Alessandro Magnasco (1667–1749) is, I think, the most peculiar and individual painter that I have come across, at times making Goya and El Greco look conventional. You are most unlikely to have even come across him, although most of the major collections around the world hold examples of his work. Perhaps the best way to describe those works is to take a measure each of essence of Poussin, Goya, Salvator Rosa, and Francesco Guardi, simmer for a while, and serve whilst still hot.
Magnasco was born in Genoa, but his father died when he was three, so he was sent to Milan to learn commerce rather than following in his father’s line as a painter. When in Milan, he acquired a patron who was prepared to fund his apprenticeship as a painter. After that he worked as a portraitist, but fairly soon switched to painting scenes from contemporary life, particularly those of different religious groups.
Around 1700, he was painting mainly narrative works, regularly collaborating with specialist landscape artists such as Peruzzini (1668-c 1725), Onofri, and Marco Ricci (1676-1729), and the specialist in architectural ruins Clemente Spera (d c 1730). He moved to Florence in 1703, and back to Genoa in about 1735.
Magnasco’s narrative paintings and landscapes are like no one else’s: set in eerie, stormy landscapes rich in the sublime (if not downright horrific), his brushwork is free and profuse. Figures are made from swirling gestures, and often appear scattered across the canvas. He usually left areas of priming bare too, giving his paintings a rough facture more typical of the late nineteenth century.
Noli Me Tangere (1705-10)
In the New Testament Gospels (e.g. John 20:11-18), it was Mary Magdalene who was the first witness to the resurrected Christ. As he had not at that time ascended to heaven, Christ warned her not to touch him – in Latin, noli me tangere – but to tell the disciples of his resurrection.
Magnasco has painted his figures over a background of ruins made by his collaborator. Christ is shown standing, holding a long-hafted implement, probably a spade, in his left hand. Mary is on her knees, a small urn in front of her. Their clothes are rough, and Christ’s appear to be his burial linen, blowing in the wind. Several small putti are shown on the left side, apparently blowing as winds. At this stage, Magnasco’s work is starting to look a little eccentric, perhaps.
The Tame Magpie (Teaching the Magpie to Sing) (c 1707)
Against another background of ruins, a motley assortment of misfits and the poor are seen watching the young man in the centre trying to teach a tame magpie (on top of the barrels) to sing. Magpies are capable of speaking, not as well as parrots. I wonder if there is an old Italian proverb or legend about teaching a magpie to sing, perhaps, which inspired this quirky painting?
Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1705-10)
Another story about Christ, this time from the beginnings of his ministry, as recorded in the Gospel of John, Chapter 4: Christ paused to rest at Jacob’s Well, which was holy to both Jews and Samaritans. He asked for a drink of water from a Samaritan woman, who was surprised because of the traditional enmity between Jews and Samaritans. They talked: a scene quite popular in Italian painting.
The two are seen, either side of a well, Christ seated and in the midst of talking, the woman drawing water for him. Up to the right, winds blow again, causing the woman’s clothing to billow profusely.
Landscape with Shepherds (c 1718-25)
Against a landscape inspired by Poussin but sketched in quite briskly in parts, there is a strange scattering of people. They are painted very gesturally, and just seem to be sprawling around, doing nothing in particular. One tree, in the middle distance towards the right, has an upright crucifix and a regular cross X on its trunk. Although these figures and objects look as if they should combine to bring a story or meaning, none is apparent.
Landscape with Stormy Sea (c 1718-25)
At the coast, it is blowing a gale. The wind blows spray from the short, steep waves, and at the left a small sailing boat has been driven onto rocks and wrecked. Sketchy figures dot the coastline: three in the foreground are busy doing something, although it is not clear what. This painting appears very atmospheric, and certainly captures a coastal gale well, but it looks as if it holds a story too.
The Raising of Lazarus (1715-1740)
Returning to the New Testament Gospels, this is another story from Christ’s ministry, but found only in John chapter 11. Christ was informed that Lazarus was ill, but told his disciples that he was going to wait until Lazarus was dead. When they eventually arrived at Lazarus’ house in Bethany, he had been dead and buried for a full four days. Christ mourned for Lazarus, and asked for the stone of his grave to be removed. He then commanded Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus was raised from the dead, by a miracle.
