Excerpted from the book
Italian Painting


The Third Estate and
Private Pleasures

Genre Painting

Tourists on holiday in Italy would do well to redirect their attention from the masterpieces of religious and mythological art that fill the museums and churches of Florence, Venice, and Rome to those remarkable works of "decorative art," the inlaid choir stalls and sacristy cupboards that are the glory of the carpenter's trade. If they do so, they will find themselves in a world scarcely imagined, in which the Madonna is only an occasional presence and the saints are frequently pushed aside by scenes dedicated to deserted landscape vistas, empty city squares, shelves stocked with chalices, cruets, books, musical instruments, and astrolabes, and figures in everyday dress who appear behind fictive windows playing the recorder, singing, or simply "hanging out." In the choir stalls of the monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, southeast of Siena, the choir stalls and lectern contain panels showing a spotted cat sitting complacently on a fictive ledge before a river landscape, three finches hopping about behind a Renaissance arch, and Olivetan monks reading. These scenes were carried out in the early sixteenth century, at a time when painting was still largely concerned with devotional themes, mythological subjects, and portraiture, and they serve as a potent reminder that any view of Renaissance art based exclusively on those paintings that have survived is incomplete.

One of the very rare pictures to take up the themes encountered in choir stalls is Lorenzo Costa's Concert, probably painted in the 1480s. It shows three figures, two male and one female, who sing a madrigal from a part book laid out on the ledge in front of them. It is known that at the court of Mantua, Costa decorated a room showing Isabella d'Este and her court "who, singing variously, make sweet harmony." There can be little doubt that the Concert is an allegory of harmony in the guise of a group portrait; it is not, strictly speaking, a genre picture. The same is almost certainly true of a beautiful picture by Titian showing the three ages of man in the guise of a concert (Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence). In it three men of different ages, one of whom is a monk, exchange meaningful glances while a middle-aged figure strikes a symbolic chord on a spinet. In visual terms the distance may not seem great between these two pictures and that painted by Orazio Gentileschi about 1610, in which a young woman listens intently as she tunes her lute, but although it is possible that Gentileschi's ravishing picture was intended as an allegory of music or harmony (in Italian, the word for tuning, accordare, means literally to bring together), it is just as likely that he intended simply to show someone involved in their favorite pastime. Gentileschi's picture would then mark a crucial shift rom disguised allegory to pure genre. That the matter remains ambiguous is indicative of the elasticity of these categories of painting.

Genre painting is the stepchild of Italian art, something that seems to have happened almost before it was noted. An appreciation for genre motifs certainly existed from an early moment: the fifteenth-century humanist Bartolomeo Fazio has left a description of a work by Pisanello in the Doges' Palace in Venice illustrating an episode of the history of Frederick Barbarossa's struggle with Pope Alexander III in which the detail of a priest "distorting his face with his fingers, and some boys laughing at this" seems to have impressed viewers almost more than the main scene. It will also be recalled that in the fifteenth century the Borromeos had a room in their palace in Milan decorated with women playing cards and a game of ball (see chapter 7). A century later we hear of the Cremonese painter Sofonisba Anguissola sending to Michelangelo a drawing of "a little girl laughing at a child who has put his hand in a basket of lobsters and been bitten by one of them." The drawing was later sent to Duke Cosimo I de'Medici and, miraculously enough, it survives in Naples. Not until much later, in Caravaggio's painting of a Boy Bitten by a Lizard (National Gallery, London), do we have a painting treating a similar theme.

We are bound to ask ourselves what it was Michelangelo saw in Sofonisba's drawing and why, having admired it, he did nothing like it himself. The answer to the first question is that he admired the invention--that is, the fantasy Sofonisba had shown in choosing so unusual a theme (the fact that she was a woman artist added to the curiosity)--and the way it exploited an everyday subject in the depiction of an expression. The answer to the second question seems to be that to Michelangelo it was one thing to exhibit this talent in a drawing but quite another to confuse the depiction of a subject from everyday life with Art, which aimed to reveal the Truth behind Nature. The seventeenth-century apologist for classicism, Giovan Pietro Bellori, was adamant on this point. According to him, Caravaggio's principal error was to have despised the great statues of antiquity and the example of Raphael and to have taken for his model the most plebeian of social outcasts, a gypsy fortune-teller--a member of what we might call the third estate--as a suitable subject for a picture. So strong was this prejudice that Bellori seems consciously to have censored from his biography of Annibale Carracci those low-life subjects the Bolognese artist is known to have treated as a youth: works like the Butcher Shop, in which for the first time genre painting was accorded the scale normally reserved for biblical or mythological themes (whether the picture is really an allegory has never been resolved).

