1953: Milan, Giovanni Testori collection;
1953: Milan, Franco Pagani collection.
I pittori della realtà in Lombardia, catalogue of the exhibition (Milan, Palazzo Reale, April-July 1953), edited by R.Cipriani and G.Testori, introduction by R.Longhi, Milan 1953, p.60, n.110; L. Pelandi, Da Fra Galgario al Ceruti, in ‘Gazzetta di Bergamo - Nuova Rivista di Bergamo’, IV, 1953, nn.8-9, p. 31; P.Dal Poggetto, Cifrondi, Antonio, in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, XXV, Rome 1981, p.470; P.Dal Poggetto, Antonio Cifrondi, in I Pittori bergamaschi dal XIII al XVIII secolo. Il Settecento, I, Bergamo 1982, p.505, n.148, fig. a p.617.
The canvas entered the art historiography on the occasion of the important exhibition I pittori della realtà in Lombardia, held at Palazzo Reale in Milan in 1953. Conceived by Roberto Longhi, the exposition featured, as is known, an excursus through the main protagonists of Lombard naturalism between the Sixteenth and Eighteenth centuries, along a path spanning from Giovan Battista Moroni to Giacomo Ceruti. In that authoritative setting, a small section was dedicated to canvas with popular themes painted between the end of the Seventeenth and the beginning of the Eighteenth century by Antonio Cifrondi from Bergamo, defined by Longhi as artworks capable to introduce, or at least hope for, “the imminent show of Giacomo Ceruti’s realistic genius”1.
Next to other half figures featuring genre subjects, the exposition included the work here analyzed as well (I pittori della realtà, 1953, p.60, n.110), quite possibly pointed out to the exhibition by the very scholar who, together with Renata Cipriani, collaborated with Longhi in organizing the event, namely Giovanni Testori. This is hinted at by the plate related to the 1953 exposition, still affixed to the back of the frame, recording Testori as the owner of the work, while catalogued with the caption: “Milan, F.Pagani collection”. In fact, such indication is only apparently a contradiction, since Franco Pagani (among whose heirs the canvas has been kept until recently) was the brother-in-law of Testori himself.
Mentioned in the catalogue of the exhibition with no critical comment, the painting has been attributed to Cifrondi in the following literature by mutual consent, which only once attempted to clarify its chronology, set by Dal Poggetto, 1982, p.505, n.148, around the last years of the artist’s activity, thus just prior to his death in 1730.
A unique source of information to reconstruct the events in the life of the author of this canvas remains the biography by Francesco Maria Tassi of 1793, which is especially useful in casting light on the eventful years of the painter’s youth2. According to Tassi’s commentary we learn that Cifrondi, born in 1656 in Clusone, in Val Seriana right in the heart of the Bergamo area, precociously left that outlying setting for Bologna and the school of Marcantonio Franceschini. A long professional journey ensued from his training experience, that shows Antonio arriving in Turin firstly, and then in France, where he accomplished “several works” for the Grande-Chartreuse in Grenoble, and later moving even into Paris, where he achieved the support of the “duke d’Arcourt”. The latter being a personality whose identity has never been clarified to date, but which should coincide with that of Henry d’Harcourt (1654-1718), first duke d’Harcourt, a nobleman of Norman origins, who had a brilliant military career under King Louis XIV.
Enriched by the amazing chronicled news about the painter’s presence in Rome in October 1679, this adventurous youthful period (unfortunately, down to the present, lacking any remaining output) certainly came to an end by 1687, when Cifrondi returned to his native Clusone. From then onwards, his biographical path did not stray from the borders of the ‘Venetian’ centers of present-day Lombardy: after living and working intensely in the Bergamo territory in the decades straddling 1700, the artist relocated within 1722 to nearby Brescia, where he died in 1730.
The Bolognese training under Franceschini, the presence in Rome in 16793, and his staying in Paris when Charles Le Brun’s classicism ruled, would lead us to think that Cifrondi’s itinerary developed as a mark of grounded academic culture. Actually, since his first known works, which can be placed a little after his return to Lombardy in the 1680s, the painter’s career seems to develop according to a completely different pathway. This is proven by the constant adoption of a brisk and unpolished language, unconcerned with ensuring an exact drawing substance to the figures, but focuses his whole attention on the color and light effects of the surface, also leveraging on the use of liquid and filamentary brush strokes for the coat, which represents the painter’s true distinctive grammar.
These distinctive features, especially remarkable in Antonio’s sacred production, are not in short supply even in the most interesting chapter of his catalogue, related to the creation of genre figures with a popular theme: a subject to which Cifrondi devoted himself during his years in Bergamo and Brescia in particular.
