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18 August 2021

The dreamy nocturnes of Donato Creti

The descendant of the great 17th-century Bolognese painters studied the solar system – but his career remained earthbound.

By Michael Prodger

Donato Creti stood at the end of one long line and at the beginning of another. Born in Cremona in 1671 and dying in Bologna in 1749, his career saw the waning of the baroque with its drama and grandeur and the waxing of the lighter and more frivolous rococo. Such terms are less and less in use these days but, nevertheless, they helpfully show what Creti wasn’t. What Creti was, however, was a descendant of the great Bolognese painters of the early 17th century – the Carracci family and Guido Reni – and an antecedent of the new ­classicism that would sweep through ­Europe in the later 18th century.

Although Creti was a limited artist and his influence was modest, he is an example of the type of painter who followed his own instincts regardless of the prevailing styles. Art history may largely have passed him by but he stands there nonetheless, an oddity neither fully of one time nor another.

Creti’s father was a theatrical scene painter and the young Donato turned out to be something of a prodigy, earning him the affectionate nickname “Raggazino” and a place in the studio of Lorenzo Pasinelli, then the leading painter in Bologna. It was in Pasinelli’s workshop that Creti met Pietro Ercole Fava and was taken up by his friend’s father, Count Alessandro Fava. Creti joined the Fava household, a hub where the cultural and scientific currents of Bologna and Rome – both papal cities – mixed. The count sponsored him for the next ten years and sometime around 1700, Creti went to Venice and added the influence of Titian and Veronese to that of his Bolognese exemplars.

Once he had developed a style, Creti stuck with it. His paintings were distinguished by both their classicising idealism and the care he took with them. In search of purity and order, he went to great pains to ensure his figures were harmoniously disposed, their flesh tones smooth, their expressions thoughtful, with drapery immaculately rendered with deep colours and small brushstrokes. A poetic mood was more important than verisimilitude, while moderation was sought and spontaneity eschewed.

According to Giampietro Zanotti, his friend and first biographer, Creti was a perfectionist to the point of obsession. He was over-aware of his own inadequacies and over-reverential to the Bolognese painters of the past. The incompatibilities of his ­situation caused him severe mental anguish and he was plagued by depression, ­insomnia and illness. Painting was a form of medication and a way of managing his warring inner traits. Even so, Zanotti thought him a “sad and sinister melancholic”.

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The majority of Creti’s career was spent providing pictures for noble clients, and he also painted frescoes and altarpieces although they barely suited his scrupulous manner. The most striking paintings from his hand, however, are eight pictures made in 1711 showing the planets comprising the solar system as it was then known – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (Uranus was not discovered until 1781 and Neptune in the mid 1840s), plus the sun, moon and a comet. The conceit was not Creti’s own but was a piece of cultural diplomacy dreamed up by Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili. The count was both the general of the papal army and an astronomer who had owned a large collection of observational instruments. He was convinced Bologna needed a proper public observatory and commissioned the paintings as a gift to Pope Clement XI to encourage him to endorse the endeavour.

[see also: An anarchist on the Riviera]

Before Creti started work he was given a precise set of instructions about the imagery. Marsili’s helpmeet, the poet, mathematician and astronomer Eustachio Manfredi, sent Creti a letter in which he stipulated not just at what time of day or night each planet should be depicted but also the instruments used by the astronomers in each painting – “telescopes of medium size” for the moon, a pendulum quadrant for Venus, a helioscope for the sun. Marsili’s instrument collection was to be a key part of the scheme.

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The planets themselves, however, were not to be painted by Creti but by a miniaturist named Raimondo Manzini “with two strokes of his brush” after observing them himself through a telescope. The planets are shown disproportionately large but with extraordinary fidelity: Jupiter, for example, is not just girdled by its six atmospheric bands but includes the Great Red Spot, a persistent storm south of the planet’s equator, a feature identified by the Bolognese astronomer Giovanni Cassini in 1665.

This combination of art and science had the desired effect, and a year after Clement received the pictures, work started on Marsili’s observatory. For all Manzini’s detail, though, it is the haunting nocturnal landscapes that really define the pictures. What Creti depicted in them is a scientific arcadia in which gentlemen scholars lounge and study in place of the picturesque milkmaids and swains who usually populate scenes of rural pleasure. Creti’s observers may be taking measurements, but they do so with the air of moonstruck poets at their verses.

In his picture of the comet he dispensed with the astronomers altogether and replaced them with a young woman who looks not at the mysterious fiery object but directly out at the viewer. This enigmatic figure is setting a diadem of flowers on her head, an apparent reference to the goddess Diana who placed her dead lover Orion in the heavens in the form of a constellation.

The landscapes in the eight paintings are dreamy if non-specific, composed of stock elements – trees, craggy hills, rivers – set off by skies differently patterned with clouds and light. There is something of his father’s theatrical scene painting about them, while pictorial moonlight was familiar from the Saint Sebastian pictures of Reni. Two surviving highly finished preparatory drawings for the series nevertheless show the trouble he went to in order to combine figures, instruments and nature to best effect.

Zanotti wrote that Creti’s tragedy was that his “desire to surpass everybody, including the masters of the past, utterly destroyed him; and this desire was combined with another, equally intense need for praise and immortality”. Much of his work can be uninvolving, so praise and immortality escaped him, but in his Osservazioni Astronomiche series his planets aligned.

[see also: How Josiah Wedgwood’s Frog Service depicted Britain in chinaware]

This article appears in the 18 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal