards modern painting, linked to the custom of the best qualified artists retouching the works of beginners, or of other painters who, turning to these masters, would have their paintings enlivened with some masterly touch. No need to recall how the idea of these final touches by the hand of either Guido Reni or Annibale Carracci was often, within the tradition of collecting, an expedient to lend prestige to workshop productions; but what is interesting within our discussion is the vitality of this tradition in the pages of Malvasia. Referring to Guido Reni: “There would be an infinite number, if one were to draw up a complete account of all the final touches [carried out by Reni]; because it seemed that this great soul found no greater pleasure than to undertake such work, for simple thanks and not gain, and this made of him a teacher to all. Many [paintings he retouched] for Brunetti, his pupil; these, after his death, went to the Marquis Bernardino Paleotti. Many for Gallinari, and for Sirani; for instance those of the old man, and the woman school teacher. For Ercolino, and Saulo Guidotti, who also had many originals. For Procurator Lemmi, the Silenus which had been an Arianna, sold to Mastri who then sent it to France where he was given two hundred scudi for it. The four seasons for the embroiderer, another version of it going to the Signori Conti Castelli, in whose room the original had been painted. The two philosophers sold to His Highness of Modana, for the sum of two hundred scudi. For Marchese Cospi the Cleopatra copied from the original, painted for His Serene Highness, now the Cardinal of Tuscany. Another, in the house of the deceased Marchese Angelelli. The Annunciation in the church of Santa Maria della Vita, and many, many retouched for Alessandro Barbieri, for the lame barber whose name was also Alessandro, for Domenico Cappellaro, for his little Marco, and so on”.

Giovanni Lanfranco, Madonna and Child and Saints; with the repainting by Luca Giordano. Afragola, Chiesa di Rosario.

Giovanni Lanfranco, Madonna and Child and Saints; with the repainting by Luca Giordano. Afragola, Chiesa di Rosario.

It becomes obvious then, that it was not considered unseemly for the prestige of a master such as Reni to manifest itself in such a way. Outside of Bologna, such a practice would not have been described in such detail: one need only think of Bottari who, arguing on the subject of the restoration of frescos, had to resort to the authority of Saint Cyprian in order to demonstrate how offensive it was for a painter to lay his brush on the work of a colleague.
Guercino was particularly prone to intervening on the works of others, in both the ancient and the modern manner, as well as on his own paintings when they required some repair or modernization. His account book confirms what Scannelli tells us: that when his early paintings were criticized for their “excessive darkness”, he himself “in order to do his utmost and satisfy the majority, especially those who demanded the work with money, had made the paintings more legible using a lighter manner”. The theme of respect between artists would return in Scannelli, when he recorded Guercino’s refusal to complete the Certosa di Sant’Anna in Bologna, an altarpiece left unfinished by Reni, having “at all times held its author in due reverence”. On the other hand, the account book does show Guercino, in early 1643, working on a Saint Jerome by Reni in the possession of the merchant Ludovico Mastri, and then on a Saint Matthew which Reni had begun. Referring to the Saint Jerome by Reni, Malvasia specified that “it was given to Giovan Francesco Barbieri to complete, but he [Mastri] never considered it to be by his [Guercino’s] hand, but by [Reni], and he paid for it with this in mind”
Staying as his guest, Guercino had retouched many paintings for Filippo Aldovrandi; and in 1652, the account book registered the intervention on a Madonna with Saint Joseph by Titian for Cardinal Cibo, legate to Ferrara. In any case, his activities in the field of restoration and adaptation were well attested by his repainting of an altarpiece by Dosso Dossi, executed for the Duke of Modena towards 1650. Notwithstanding the very precise indications given by the annotators of the nineteenth-century edition of the Felsina Pittrice, which allow one to identify this painting with the great Immaculate Conception of Dresden, scholars of Dosso Dossi, embarrassed by the apparent anomaly of the classicism of this work, have always attributed this to the collaboration of his brother Battista. In this case, however, the distinction between the hands of the two brothers becomes marginal in comparison to the massive intervention of the painter from Cento, which is evident although not verifiable, since the altarpiece was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden at the end of the Second World War. From the photographs, one can safely identify the hand of Guercino in areas in which he was not faithful to the original composition: for instance, in the figures of the Father of the Church in the centre, who is pointing to the sky, and the two figures of the Virgin and God the Father.
To what extent the admission that a master was prepared to retouch a painting (whether with the aim of restoring it or modernizing it) was linked to a question of principle can easily be established if we compare the tone of the information given us about one and the same artist by different biographers, representing the purist tradition to different degrees. Baldinucci makes no mention of the information given by Malvasia about the poor results of the varnish applied by Reni to his own oil painting in the cloister in San Michele al Bosco, nor on the circumstances in which he had applied the finishing touches to a Madonna and Saints in Palazzo Sacchetti in Rome, which had been “blocked in” (sbozzata) by Titian. He summarizes and interprets the Bolognese writer, affirming that Guido Reni “would fall into a rage when he heard that a painter had dared touch the paintings of Old Masters, even if torn and damaged, something that he would never agree to do”. The passage Baldinucci is referring to is the one in which Malvasia records the respect in which Reni held ancient paintings “because of their age and devotion” (per certa venusta e devozione), as well as recounting the episode [which occurred] in Ravenna in which he had been enraged by the retouching carried out on some figures by Livio Agresti in the church of San Spirito Santo, to the extent that “he had added blows to the rebuke” meted out to the unfortunate charged with the task, but there is no principle suggesting that this was a generally held attitude.

