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19 January 2022

The flickering landscapes of Alessandro Magnasco

The Italian painter used skittish brushwork to create mysterious scenes of religiosity and menace.

By Michael Prodger

The only near contemporary source we have about the life of Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749) is a book of brief biographies written by a minor painter named Carlo Giuseppe Ratti about the painters, sculptors and architects of Genoa. It was published in 1769 and even then, Magnasco was slipping from view. Ratti, however, was clear about the painter’s most distinctive feature – his brushstrokes “composed of quick, careless, but artful touches, applied with a certain bravura which is difficult to explain”. What he didn’t spend time or ink on was the fact that Magnasco’s entire art is difficult to explain.

Magnasco was not the only contemporary painter to depict friars, bandits and crowded street scenes, but he did so both with more imagination than most and in a highly personal style that seemed almost a century ahead of its time. As a painter, Magnasco was nowhere near El Greco (1541-1614) in status, but he too had what might be called a nervous brush and dealt in flickering, strobe-lit, attenuated scenes that still seem strange to the modern eye and must have been all the odder to his peers. Magnasco was, however, an outlier in style only: he had a long career, influential patrons, and left his mark on some distinguished later painters.

Magnasco, also known as il Lissandrino – little Alessandro – because of his short stature, was born to a painter father who died when the boy was young. When his mother remarried she sent him, aged ten, to join the household of a wealthy patron in Milan. There, Alessandro was encouraged to learn mathematics as preparation for a career in the commercial world but managed to persuade his guardian to sponsor his apprenticeship as a painter to Filippo Abbiati, one of the city’s leading artists.

Magnasco’s early career was as a portraitist, but he moved on to genre scenes and landscapes. He spent the bulk of his career in Milan, with one lengthy sojourn in Florence, where his works were much appreciated by Giovanni Gastone de’ Medici – who would become the last Medici grand duke of Tuscany – and hung in the Pitti Palace.

[see also: The sinister art of Victor Hugo]

On his return to Milan, the newly married Magnasco remained in demand – with the city’s Austrian governor among his patrons – until his daughter persuaded him to return to his native city of Genoa in 1735. It was not the happiest of homecomings: Ratti reports that the Genoese found his style “worthless” and “ridiculous”. Nevertheless, Magnasco continued to paint until increasing feebleness and “a strong tremor of the hand” led him finally to put aside his brushes. Even then he was happy to talk about art to amateurs and students “with vigour and grace”.

This largely successful career gives few clues to the nature of Magnasco’s paintings or the origins of his style. His intentions also remain mysterious: what was meant by his scenes of torture, his images of Quakers and the inside of a synagogue, his friars gathered round a fireplace? Some commentators suspect him of being a satirist, others merely an imaginative chronicler of the picturesque. Meanwhile, the art historian Rudolf Wittkower sagely admitted it was impossible to fathom “how much quietism or criticism or farce went into the making of his pictures”.

Since his rediscovery in the early 20th century, after a century and a half of neglect, a series of artists have been credited with influencing his style: among them Jacques Callot, whose engravings of the miseries of the Thirty Years War Magnasco knew; Salvator Rosa with his dramatic scenes of brigandage; and the Dutch and Flemish Bamboccianti low-life painters active in Rome. Magnasco also regularly collaborated with other painters, producing figures for numerous works with Anton Francesco Peruzzini, who painted in the landscapes, and Clemente Spera, a painter of classical ruins. He worked too with Marco and Sebastiano Ricci and Cosimo Tura, so many “Magnasco” paintings are in fact the product of more than one hand.

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This undated painting, Friars in a Wood, in the Museo Civico Giannettino Luxoro in Genoa, is one of numerous treatments of the theme from Magnasco’s brush. In it two itinerant friars, either Benedictine or Carthusian according to the colour of their habits, pray by a wayside cross set up in a wild landscape. Such crosses were common but the scene is fanciful and designed to snag the eye. Nevertheless, the treatment of the landscape has a religious dimension: the trees arch to form a natural church, the shaft of light that illuminates the figures and the cross is the light of grace, and the landscape opens up with a transcendence that mimics the soul in communion with God.

Yet, in a typically Magnascesque way, the scene also has an edge of menace and a frisson that isn’t solely religious. The skittish brushwork makes this place both alive and impermanent. Nature here is not wholly benign and these friars – one exhausted, one imploring – aren’t out of the woods yet.

[see also: The wonders of Albrecht Dürer’s world]

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party