F. Franchini Guelfi, Alessandro Magnasco, Edizioni del Soncino, Soncino 1991, pp. 72-73;
L. Muti, De Sarno Prignano, Alessandro Magnasco, Edit Faenza, Faenza 1994, catalogue 225, fig. 446 p. 615.
This virtually monochrome work expresses all the charm and modernity of the pure painting style of Alessandro Magnasco, known as “il Lissandrino” (Genoa, 1667-1749).
The perfectly preserved work displays the agglomeration of the thin layers of paint, applied with rapid, nervous brushstrokes, using a palette containing only white, several earth tones, browns, and greys as well as black.
By severely restricting the range of colours, in keeping with his typical genre scenes known as “fraterie”, which portray scenes of everyday life in monasteries, Magnasco created extraordinarily innovative works that still continue to enjoy the admiration of international art collectors. He is regarded as an unconventional artist, whose approach seems to be especially enlightened, both in terms of form and contents, compared to his contemporaries’.
Born in Genoa in 1667, Magnasco was also active in Milan during the Enlightenment, between the late Seventeenth and the early Eighteenth centuries. He also spent time in Enlightenment Florence under Prince Ferdinando de' Medici, where he stayed during the period 1703-1707.
Magnasco came into contact with literary and philosophical circles in which new ideas were emerging that were diametrically opposed to the jaded intellectual climate of the time. These ideas encouraged Lissandrino to tackle new themes that challenged mainstream notions.
In that era, the rococo style was in vogue and painting in Italy was marked by light-hearted themes and exquisite colours in the most precious and affected shades. Instead, Magnasco chose darkness - a silence of colour - to reveal the power of humanity amid these atmospherically neutral hues.
Before analysing the theme of the work and its meaning, as well as its critical history, it is interesting to examine the artist’s painting technique. Magnasco perceived the preparatory phase to have a specific function.
The reddish tone of the paint that Magnasco generally used to prepare the painting resurfaces in several parts of the present work. This effect clearly stemmed from the express intention of the artist and was certainly not due to negligence. It was his way of outlining figures, rather similar to the "risparmio" technique; in other words, instead of defining the silhouettes of figures or objects with a dark line, the artist used a thin layer between the silhouette itself and the background. Magnasco did not prepare the canvas with an under drawing, as it would have conflicted with his rapid technique of painting directly on the support. Instead, he used this method in order to prevent the general monochrome of the whole work from concealing each individual figure within the scene. And the flipside is also true: namely, the unity of the work is preserved without individuals becoming lost in the gloom.
This procedure conveys the sense of community, communion, and union of the friars gathered round the heat and light of the fire, using a painter’s tools, brushstrokes rather than words. This is simply an allegorical reference to the strength of faith in the form of a few simple white brushstrokes.
Although ruined by neglect and ageing, the large plain hood bears the distinct image of a cross with a cartouche above it.
It provided a clear reference to the concept of faith in the event that the coded message of painting did not prove clear enough for some observers.
United in colour, the friars are thinking individuals who have made a choice to which they constantly adhere. Within the pictorial style employed by Magnasco, this is the meaning of the different postures of each figure, which function as a continuous and atmospheric variation of gestures and poses. There is an exchange of silent gazes and even expressions, which the painter skillfully manages to portray through deftly-applied brushstrokes.
With regard to the composition itself, the symmetry is clearly only superficial. Magnasco was, after all, painting in an era lacking certainty, a time when society was beset by social and ethical crisis. Only darkness and asymmetry, the disorders requiring address, could truly reflect the anxious mood of the period.
The subject matter – the so-called "scenes of everyday monastic life" (fraterie), and in particular "warming rooms” (scaldatoi), to use the word commonly employed to refer to these places in the old inventories, had no precedent in figurative painting. They were Magnasco’s own iconographic inventions, representing an important phase in the artist’s career, during which time his poetics focused on the themes of poverty and class conflict.
The nuns and Franciscan friars, and in other cases Benedictine monks, are portrayed warming themselves, as in this painting and other well-known works, or busy studying in the library, praying or eating, or while they are performing such mundane tasks as shaving, spinning fabric, sharpening knives, cooking, and so forth.
Here, one finds none of the sarcasm commonly found in works by Magnasco, but rather a kind of realism that highlights bare feet and the simplicity of the garments. As Fausta Franchini Guelfi has underlined on several occasions, Magnasco draws on the words of one of the most illustrious Lombard preachers of the time, the Capuchin friar Gaetano Maria da Bergamo (1672 - 1753), a friend of Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672 - 1750) and author of the rigorous reform of the religious order. Following the ideas of Bergamo, Magnasco desired that the “true and current expropriation of everything” professed by the Franciscans would counter corruption and indulgent behavior and, in general, combat the crisis afflicting society and religious communities during this period.
According to the suggestions put forward by Franchini Guelfi (1991) on the basis of the pictorial style, the present work can be dated to the artist’s mature phase, about 1725-30.
Other versions of the “warming-room” are also documented.
Although it has a horizontal composition, there is a similar painting already known from the exhibition in Palazzo Bianco in Genoa, in 1969, when it belonged to a private Genoese collection (Mostra dei pittori genovesi a Genova nel '600 e nel '700, Genoa 1969, pp. 342-343, no. 142); this work displays close parallels in terms of style, technique, and therefore chronology. It also appeared in a subsequent exhibition held in 1992 (Genova nell'Età Barocca, curated by E. Gavazza and G. Rotondi Terminiello, Genoa exhibition, catalogue Bologna 1992, pp. 214-216, no. 111, entry by F. Franchini Guelfi with bibliography).
A second similar composition, although more complex in terms of the structure of the planes (portrayed from a greater distance away), is the horizontally-structured painting in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, which comes from the Ludwig von Hatvany collection in Budapest. Published by Benno Geiger in 1914, together with its pendant portraying The cloistered life of nuns, it may have come from the collection of Count Giacomo Carrara di Bergamo in 1796 (cf. L. Muti, De Sarno Prignano, Alessandro Magnasco, Edit Faenza, Faenza 1994, catalogue 61 p.210, fig. 271, with bibliography).
Finally, a third painting like the present work, but vertical and with a de-centred composition, is a painting that appeared on the London art market (Sotheby's,19-3-1975). It came from the Heim collection in Paris, and was already published by Franchini Guelfi in 1971 (cf. L. Muti, De Sarno Prignano 1994 op. cit., catalogue 151 p. 226, fig. 427, with bibliography).