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The Visionary from Parma

Giovanni Lanfranco - Coronation of the Virgin with St Augustine and St William of Aquitaine - WGA12447
Coronation of the Virgin with St Augustine and St William of Aquitaine, ca.1616

Born on January 26, 1582, Giovanni Lanfranco was a Baroque painter and alumni from the Accademia degli Incamminati in Bologna. A contemporary of such greats as Guido Reni and Domenichino, Lanfranco would take what he learned from the Carracci and make it uniquely his own, fusing tenebrism, color, Mannerism, Renaissance and Baroque into a very eclectic combination that at times seems to defy description. At times he can be quite Classical, other times Venetian, and yet sometimes he can be eerie enough to veer into the fringes of the surreal. Lanfranco could take the most overdone and tired theme or story and make it unreal...dreamlike and even bizarre. His subconscious seems to have been at the heart of his work, rather than merely keeping up with his colleagues or earning a paycheque. Lanfranco is, in many ways, a visionary who foresaw Surrealism by three hundred years.

Note how the composition of the figures above in Coronation of the Virgin with St Augustine and St William of Aquitaine is filled with triangles and x's. Lanfranco also uses perspective by keeping the foreground figures of St Augustine and St William closer to us with the Virgin Mary and Christ receded into the background. What is also interesting is the use of contrast here: Lanfranco uses emotional contrast by portraying Christ and Mary with divine serenity, while both saints below are gazing upward with dramatic and expressive faces. Note also how Christ and Mary are arranged with space between them (with a cherub at their feet) while the saints are overlapping each other, and the cherub is off to the left, and two more in the shadows off to the right. Mary and Christ have smooth skintones and polished faces while the saints are sculptural, and dramatically lit.

Lanfranco, Giovanni - St Peter Healing St Agatha - c. 1614
St Peter Healing St Agatha, ca.1614

This haunting work shows Saint Agatha of Sicily, an early Christian martyr whose torture included the severing of her breasts, which St. Peter and an angel are healing here. This highly dramatic chiaroscuro has an unearthly dream-like quality, with Saint Peter's face completely in shadow...not even the tenebrists envisioned such a painting. The main figure is always discernable, yet here he is truly ghost-like, an apparition in the darkness, and our eye is drawn to him in spite of his face in silhouette.

Liberation of Saint Peter by Giovanni Lanfranco-BMA
Liberation of Saint Peter, ca.1621

Lanfranco's Mannerist influence is evident here in the very long legs of Saint Peter, painted with complementary dark blue and orange-yellow. The angel, however, has the body language and characteristics of Caravaggio. This painting was left unfinished for reasons unknown, and we can clearly see the double-arms of the angel showing Lanfranco's experimentation with the positioning, as well as the unfinished drapery surrounding his waist. Despite this rather awkward composition the interpretation of this biblical story is dramatic and effective, with Saint Peter astonished on the floor astonished by the presence of the angel, and the guards bookending the composition in glimmering armour. The floor appears unfinished also, yet draws our eyes to the main figures and how Lanfranco uses hand and leg gestures and facial expression to tell a story.

David Dragging the head of Goliath

This highly original and bizarre interpretation of a very familiar biblical account, probably the most famous made by Michelangelo and others, here seems new and untold. Why is David dragging the head of Goliath? According to the bible after he hurtles his rock from a sling he beheads Goliath, but most Renaissance interpretations focus on the unwitting courage and success of David. Here he seems to be pulling the massive head as if a slain beast ready for the barbecue. Lanfranco depicts David as young and handsome, even innocent, as if pure luck was on his side for the battle. Note the contrast of red drapery against a landscape of grim, greenish hue. This imagery is intriguing and makes us want to observe it longer, and we are not sure why. Lanfranco seems to have understood that often portrayed events and stories need to be looked at again with different eyes, and it is a valuable lesson.

Giovanni Lanfranco Norandino and Lucina Discovered by the Ogre
Norandino and Lucina Discovered by the Ogre, ca.1624

If peculiar was not enough, here we approach the surreal in a rare depiction of an epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto about a fantastic love story amidst the background of an ancient European battle of Charlemagne. Norandino is the King of Damascus with his bride Lucina who are shipwrecked on an island that is inhabited by a giant Ogre who captures Lucina while Norandino motions her to escape with him. Despite the odd tale Lanfranco does a remarkable job of depicting all the elements with as much naturalistic detail as possible, from the lambs crossing the path to the verdant trees and rolling hills in the distance. The erotic implication here with Lucina on all fours and the virile Ogre behind her has a comical intent that is definitely lacking in most paintings of the Baroque.

Giovanni Lanfranco, Resurrezione, 1622
Resurrection, 1622

A highly original portrayal of Christ's resurrection, in Lanfranco's eye it has a distinctly chaotic atmosphere. The composition of this piece is very bold. Christ is on an extreme diagonal, in ghost-like skin and calm facial expression waving a massive flag while the jumbled figures below are in chiaroscuro with their bodies and limbs pointing in various directions. It appears to be a table upturned, pointing in the opposite direction of Christ, that heightens the drama of this scene. Lanfranco sees the resurrection of Christ as an event of victory, causing terror upon the heathens that crucified him, again in stark contrast to the usual peaceful views of a glowing white Christ by his tomb or something of that nature. Visually this painting is stunning to look at repeatedly, even if the interpretation is highly unorthodox. Lanfranco was a rebel and proud of it.

Lanfranco, Giovanni - Mary Magdalen Raised by Angels - c. 1616
Mary Magdalen Raised by Angels, 1616

I first saw this painting at the Capodimonte museum in Naples, and I remember being totally transfixed by its ethereal and supernatural quality. Despite its stark simplicity it had a haunting effect on me and I remember being unable to stop looking at it for a long while. Lanfranco had channeled his subconscious here in a way never before depicted by an artist up to this point in history. Mary Magdalene and the angels are painted in a dull, ghost-like pale hue that resembles death, against a vast landscape with dark, rolling clouds above them. How he conceived this painting would be a movie in itself. Mysterious and cryptic like the man who painted it, Lanfranco left behind a legacy that forces us to think of our tropes and how to leave a burning image in the minds of our viewers. Lanfranco may have not been the giant of his prestigious classmates but his work is definitely important enough to consider and learn from. A question is always more intriguing than an answer, and maybe that is the key to understanding Lanfranco.


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