The example here analyzed provides a significant demonstration of the unique painting manner the artist used to approach this typology of paintings, where the protagonist is an old bearded common man, wrapped in a tobacco-colored heavy cloak, his head shielded with a heavy cloth hat, also brown. Indeed, one cannot but be amazed at Cifrondi’s creative effortlessness in characterizing the figure, first of all in tracing the frowned profile of the face using a mixture of swift and rich brush strokes, which effectively reveals the reflections on the complexion, brought on by the strong source of light placed on the left, outside the painting. A more concise manner characterizes the cloak, rendered with few saber strokes of color, peremptorily cutting out the shapes from the background, which consists in a compact and unexpected bottle-green field of color, with no room for any environmental feature. So much so that, to the observer, the canvas conveys the perception of a sudden and somewhat mysterious appearance of an old wayfarer in front of a misty winter sky.
As it happens in the best creations of the painter, the impetuous – I dare say ‘rhapsodic’ – style of the painting technique is thus combined with the conception of a bold theatrical impact of the image, whose significant feature can be seen in the unusual posture of the figure, ostentatiously hunched forwards in a manner that seems to translate a surge of amazement and disquiet. It is not easy to understand the reasons of such feeling, because the absence of revealing details prevent us from grasping the precise meaning of the representation, provided that Cifrondi, in this case, had thought of one and wanted to stage it.
In this regard, it can be useful to highlight that, analyzed as a whole, the genre production of the painter is recognizable iconographically through some rather clear leanings. As a matter of fact, almost invariably dedicated to single figures, Cifrondi’s works are largely classifiable into two typologies, the first of which consists in the portrayal of humble workers busy in their daily tasks (the Miller, the Seamstress, the Milkmaid, the Cobbler, and so forth), in line with an established tradition within genre painting. Certainly unrelated to this current, our painting appears to be better connected with another typology visited by the painter, recognizable in a series of works where the figures of common people are used to convey allegorical and moral meanings. Sometimes they are explicitly stated in the motto used as a remark in the caption of the painting. This category includes for example: the Cheapskate with the inscription “Numquam satis”, the Beggar with the Ovidian motto “Inopem me copia fecit”, the Old man commanding silence, accompanied with the caption “Aut bene aut nihil”; or again the Old man leaning on a stick, together with the bitter sentence “Risu omnia digna”4. Among the most original images ascribable to this category, we must remember the so-called Mischief5, a painting whose conception is somehow comparable to that of the Old man in a mantle, where a character, also wrapped in a cloak, but with the lower part of the face hidden, and the gaze turned towards the spectator, enters the scene suddenly from the left, in front of a foggy background. The caption ‘Cavete a similibus’, legible on the lower right corner, clarifies the content of the image, to be read as a warning against prowlers, a category which the furtive protagonist of the painting apparently belongs to.
Albeit the different nature of our old man and is not a bit threatening attitude, actually almost bewildered, obviously forbid us from extending such meaning to this foray, the point is that the analogies in the conception of the two works invite us not to rule out the possibility of the presence in the Old man in a mantle as well, of some moralistic hint, maybe exactly like a ‘caveat’, i.e. a warning, but with a quite different purpose than that stated by the Mischief6.
In closing, as for the dating of the painting, we should highlight that the brightened style of the scene and the lightened coat come favor a late placement, close to the second or third decade of the Eighteenth century.
1 R.Longhi, in I pittori della realtà, 1953, p.59.
2 F.M.Tassi, Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti bergamaschi, II, Bergamo 1793, pp.34-41.
3 A.Bertolotti, Artisti lombardi a Roma, nei secoli XV, XVI, XVII. Studi e ricerche negli archivi romani, II, Milan 1881, p.99.
4 For the works mentioned: Dal Poggetto, 1982, p.485, n.80; p.488, n.87; p.489, n.97; L. Ravelli, Antonio Cifrondi. Thoughts, re-readings, updates, Lumezzane 2008, pp.35-36, tav.40.
More generally, on the moralistic hints featured on the painter’s canvases with a popular theme: F. Frangi, La scena di genere in Lombardia e in Veneto, in Da Caravaggio a Ceruti. La scena di genere e l’immagine dei pitocchi nella pittura italiana, catalogue of the exhibition (Brescia, Museo di Santa Giulia, 28 November 1998 - 28 February 1999) edited by F. Porzio, Milan 1998, p.414; M.C. Terzaghi, in Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo. Catalogo delle opere. Seicento e Settecento, edited by M. Bona Castellotti and E. Lucchesi Ragni, Venice 2012, pp.74-75, nn.33a-d.
5 Dal Poggetto, 1982, p.489, n.94.
6 It seems no help is provided in solving the matter by searching through the literature of the experts of popular theme painting, alive between the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries (from Monsù Bernardo to Matteo dei Pitocchi, from Pietro Bellotti to Todeschini, Ceruti, Traversi, and so forth), in whose catalogues we cannot find iconographic inventions comparable to the ingenious creation of the painter from Clusone.