Marco Pino, Saint Michael; with the addition and the patination by Battistello Caracciolo. Naples, Santa Maria la Nova.

Marco Pino, Saint Michael; with the addition and the patination by Battistello Caracciolo. Naples, Santa Maria la Nova.

Amongst other masters responsible for repaintings or restorations were Lionello Spada, the Cavalier Franceschini who is thought to have repaired the image of the Christ child in the Madonna di Galliera, and Felice Cignani in the fifteenth-century frescos of the Cappella Bentivoglio in San Giacomo Maggiore. Much of the information cannot be verified on the paintings themselves, as these have been either recently restored or else dispersed; but the tradition carried on, and was well documented throughout the eighteenth century, as can be seen from the protests against the worst of the botchers working on paintings exhibited in public spaces, protests recorded in the various editions of Pitture di Bologna as well as in the manuscripts of Marcello Oretti.
Bernardo De Dominici was, according to Giannone, a repairer of old paintings, so it is not surprising that he gives us an extremely well-articulated account of the renovations (“rifaci- menti”) undergone by the paintings in Naples, a city with a maritime climate ill-suited to the conservation of paintings.7 One of the principal factors leading to interventions on paintings which had deteriorated (or which required devotional adjustment) was the Neapolitans’ lively cult of images, which easily led to cleanings, periodic oilings and repaintings. Of a panel by Silvestro Buono in San Gregorio Armeno, De Dominici affirms that he was unable to see it, notwithstanding considerable efforts to find it, “so that I surmised that it had been removed or been retouched by Giovanni Bernardo Lama, as was the case with those which were in San Pietro ad Ara and in the [church of] the Santissima Nunziata, as well as the one in San Niccolo alla Dogana which, because they were in such poor condition, had to be largely repainted, so that they no longer appeared to be by him to the eye of the onlooker. A misfortune which occurs frequently, at times even to the works of the most renowned masters, so that the paintings lose the reputation of being by the hand of the master, although the greatest honour must always go to him who is responsible for the composition”.
Overpaintings and restorations could also be carried out only a few years after the completion of a painting. Battistello’s two canvases of the Torture and The Decapitation of San Gennaro in the Certosa of San Martino were found in appalling condition once the wretched seventeenth-century repainting (which had even altered the composition) had been removed; entrusted in the 1970s to the attentions of Antonio De Mata, many other paintings from the Certosa revealed repaintings which could be dated to only twenty or thirty years after the original execution of the works. In Ribera’s Deposition, a much travailed composition, a seventeenth-century restoration had already moved the nail in the background to a parallel position in the foreground; of The Nativity by Battistello, companion piece to The Adoration of the Magi, only the composition of the original was preserved.
A few of these canvases serve as evidence that the repainting was not always carried out by those who De Domenici terms “botchers” (“guastamestieri”): the two lateral paintings by Caracciolo depicting Saint John the Baptist and San Gennaro had been repaired, strengthening the dark backgrounds (in the Saint John the suggestion of a landscape can now be made out), the damaged parts repainted, for instance the upper portion of the Precursor’s cane. A restoration of this kind had also been carried out on the lunettes depicting the founders of the religious orders by Finoglia, the repaint only having a tendency to darken the general tonality of the painting. Sometimes the authorship of the restorations or adaptations can be traced to some of the best artists active in Naples: Battistello, when painting the frescos in the chapel in Santa Maria la Nova in which hangs the Saint Michael by Paolo Pino, painted in some 44, 45 additional figures of devils in the lower section of the painting, and harmonized the original section with the new with a dark glaze, which nevertheless did not cover the halo surrounding the Archangel’s head, as can be seen in old photographs.
Lanfranco, using tempera, repainted the corbels of his cupola in the church of the Gesй Nuovo, which had been blackened during a fire, and it is not surprising to find the name of Luca Giordano (an artist renowned for painting in the manner of other artists) amongst those entrusted with restorations: he was responsible for repainting the head of a Madonna in a Holy Family by Andrea Vaccaro, which had suffered “because the ground of the painting had cracked”, and in the altarpiece by Lanfranco in Sant’Anna dei Lombardi 46 (which is now in the church of the Rosary at Afragola) he modified two saints, adapting himself to the style of that master, and “he imitated Lanfranco’s manner so well – Celano tells us – that it is impossible to distinguish if one is not in the know”.
This tradition of restoration often executed with great bravura, but always balanced between renovation and repainting (ripristino e ridipintura), carried on into the eighteenth century: amongst examples that were carried out in his own time, De Dominici referred to the repainting of the sky and clouds in the ceiling by Corenzio in Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, after which it was found to have “much more beauty”. Gennaro Greco, a landscape painter in fresco, successfully transferred to the use of the oil medium when restoring a perspective. Paolo de Matteis, when painting the side panels which were to accompany a work by Sabatini in Sant’Anna di Palazzo, also laid his brush on the sixteenth-century central panel; and his pupil Domenico Guarino, as well as restoring landscapes by Domenico Gargiulo and paintings by Corenzio in the Certosa di San Martino, [in the church of] the Incoronata, also restored the frescos by Roberto di Oderisio, which at the time were believed to be by Giotto.
