This is the first exhibition dedicated to Lanfranco and his paintings, and its aim to reconsider this artist's career is particularly commendable. The collection presented in Rome includes about one hundred paintings accurately selected to offer significant examples of the best periods: the early years and the artist's training in Parma until 1602 and then from 1610 to 1612; the years spent in Rome from 1602 to 1610 and again from 1612 to 1634, also including the year of his death, 1647; and finally the period spent in Naples from 1634 to 1646. This exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue published by Electa in collaboration with the Comitato per la Promozione della Cultura e delle Residenze Farnesiane, and edited by the expert in Baroque studies, Erich Schleier. It is an ideal opportunity to re-examine and re-meditate on the opera omnia of Lanfranco.
In order to study the young Lanfranco it is necessary to examine also the biographies of many other outstanding painters from the two schools of Carracci and Caravaggio: Domenico, Albani, Reni, but also Badalocchio, Baglione and Borgianni. This is a very complex exercise, and yet an intellectually enjoyable one. The first and perhaps the most critical issue is the attribution of works painted in the Galleria Farnese. This problem is further confused by the loss of some relevant documents (in particular money-orders) which went destroyed in the fire of the Archive of State in Naples. Also all attributions based on pure self-references are even more complicated by a series of linked factors: the proverbial teamwork at the school of Carracci during the years spent in Bologna, the young age of his assistants, and Carracci's incipient illness, about which we also don't know very much.
With regards to the teamwork carried out in the Galleria Farnese, in the catalogue Schleier firmly attributes the panel with Ercole e Prometeo to Sisto Badalocchio. He is followed in this opinion by Spear and Brogi, whilst Mahon, Briganti, Kessler, Pirondini and Negro believe such panel was completed by Lanfranco. Denis Mahon has always attributed to Badalocchio also the Ercole e Idra, and so have Schleier, Martin, Spear, Pepper and Brogi. Only Pirondini suggested the name of Lanfranco, while Pepper mentioned Antonio Carracci. Indeed, the panel with Arion e delfino, dated about 1604-05, is concurrently attributed to Lanfranco.
Rediscovered in 1988 in a private collection, Rinaldo e Armida is an astonishing and rare example of painting on a profan subject, enriched by a moderate, but effective Roman classicism and animated by a protobaroque staging structure. It is signed and dated 1614. The subject was inspired by the seldom represented episode from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, stanza 62, poem XVI. Rinaldo's slightly reclined head seems to be taken from a cameo of the Fulvio Orsini collection, and shows the best attributes from Annibale Carracci's style. Armida, according to the Roman tradition is represented in a copy of a late and fanciful, but ancient Cleopatra - Arianna. The female figure with the helm immediately appear to be a tribute to Raphael, and at the same time a careful antiquarian reference to the fluctuating Nereid, figure of the sarcophagus.
In 1615, only one year after Rinaldo e Armida, Lanfranco started combining the light of Caravaggio, the poor style of Oratoriani, and the legacy of Annibale Carracci's landscape, in particular the aulic and yet sublime perspective and the classicist structure of the Trinity composed upon a bench of clouds, inundated by the light and tormented by the shades, refined and together reinforced by the double reference to Raphael and Michelangelo. Lanfranco combined all these traditions and references in the master canvas painted for the Cappella Bongiovanni in Sant'Agostino in Rome, Sant'Agostino medita sul mistero della Trinità. Mancini states that Lanfranco achieved a great reputation after the series which includes this work.
The concise and interesting essay by Arnold Witte, Il Camerino degli Eremiti. Iconografia e Funzione degli Affreschi di Lanfranco reconstructs the negotiations carried on in 1609 by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, who obtained the use of a room then known as Camerino degli Eremiti from the Arciconfraternita dell'Orazione e Morte. This room was decorated with frescoes and oil paintings by Giovanni Lanfranco in 1617-1618. It was located in a site close to the Farnese Gallery, overlooking the river Tiber, and it was a personal challenge to the artist's skills as frescoes' painter, after the first shy appearance in the Gallery together with the master Annibale Carracci. Unfortunately the room was destroyed during the refurnishing works of the Church of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte in 1732-1734, and the catalogue reconstructs the history and role of such frescoes through documents, other works and various evidence.
According to Strinati, a key reference for all Lanfranco's works is the Assunta by Annibale Carracci, dated 1601, in Santa Maria del Popolo. However, Lanfranco shows a different idea of landscape from that of Annibale Carracci, with the absence of any classicism, at least literally. The issue of classicism appears immediately fundamental as linked to the theory of ideal beauty that Bellori places at the core of his aesthetics. Lanfranco only took the notion of ideal beauty from the classicist aesthetic ideal. It is, therefore, almost a paradox that Lanfranco became one of the greatest representatives of Carracci's classicism, without being stricto sensu classicist.
There are still doubts about the alleged homosexuality implied in the painting Giovane con gatto sul letto, kept at the Walpole Gallery in London, and about which we don't have much information. The painting might be a part of a couple, and the other element might reveal something relevant to the understanding of the subject, although this is only an hypothesis. In the present condition, while waiting for additional evidence, it is more sensible to suspend any judgement, in order to avoid any "myth" then difficult to remove (such is the case of Caravaggio, subject to all sorts of oddities from contemporary interpretations, projected in the past without the filter of historical analysis made upon clear documentation).
The examples I have offered should be sufficient to clarify how Lanfranco flexibly moved in the first Roman period, and it is therefore impossible to impose on him any simplistic label as in the typical retrospective rethorics. As in the best Italian tradition, the Baroque at its origins implies a wide range of issues, and this exhibition shows how Lanfranco is one of its best representatives.
Giovanni Lanfranco. Un pittore barocco tra Parma, Roma e Napoli, edited by Erich Schleier, Milano, Electa, Comitato per la Promozione della Cultura e delle Residenze Farnesiane, 2002, exh. Cat.
Parma, Reggia di Colorno, 8 September - 2 December 2001
Naples, Castel Sant'Elmo, 22 December 2001 - 24 February 2002
Rome, Palazzo Venezia, 16 March - 16 June 2002
Address in Rome: Via del Plebiscito, 118
Ticket: 8.00, concession 6.00, students 5.00
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