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A new look at the Genoese artist Gio Raffaele ...

A new look at the Genoese artist Gio Raffaele  ... - September 2011 - n. 02
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Two life-size Genoese figure paintings en pendant have been discovered in excellent condition in an aristocratic collection in west Liguria. Dating back to the mid-1680s (circa 1685), the beautiful paintings depict two scenes from the Old Testament, The garment of Joseph shown to Jacob and Joseph explains the dreams (oil on canvas, 165 x 120 cm).
A study of their subject matter, ductus, finish and the complexities of their linguistic references identifies them as the masterpieces of the painter Gio Raffaele Badaracco (Genoa, 1645–1717). Thanks to the discovery, again in west Liguria, of another previously unknown canvas by the same artist, St Joseph cradling the Child, and input from new historical documents, Badaracco’s life and works have recently been re-evaluated1.
In the light of the new information Badaracco sloughs his previous label as a “minor” painter. On the contrary he emerges as an artist of outstanding quality, whose excellent work was solidly founded on the basis of a series of previously little-known formative experiences; a painter whose fame was clouded during his lifetime by the hostility of fellow artist Domenico Piola, who prevented him from working in Genoa and relegated him to painting commissions in the western part of the region.
The two newly-discovered paintings show two key moments from the Bible story of Joseph, son of Jacob. The first (Genesis 37) depicts the scene where Joseph’s wicked brothers display his coat soaked in goat’s blood to their father Jacob as proof of Joseph’s death after they had in fact thrown him into a well and sold him as a slave. The second (Genesis 40) illustrates the episode where Joseph has been imprisoned by Pharaoh and interprets the dreams of the king of Egypt’s cupbearer and baker, imprisoned with him for offending their lord. He correctly foresees that the cupbearer will be freed and restored to his former dignities, while the baker will be condemned and hung. The quality of the rediscovered paintings has stimulated a new look at all his works, an exercise rendered even more fascinating thanks to some recently discovered papers that throw further light on Badaracco’s artistic growth and the dates involved, particularly with regards to his experiences in Rome2.
Although his paintings are instantly recognisable as typical products of Genoese culture from the second half of the 17th century, they also betray the strong influence of Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669) and Carlo Maratta (1625–1713).
Carlo Giuseppe Ratti, in his Lives of Genoese Painters, Sculptors and Architects published in 1769, mentions that Gio Raffaele was initially his father Giuseppe’s pupil and went to Rome when his father died. We know that Badaracco senior died in the severe outbreak of plague that struck Genoa in 1657. Ratti may have confused the dates, as he has been proved to have done in other circumstances, because Gio Raffaele would only have been twelve in 1657. However it is quite plausible that as an orphan facing bleak prospects when it came to making his way in plague-ridden Genoa, he did decide to go to Rome at a relatively young age, although possibly some years after the date given by Ratti, perhaps at the beginning of the next decade (1660?), still in time to come into direct contact with Pietro da Cortona’s workshop, who died in 1669.
Evidence can be found to support the latter theory in the published manuscript version of Ratti’s original Lives of the Painters, which contains a wealth of notes and extra information lacking in the evidently pared-down printed edition. Here in the section dedicated to the life of Gio Raffaele we read that the young artist was noticed by Pietro da Cortona in Rome, and Cortona thought him so promising he offered him a position: “…a certain Genoese merchant brought him some small paintings that were held in great esteem … to such an extent that having seen some of his work Cortona wanted to meet him and put him under his direction.”3 Ratti again, this time in the print edition of his Lives says: “…and here (in Rome) he was the pupil of the famous Maratta who foresaw great things for him … but he did not stay in Maratta’s school for long because once he had observed the manner of Pietro da Cortona he liked it more (perhaps he thought it less wearisome and richer from a creative point of view) and decided to follow him; and although he had a certain graceful style of his own, he decided to reform it, adding the characteristics of his new master. So his paintings are all in Cortona’s style. After 8 years he went to Naples and then to Venice, where he stayed for some time….”4 We know for sure that Badaracco was back in his native Genoa by 1672, the year of the death of Raffaele Soprani, the author of the first books on Lives of the Genoese Painters.
