For The Friar Barber:
Pisa, collection of Antonio Ceci (1852-1920); Venice, collection of Benno Geiger (1882-1965); Vienna, collection of Stefan Auspitz von Artenegg (1869-1945); The Hague, collection of Kurt Walter Bachstitz (1882-1949); Genoa, collection of Aldo Zerbone.
For Capuchin Friars:
Pisa, collection of Antonio Ceci (1852-1920); Venice, collection of Benno Geiger (1882-1965); Vienna, collection of Josef von Flesch (1871-1928); sale in Vienna, Kunstauktion von C. J. Wawra, 12-13 May 1930, p. 24, n. 143; Rome, private collection (see M. Pospisil, Magnasco, Florence, 1944, pl.113); Genoa, collection of Aldo Zerbone.
For The Friar Barber:
-Benno Geiger, Magnasco, Bergamo, 1949, pp. 149, 156, pl. 416 (with previous bibliography);
-Fausta Franchini Guelfi, Alessandro Magnasco, Soncino, 1991, pp. 106-107, n. 44;
-Laura Muti – Daniele De Sarno Prignano, Magnasco, Faenza, 1994, p. 227, n. 156;
-Fausta Franchini Guelfi, in Alessandro Magnasco (1667 – 1749). Les années de la maturité d’un peintre anticonformiste, exh. catalogue, Paris, Galerie Canesso, 25 November 2015 – 31 January 2016; Genoa, Palazzo Bianco, 25 February – 5 June 2016, pp. 73-75, n. 16.
For Capuchin Friars:
-Benno Geiger, Magnasco, Bergamo, 1949, pp.149, 156, pls. 389 (with previous bibliography);
-Fausta Franchini Guelfi, Alessandro Magnasco, Soncino, 1991, pp. 106-107;
-Laura Muti – Daniele De Sarno Prignano, Magnasco, Faenza, 1994, p. 227, n.157, fig. 328;
-Fausta Franchini Guelfi, in Alessandro Magnasco (1667 – 1749). Les années de la maturité d’un peintre anticonformiste, exh. cat., Paris, Galerie Canesso, 25 November 2015 – 31 January 2016; Genoa, Palazzo Bianco, 25 February – 5 June 2016, pp. 73-75, n. 17.
Oil on canvas, 16 7/8 x 11 3/8 in (43 x 29 cm)
The extremely mature language of these two small pendant paintings, depicting simple, daily episodes of life in Capuchin monasteries, makes them datable to the final years of the artist’s career. In The Friar Barber, we see a friar is cutting the hair of a young brother who sitting with his head bowed; on the wall, a typical crescent-shaped barber’s basin; on the floor, near the friar’s bare feet is a warmer filled with hot ashes, and his sandals are to the other side; a glimpse of blue sky is visible through the window at the top. Even in this small painting, we see the sturdy structural framework that consistently characterizes Magnasco’s work: the right angle of the window is repeated in the angles formed by the friars’ arms, and is balanced by the angle of the stool to the left. Magnasco had painted The Friar Barbers in the larger and more complex picture in the Odessa Museum of Western and Easter Art. A painting that is iconographically similar to this one, which also depicts a scene from an ascetic and humble life, is A Capuchin Monk Cutting a Brother’s Toenails (private collection)(1).
In Capuchin Friars in Contrition, Magnasco portrays the capitolo delle colpe, the exercise in humility when the novice friars accused themselves of sins before the superior and the entire convent. These were not confessions (which were always secret and personal), but acts of contrition related to minor infractions of the Rule. The superior preached and assigned penances to the novices who declared their sins. Magnasco had already created a moving rendering of this practice, also before the entire monastic community, in the Capuchin Refectory in the Abbey of Seitenstetten, painted for Count Gerolamo di Colloredo. In the Seitenstetten painting, the penance was fasting: the meals of the three brothers kneeling in the centre of the room and facing the superior in an attitude of contrition, are given to the monastery’s cats. In the Descrittione della vita del vero Capuccino, an unpublished seventeenth-century manuscript by a learned Genoese Capuchin (Biblioteca Provinciale dei Cappuccini, Genoa, AA/98), one of the penances assigned to novices was that “they kneel in the middle of the refectory” (che s’inginocchino in mezzo del Refettorio) (p. 211). Thus, the painting portrays one of the rituals practiced in Capuchin monasteries that were all based on humility and obedience, cornerstones of life for the Capuchin Order. An elderly friar, listening and deep in thought, sits on a high chair beneath an arch; high above his head is a shelf with a skull, the memento mori always found in Franciscan monasteries; two brothers kneel at his feet and a third is prostrated on the floor. The bell on the shelf to the right is evidently part of the ritual; in the centre, near the old friar’s feet is a warmer containing hot ashes. The artist depicted the capitolo delle colpe several times, for example in the Contrition and Confession of Capuchin Friars now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Friars’ Communion in the Ritiro di San Pellegrino in Bologna, and the Contrite Capuchins before their Superior, in the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid.