Magnasco shows quite a different scene from that in John’s Gospel. Lazarus is being pulled up from a catacomb below the ground, and Christ – dressed in blue – is working his miracle. The clothing is getting rougher and more gestural here, with extensive use of white for its highlights.
The Triumph of Venus (1720-30)
Venus is naked on her chariot at the lower right. Its progress is assisted by putti, and celebrated by nymphs, satyrs, and others. A rich range of other mythical figures and creatures are also present, and in the distance there are naked people reclining in some sort of gathering.
Bacchanale (c 1720-30)
Among a background of ruins, perhaps painted by Clemente Spera in his final years, a broad assortment of largely naked people are immersed in their revelry and feasting.
Among the figures shown, several have clothing which appears blurred by their vigorous movement, others are splayed out on the ground in their inebriation, or struggling to ride animals. In the centre of this detail is Pan: half man, half goat.
Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the Pharaoh’s Servants Whilst in Jail (1726-31)
According to the Old Testament book of Genesis, Joseph the patriarch was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt. There he was sold to Potiphar, Captain of Pharoah’s Guard, and Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. When Joseph ran away from her, she accused him of trying to rape her, and Joseph was thrown into prison. There he interpreted dreams for others, eventually being summoned to interpret a dream which Pharoah had, so earning his freedom, and appointment as Vizier to the Pharoah.
Against the background of the jail, painted by a collaborator, Magnasco’s figures are spread among shackles and other equipment for constraining and maiming prisoners. Two of the prisoners are in chains, but one, seated just to the left of centre, appears to be listening intently to a person wearing prominently blue clothes, who is sat on some stone steps.
Magnasco painted several other canvases showing more gruesome aspects of prisons and torture, but this one is in particularly good condition.
Sacrilegious Robbery (1731)
It is night outside a monastery, looking in through its open cloisters. Inside and around the outside are skeletons, running, bearing torches, and apparently attacking four men, who are armed with pistols and apparently trying to break into the buildings and commit robbery. The skeletons have apparently been resurrected from rows of graves outside the church.
In the top right, a saintly figure appears as a vision in the sky, apparently directing the defence by the skeletons.
This is a straight ‘gothic’ horror story of divine retribution, and a very strange subject for a painting.
The Baptism of Christ (c 1740)
Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, later beheaded for Salome, is one of the most popular New Testament narratives in paintings. Magnasco’s version is unique in setting it in a storm, with ‘white horses’ on the river. The figure of Christ, surmounted not by a halo but a golden star, is white, which makes it prominent despite its small size in the picture.
Christ at the Sea of Galilee (c 1740)
After Christ performed the miracle of feeding the five thousand, he sent the disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee by boat, while he remained alone, in prayer. After nightfall, there was a storm, and the boat in which the disciples were travelling was caught in the bad weather. The disciples saw Christ walking on the water of the lake, and were afraid, but Christ reassured them. As Christ entered the boat, the wind settled. According to the version in the Gospel of Matthew, Peter walked on the water until he became afraid, then started to sink, before Christ rescued him.
Magnasco has probably shown Peter sinking in the water, just about to be rescued by Christ. The spume-rich waters are similar in appearance to those in The Baptism of Christ, and unique among the many paintings of this narrative.
Saint Carlo Borromeo Receiving the Oblates (date not known)
Charles Borromeo di Arona (1538-1584) was Archbishop of Milan from 1564-1584, a reformer who became a leading figure of the Counter-Reformation. Among other achievements, he introduced the foundation of seminaries for the education of priests, and was canonised as a full saint in 1610.
He founded the fraternity of Oblates of St Ambrose, a society of secular men who, while not taking orders, devoted themselves to the church, and pursued a monastic life.
This extraordinary canvas appears to have suffered some damage, but shows Saint Carlo Borromeo in his Cardinal’s red vestments, blessing a man in black who is on his knees – presumably one of the Oblates. Looking up the painting from those Oblates, there are figures and parts of figures around the foot of the prominent column, and apparently emerging from the wall higher up. There are no further clues as to what these might represent.
Later artists such as Francesco Guardi used similar gestural techniques in capriccios which were, compared to Magnasco’s dark narratives, light froth. No one seems to have explained how he developed his style, nor why it became so popular with his patrons. From a narrative viewpoint, it makes his plainer stories quite curious, and his dark tales become the stuff of nightmares.