So we know that Gio Raffaele, at a very young age at the beginning of the 1660s, moved away from Genoa, spending most of his time in Rome (eight years?), where he transferred from Maratta’s workshop to Da Cortona’s before moving back to Genoa by 1672 with a solid training behind him, all ready to become a fully-fledged professional painter. To earn his living as an artist he had to delicately balance his work on the cusp of “quality and industry”, to quote a critical essay written in 1992. Badaracco’s prolific rapidity in the execution of his commissions has been one cause of his lack of critical success in the past.
However the citations above demonstrate the importance of Badaracco on the artistic scene in Genoa between the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century. He neither merged with the dominating Baroque school epitomised by Domenico Piola and Gregorio De Ferrari nor did he join Paolo Gerolamo Piola and Lorenzo De Ferrari’s “modern classic revival,” which indeed he was the precursor of, however he established a dialogue with them all in his own very personal style, and did not forget the lessons learned from the generation of painters that had preceded his own, such as Biscaino or Stefano Magnasco.5
Sources claim that his first works in Genoa were portraits, however he soon abandoned this field to dedicate himself mainly to religious and historical themes, generally easel paintings, but occasionally also executing frescoes. He was a prolific artist and did not limit his sphere of action to the city of Genoa, but ranged all over the territory of the Republic, the southern areas of Piedmont and the Rivieras, particularly the western seashore, where he earned a larger number of commissions because his father Giuseppe had lived and worked in Loano for a certain period: “Many tables did he produce for the places of the western parts of the Republic of Genoa”. Recently works by Badaracco have been found in Alassio, in decorative themes in the main reception room of an aristocratic palazzo, where he had worked, as was his wont, side by side with his very dear friend the painter Gian Lorenzo Bertolotto (1646–1721), who also sought room for expression in the western reaches of the Republic.
The paintings of Tales of Joseph occur chronologically speaking within a precise time frame of Badaracco’s life and are significant in relation to his maturity as an artist and the fecundity of the climate in which they were conceived. They were painted for the Dukes of Borea d’Olmo of Sanremo, the leading noble family in western Liguria, and they come directly from the same family’s ownership today. Ratti himself comments on the paintings in his Lives, in what for him was unusual detail, saying that Badaracco had done his best work in his paintings for the Borea of Sanremo family: “…many paintings for private citizens … of stories both sacred and profane. The Borias of Sanremo have several in his usual colourful style with a dominant colour theme of particularly fine ultramarine blue”. These newly-rediscovered pair of paintings may well actually be part of a larger group showing themes from the Old Testament. They were probably painted between 1683 and 1688, when the painter returned from his second, and this time
well-documented, stay in Rome.
The proposed date and their execution after Badaracco’s second visit to Rome would account for a quality and level of inspiration which are both unusually elevated for this painter, together with a broader sweep that seems to go beyond the narrow confines of Liguria and its world to be tinged with a specifically Roman, and thus at the time international, air. The paintings undoubtedly owe something to their Roman models and bring Genoese taste into direct and precocious comparison with that of the Eternal City even earlier than Domenico Piola’s decision to send Maratta all his promising young artists was to do. Piola’s experiment is documented as dating from the end of the 1680s with Paolo Gerolamo Piola, who is recorded as being in Rome from 1689 to 1694.
Recently discovered records show that Gio Raffaele was in Rome again in 1682, where he worked for the Genoa merchant Pellegrino Peri who “procured him an easel and palette so that he could work.” Although Peri was from Genoa he lived in Rome, where he dealt in art and ran a flourishing artistic workshop. He was a reference point for his fellow countrymen from Genoa and was an essential intermediary in art circles and with the most influential patrons of art in Rome. He had a particularly close relationship with Carlo Maratta and encouraged his artist guests to paint in Maratta’s style.