If one bears in mind how, as recently as in the previous century, in some cases (take the additions to the Negation and the Liberation of Saint Peter, two small paintings by Cavallino in the church of the Gerolimini), the canvas used had just been a strip from some old painting, then it is easier to understand the admiration felt by De Domenici when he referred to how Francesco Solimena, in order not to touch the original sketches, had “transferred onto another canvas” the unfinished compositions on biblical subjects which Luca Giordano had begun for the Duke of Ascalona; or how he had chosen to paint on canvas certain figures of apostles, in order not to destroy the frescos of Giacomo del Po in Santi Apostoli. The respect of the works by other artists had become, by this time, a trait of professional ethics, which an esteemed master could no longer ignore.
When confronted with the conservation of ancient paintings, De Domenici’s position was still linked to a consideration of their relative value: substitution was legitimate, when the new painting would be a better one, although this might lead to the loss of mural paintings. The passage that best illustrates this point refers to the frescos of Agostino Tesauro in the Chapel of Sant’Aspreno in the Duomo in Naples, which have recently been recovered from under the very repaintings which De Domenici lamented:
“One can see the stories and the ornaments which have been painted anew by an able but not skilled pupil of Solimena, by order of the present prince of Monte Miletto Don Leonardo Tocco, who wished them to be modernized and enriched; he has added gold highlights to the decoration, and completely repainted them.
And you can see … how much excellence they have lost through having new colours laid over them; if one really wished to bring them up to date in order to improve them, then there was our renowned Francesco Solimena who would have consoled us for the loss of these esteemed paintings, by the acquisition of some of his priceless works, which are as truly worthy of immortality as he is. But it is the misfortune of Naples, to seem to be congenitally disposed towards having the many paintings by the aforementioned great artists (which are to be venerated because of their antiquity), modernized by the hand of idiot painters (we call them botchers) rather than restored by worthy and skilful men”.ii,13 Already in the seventeenth century, we find the profession of restorer becoming distinct from that of painter; De Dominici records as a painter specializing in restorations, a certain Giacomo di Castro (a pupil of Battistello who had become a follower of Domenichino): “As Naples was at that time full of lovers of our arts, and with this delighting in paintings, they had him repair many of these works; some – which were almost dead and considered as lost – he brought back to life with his secrets; and Giacomo took up this work as he saw that some [practitioners] ruined rather than repaired paintings; and, more importantly, rather than retouching them, they had plastered them over, so that they lost the beauty which had been painted there. And this is what had happened to a head painted by Titian, which was in a sorry state, belonging to a Lord of the House of Capua, a certain Giacomo. Having seen the damage he tried to remedy it. And it is thus that he took up this work, and becoming excellently skilled in the knowledge of the different styles of the artists, because he had their brushwork before his eyes, with his hands he would treat these works so that he became very knowledgeable, as was also the case with Nicola di Liguoro who from childhood was his apprentice, and Antonio di Simone who was a disciple to Luca Giordano …”.“
We know that Giacomo di Castro cleaned the paintings of the Monte di Misericordia in about 1670; as yet, no restoration has been found by the hand of the other two restorers mentioned by De Dominici-Nicola di Liguor o and Antonio di Simone. A very attractive portrait of Di Simone as a painter/philosopher was painted by De Dominici in his Life of Luca Giordano, printed in Rome in 1728; “drawn by his genius, he also applied himself to the repair of pictures, especially by Old Masters”, becoming a connoisseur and collector [as a result].
“In fact, transforming himself into a figure of antiquity, he himself became an object of curiosity to the curious who would visit him, as he would appear to be more worthy of curiosity than the copious antique objects that he would show as copies to his visitors. He himself appeared as one of those philosophers of Antiquity, surrounded by books and antique objects, wearing about the house a medieval-looking wide-sleeved coat with four or more caps on his head, or else – at times – a curiously shaped paper hat, according to his need or if his head felt too hot. In other words, leading a philosopher’s life, full of knowledge and information, especially relating to painters (much of which he shared with me), loved by his friends, valued by the nobility and esteemed by all. His lungs having become asthmatic, and only eating food if he happened to see it or if he suddenly remembered, notwithstanding that this did him no good, and not wishing to see in this any warning to his health, he was struck down with a high fever, and not many months ago he passed on to a better life at the age of seventy-two”.