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Alessandro Magnasco, the Dark Genius

'The Tame Magpie', oil on canvas painting by Alessandro Magnasco, c. 1707-8, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Tame Magpie, 1708

Born on February 4, 1667 in Genoa, Italy, Alessandro Magnasco was a late Baroque painter, aka. il Lissandrino. His style was highly distinctive and idiosyncratic—elongated, muscular forms in brisk brushwork reminiscent of Tintoretto along with some of his contemporaries: Tintoretto, Sebastiano Ricci, Francesco Solimena, and Giovanni Pellegrini. His strong shadows and vibrant colors are reminiscent of a Venetian style, yet suggest an ominous influence of Piranesi in his architectural capriccios. What makes him interesting is his highly idiosyncratic subject matter that was not common during his era, making him a genre painter by definition, or Bamboccianti as some may have described him. Highly individualistic or Romantic, his work is interesting so let's take a closer look.

In The Tame Magpie above, an odd collection of people gather round to watch a man attempt to teach a magpie to sing. Some appear to be drunk and destitute, the woman representing charity, while the children are the ones that are the most captivated by the spectacle. One can't help but see the biting social commentary here on the gullibility of the common people, who do not know or understand what they see or hear. What is more curious is how the figures are arranged along this wooden contraption that seems like the remains of a derelect ship or dock. Note how the archway behind them is old and broken. The magpie may symbolize the Church itself in its vain promise to feed the poor, with the only light coming from above its body. Historically, it has connotations of being a loud, omnivorous bird that suggests deceit and bad luck. The way he has the magpie resting atop a smaller barrel on top of a larger barrel also somehow mimics the hierarchy of authority and its ridiculous structure. Magnasco uses a warm, muddy palette for the surroundings with a cooler tone in the arches, with color accents on the clothing of the central figures. He focuses less on distinct facial feature and more on the physicality and body language of the characters in the scene. I love his fluid, juicy brushstrokes

Alessandro Magnasco and Clemente Spera - Banditti at Rest
Banditti at Rest, ca.1710

Here Magnasco depicts an outdoor bacchanalia with more unusual assortments of strange characters. In this composition Magnasco contrasts the noble Baroque, not Roman, ruins with the sordid band of poor people below...something I've never quite seen before in an architectural capriccio. Gypsies, gamblers, soldiers perhaps...Magnasco is really showing a seedy side of the Italian vista that was clearly not meant to be seen by the Church or general public. One wonders if this even existed in real life, if only on a smaller scale. Again, Magnasco's use of body language to complete the narrative is very effective and the more one looks at, the more it seems like some kind of unusual opera scene. Note how odd the shields, weapons and other paraphernalia hang off the columns. There is clearly nothing mythological or even sensual about this scene. He may be commenting also on the unglorified nature of soldiers also. The shadows are much darker here and the palette he uses here has much dirtier and muted reds and blues. The brushwork is very decisive with dark outlines to heighten the sharp light raking across the scene. The textures and deep crevices of the architecture is well painted, very much revealing not only his brushwork but his deep knowledge of chiaroscuro and perspective which apparently was painted by his architectural collaborator, Clemente Spera.

Presentazione di Gesù al tempio - Magnasco
Presentazione di Gesù al tempio, ca. 1710
The Venetian influence is definitely visible here. Magnasco shows that he can paint faces and expressions every bit as well as the rest, with the haunting influences of Titian, Tintoretto and Pellegrini. Yet his figures have that dramatic body language that make us feel like we are witnessing a scene from a play or opera rather than a painting. Look at how the scene is lit dramatically against an architectural wall of dark grey to heighten the central and foreground figures. Every figure is doing something in this scene, and there are no superfluous animals or servants. Look at the way Magnasco uses hands to convey the emotions of the characters and as a compositional device to lead our eyes carefully around the painting. Magnasco also uses deep, earthy warms and muted tones except for that vivid blue of the Virgin Mary's robe.

detail of St. Joseph from Presentazione di Gesù al tempio
Look at the way he depicts St. Joseph here with a neutral, cool gray shirt and beige robe. His facial expression and semi-kneeling posture reflects his piety and physicality as a carpenter and humble man in a way that is both sculptural and deeply emotional, truly Baroque.

Alessandro Magnasco - Saint Carlo Borromeo Receiving the Oblates - Google Art Project

Saint Carlo Borromeo Receiving the Oblates, ca. 1730's
In this highly original composition, various figures kneel before Saint Carlo in red but what is captivating are the figures above the arch that appear to be coming out of the walls. Look at how the angels appear out of the fumes of yellow ochre. And yet Magnasco's vigorous brushstrokes are almost agressive, up close, yet from a distance the eerie, warm light that bathes this entire scene is hypnotic. The figures are featureless again in their faces but the drama is no less powerful. The use of both red and blue here as vibrant accents is very effective. This would be a painting to see in person.

Alessandro Magnasco - Interrogations in Jail - WGA13849

Interrogations in Jail, ca.1720
The darkest of all his works and unfortunately, a harsh yet very real truth of the Inquisition during the period. I can't think of any other artist brave enough to depict an interrogation like this in all of its brutality. Yet despite this the characters are mostly oblivious, especially the foreground figures who seem to pretend it isn't even happening. Off to the left two prisoners are chained to a wall by their necks. In such "interrogations", the Inquisition would often force the victims to confess to religious impiety or crimes against their own will or for political gain of some sort. Note how the central figure is strung up and prodded with spears. Here Magnasco uses dry brush effectively to depict the harsh environment while using a limited tonal palette for all of the figures. Note how there is a scribe recording the events and the confessions of the victims in each of the torture areas. Deeply unsettling yet dramatically conveyed.

Alessandro Magnasco - Landscape with Shepherds - Google Art Project

Landscape with Shepherds, ca. 1725

I love how the trees envelope the composition with both foreground and midground. Magnasco uses a very dark palette with bright pools of warm light and deep blue sky with scenic vista in the background. The figures here seem to have crashed as if hungover, and no signs of any sheep or other animals. Look at how the some of the trees against the light are painted so thinly you can see burnt umber and turpentine only. The clouds are depicted in thick, impasto strokes that would have deeply inspired any future Impressionist who ever laid their eyes on this painting. Subtle blue and white accent colors on the figures that lead the eye back up to the fury of the sky above.

Magnasco, in the truest sense of the word, was perhaps the first social realist painter. He depicted a society and a world with a sharp critical eye that is rare in his era and yet he was quite successful as a painter. He may have lacked some of the polish of his contemporaries, but his deft brush conveyed an imagination and a bitterness in a poetry that is courageous and inspiring. So much to learn from Magnasco.


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