This stay in Rome in the early 1680s is the background to Badaracco’s development of a style with softened lines which were “classically polished”, a search for a sweetness of expression in the faces he painted that mutely contrasted with the style of Domenico Piola and Gregorio De Ferrari. A style that foreshadowed the classical revival in Genoa later launched by Paolo Gerolamo Piola and Lorenzo De Ferrari, artists from a new generation Badaracco shared a common experience with, thanks to their mutual debt to Da Cortona and direct experience with Maratta.
The figures in these paintings are very reminiscent of Maratta’s polished, elegant style. This is particularly evident in the young Joseph prophetically counting off the days until the release of the Pharaoh’s servants on his fingers and equally clear in the figure portraying Joseph’s brother holding his bloodied coat, a harmonious profile caught in a measured stance that is very effective in a narrative sense while shunning any hint of rhetoric.
However it is in the paintings’ composition that a startlingly effective compromise is achieved between the historic narrative tradition echoing Strozzi, Assereto and Fiasella, the Baroque spirit that guided the Piola family and the dramatically marked eloquence of Cortona. This is plain to see in the rhetoric of the gesture and emphasis in movement as Jacob flings out his left arm, turns and opens the palm of his hand in sign of wonder. The space in the canvasses is organised in an orderly, harmonious fashion along simplified lines of perspective intervalled by the figures with diagonals that draw the eye, but do not draw the viewer in.
A particularly interesting figure is that of Joseph’s fellow inmate in Pharaoh’s prison, the baker, who provides the pretext for an imposing nude. He is depicted with a carved profile modelled on marked chiaroscuro flesh tones, a sort of homage to sculpture, not least in its plastic pose.
The paintings’ colours are a medley of warm and pastel shades, blended and matched mainly in their ochre russets and blues. The very few touches of white highlight some of the details, such as the cupbearer’s turban or Jacob’s soft beard.
The paint has been thickly applied to the canvas in energetically controlled strokes, the outlines of the figures are gently blurred and defined more by their surrounding shadows than any distinctly drawn lines: as for example can be seen in the arm of the brother brandishing Jacob’s bloodied coat. One colour that stands out is an orangey-red used for the cupbearer’s clothes and turban. The flesh tones and faces of the figures are dense with well-defined shading, built up through a lavish use of paint to portray their hair and beards and the luminous planes of their foreheads.
From a technical point of view Badaracco reserves his virtuoso performance for Joseph’s multihued coat: light blue, green and pink shimmer together in a translucently delicate whirl of colour in which each single shade is distinct, but which together form a harmonious whole.
These are undoubtedly Badaracco’s masterpieces, but they can also be usefully compared to his other works. For example they can be compared directly to the group of figures to the right of his larger painting Esther and Ahasuerus, painted for the Lomellini family in Genoa in around 1690 and housed in Palazzo Lomellini in Via Cairoli in Genoa in the headquarters of the exclusive club the Casino dei Nobili. The physical appearance of the protagonists, the bright colours used, the details and the brushstrokes all dovetail perfectly. Perhaps the most important comparison is with Badaracco’s three large paintings in the Palazzo Bianco Gallery in Genoa. Previously held by critics to be his best work, they are entirely in Piola’s style and date back to just before the two Borea d’Olmo of Sanremo paintings. The three are entitled Moses Saved from the Waters, Trial by Burning Coals – en pendant – and Lucretia’s Suicide.
Another previously unsuspected painting entitled St Joseph and Child (oil on canvas, 130.5 x 102 cm) swells the group of exceptionally fine works carried out after the artist’s second stay in Rome. This is a painting that revels in lively, gentle colour – a far cry from the reds and blues so typical of Genoa – softly applied in suffused mixtures much akin to pastels. The St Joseph is a prime example of Badaracco’s new interpretive style, strongly reminiscent of Cortona, with its emphasis on gestures and forceful composition. The artist has chosen to leave an expanse of canvas above the saint’s head, to depict him almost in profile, to seat him on a slightly foreshortened Savonarola chair to convey the almost cosy domesticity of a portrait.

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