The small works shown here are certainly two of the most intense and moving depictions of Capuchin monastic life that Magnasco painted in the final years of the seventeenth century. The accents of truth expressing the Order’s extreme poverty and severity recall the words of Father Gaetano Maria da Bergamo (1672 – 1753), a Lombard Capuchin preacher - and Magnasco’s contemporary. In his Istruzioni morali, ascetiche, sopra la povertà de’ frati minori cappuccini di S. Francesco, (published in 1750) the fruit of a lifetime dedicated to educating Lombard monastic communities, he wrote very sternly about Franciscan poverty that he defined as a “real and genuine deprivation of everything”. In the “friaries”, (or fraterie as the paintings were sometimes listed in eighteenth-century gallery inventories) Magnasco shows that he was very well informed about the customs, rituals and various aspects of daily life in Capuchin monasteries, and he was the only Italian painter to have portrayed this theme. But, above all, it is the popularity these paintings enjoyed among his patrons that attests to the great interest in the debate on religious orders which, between the end of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth, was both very intense and an important aspect of the jurisdictional conflict between the power of the state and ecclesiastical privileges. Lacking any caricaturial intentions, Magnasco’s “friaries” seem to echo the ideas of Ludovico Antonio Muratori (who lived in Milan for a few years and was protected by Magnasco’s patrons –Borromeo, Arese and Colloredo) concerning a rigorous reform of the religious orders for a return to a cloistered life of ascetic poverty. The artist’s scenes of Capuchin life do not “tell stories”, nor do they have protagonists. They are genre scenes, but of a totally new genre that he invented and developed during his long career. Many of his paintings depict Capuchin or Trappist monks at prayer, fighting temptations of the devil, eating in the refectory, studying in the library, confessing to the superior, burying a deceased brother, sharpening knives or doing carpentry in the monastery workshops, or warming themselves near the hearth. The restless figures emerge from the darkness with flickers of light on their crooked and knotty feet, on their stiff hands, on their faces characterized by the luminous strokes on their beards. The extraordinary maturity of his style is evident in the cadenced shattering of shapes, and in the elegant chromatics all based on a virtuoso’s palette of browns. As opposed to representations of Capuchin poverty, the big Refectory of the Observant Franciscans in the Museo Civico (Bassano del Grappa), which also dates from artist’s later years, depicts a lavish banquet in the interior of a large monastery of Observant Franciscans, one of the branches of the Order that had shifted away from the founding saint’s original ideals of poverty. In fact, the Capuchin reform was instituted during the first half of the sixteenth century as a return to origins. Even between the end of the sixteenth century and the first half of the eighteenth, the Capuchins were still characterized by their unshakable adhesion to the spirit of Saint Francis, which Magnasco could, therefore, take as a model for a reform of the religious orders, along with the recently founded Trappist monasteries. A beautiful preparatory drawing (private collection) of a detail of the Bassano Refectory painting was published not too long ago.
Fausta Franchini Guelfi
1- Maria Silvia Proni, L’uomo, le cose, i luoghi in una collezione privata, Vicenza, 2014, pp. 98-108.
2- Federica Mancini, in Disegno 2 : retour sur le catalogue des dessins du musée des Beaux-arts de Rennes, Rennes, Musée des Beaux-arts, 26 June 2015 – 13 September 2015, p.188, n. 70.