Faced with the existence of genrelike pictures that seemed, on the surface, to have no edifying theme, the late sixteenth-century archbishop of Bologna, Gabriele Paleotti, allowed that they were acceptable so long as the actions and figures they depicted were rendered ridiculous. His views on the matter were greatly indebted to Aristotle, who in the Poetics had noted that just as tragedy achieves its edifying effects through the portrayal of men better than ourselves, so comedy relies on the ludicrous and imitates "men who are inferior but not altogether vicious." In other words, comedy was simply the reverse side of tragedy, and could edify through its exaggeration of the foibles of common people. Paleotti termed this kind of painting pitture ridicole--comic pictures--and throughout the following century a bond was forged between the presentation of farce on the stage and genre painting. Annibale Carracci's senior, Bartolomeo Passerotti, painted a picture of two women marketing their chickens that is precisely the sort Paleotti had in mind (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). It satirizes the ridiculous libido of an old croon selling her "goods" by showing a cock comically strutting behind her.

One does not have to do much scratching to find a moral intent, such as that in Passerotti's picture, below the surface of most genre paintings. Even Caravaggio's Fortune-Teller teaches the obvious lesson that those who trust such a shady character as a gypsy might as well kiss their valuables goodbye: the enamored youth is, in fact, losing his ring to the exotic enchantress. The real key to the picture, however, lies not in the theme but in Caravaggio's realism, which his contemporary Gaspare Murtola understood perfectly: "You have painted [this gypsy] so that she seems alive; so that living and breathing, others believe her."

There are many pictures in which a more caustic tone than that of Caravaggio's painting is adopted, but the reprimand is usually transparent. This is so even in Piazetta's Fortune-Teller, in which the conceited silliness of the female victim is completely winning. It is a short step from pictures like these that pretend to teach commonplace lessons (what we would call "street smartness") to paintings that transform genre into a means of social commentary. Giuseppe Maria Crespi's Flea Hunt, known in a number of versions, was long appreciated for its apparent depiction of a slice of ordinary life. It is, however, just possible that the picture once formed part of a larger series tracing the rise and fall of a singer (a spinet is shown at the left). Of this series the eighteenth-century critic Zanotti made the following predictable remark: "I know that the pictures of this series I saw made me split my sides with laughing." What sets Crespi's picture apart from earlier "comic pictures," as well as from the more scathing class humor of Gaspare Traversi's contemporary Drawing Lesson, is the sympathetic attention Crespi has lavished on the accoutrements of this simple dwelling: the intertwined garlic hanging on the wall, the crockery, and the oil lamp with a rosary aove the fashionable spaniel (the source of the woman's fleas?). In a work such as Giacomo Ceruti's Beggars, this sort of acute observation seems almost to amount to a social manifesto arising from the artist's sympathy for the dispossessed. No other eighteenth-century picture brings us so close to the deprivation that was the common lot of a large segment of the population and to the resultant hardened character of peasants and beggars.

Like the Bolognese Crespi, the Lombard Ceruti, and the Neapolitan Traversi, the Venetian Pietro Longhi also played upon distinctions of class in exploring the humorous side of the human condition. However, in his hands the almost cruel mockery that was Traversi's specialty and the eye to truthfulness that is the keynote of Ceruti's work is exchanged for a lighthearted, polite humor that never oversteps the boundaries of good taste. His peasants would never trouble the almost nonexistent social conscience of his patrons, and the failings he exposes in the upper classes are always forgivable. In the Apothecary, a woman seeks a cure for a toothache while, in the background, a priest and a gentleman wait their turn. The picture has the appearance of straightforward reportage, and, indeed, Longhi's work has been compared to the plays of his great contemporary Goldoni. However, he lacked Goldoni's biting wit and sense of individual character that transforms genre into social commentary. Domenico Tiepolo's enchanting Dance in the Country and Filippo Falciatore's Dancing the Tarantella at Mergellina are in some ways more revealing portrayals of eighteenth-century life precisely because they disavow any intention beyond that of giving pleasure.

There could be no greater warning of the danger of underestimating the power of allegorical genre painting than Bartolomeo Schedoni's depiction of Charity in the guise of a turbaned woman distributing bread to beggars and Ribera's depiction of the Sense of Smell as a peasant holding up a sliced onion, his eyes tearing at the fumes. In both, the allegorical content served as a lens through which two very different artists commented on the life around them. If we find in Schedoni's picture a moving depiction of a blind man, in Ribera's we cannot help but be shocked by the almost ruthless characterization of a rustic and, of necessity, uncouth member of the third estate. The same is true of the series of thirteen pictures painted by Domenico Fetti for the Gonzaga family in Mantua, in which parables from the Bible are interpreted in terms of everyday life. In Fetti's illustration of the parable of the mote and the beam, the result is almost comical, as a man seated in an elevated position disregards a threatening beam to point out a mote in his companion's eye. These are pictures conditioned by prejudiced views, but they are no less forceful and revealing for all that.

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