by Roderick Conway Morris

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Galleria Nazionale Palazzo Barberini, Rome
The Gypsy Fortune Teller by Simon Vouet, 1617

Low Life and Vagabond Days

By Roderick Conway Morris
BRESCIA, Italy 9 January 1999


In the Protestant Netherlands, bourgeois buyers became important patrons of art and genre paintings found a solid market, while in Catholic Italy, where church and aristocratic patrons called the tune, attitudes were ambivalent toward pictures outside the mainstream of religious and history painting. Consequently, even as an area of study, genre painting in Italy has tended to be treated as a poor relation.

So, 'From Caravaggio to Ceruti: Italian Genre Painting and the Image of the Vagabond,' an extensive survey of pictures from the late 16th to the mid 18th century (with a small section on antecedents), is of considerable interest.

The show, which continues until Feb. 28, is at the newly opened museum and exhibition center in the restored convent of Santa Giulia.

Genre painting existed in the ancient world but was generally deemed an inferior pursuit suitable for less talented artists, an assumption that was inherited by the Renaissance establishment.

Naturally, the church fostered the belief that the most suitable subjects for art were religious, and the development of genre painting was for a long time affected by the church's ideas of the propriety of images. Even a renowned artist like Veronese found himself up before the Inquisition, which demanded the removal of 'buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such absurdities' from a tumultuous 'Last Supper' he had painted. Famously, Veronese failed to 'correct' the canvas, which now hangs in the Accademia in Venice, renaming it instead 'Feast at the House of Levi' - a cheeky response that he could get away with in Venice, where the government curbed the Inquisition's powers, but might not have been wise to risk elsewhere.

Veronese was not the only earlier 16th-century painter whose work embraced significant genre elements, and in the case, for example, of Jacopo Bassano, genre scenes sometimes dominate the foreground with miniature religious vignettes in the distance (as in some Dutch pictures).

But Caravaggio undoubtedly marked a key turning point in genre painting as well as in other aspects of Italian art. Unfortunately for the exhibition, the promised loan of his 'Madonna di Loreto' from the Sant'Agostino church in Rome was revoked at the last minute, although this lacuna is less serious than it might be, given the familiarity of so many of Caravaggio's works. The Loreto Madonna, with its grubby, barefoot paupers kneeling at the feet of the Virgin and Child, was attacked for its excessive realism and lack of decorum, as were many of the artist's other pictures, which were not infrequently rejected by the institutions that had commissioned them -- only to be eagerly snapped up by aristocratic connoisseurs and princes of the church.

Of course, Caravaggio also produced purely genre pictures, such as 'The Cardsharps' and 'The Fortune Teller,' even if they, in theory at least, still carried residual moral messages as warnings to the gullible against the ploys of tricksters and con artists. But while the attentions of a painter of genius elevated genre painting in Italy to an altogether higher plane, Caravaggio did not directly give rise to a school of the type the early Dutch masters created.

Indeed, the first recognizable Italian school specializing in popular, peasant and low life subjects was initiated by the Dutch Pieter van Laer, who was in Rome in the late 1620s and 1630s. His nickname 'Bamboccio' (ugly doll or baby) subsequently stuck to his followers, who became collectively known as the 'Bamboccianti.'

Laer's outstanding disciple was the Brussels-born Michiel Sweerts (1618-1664), represented by four excellent pictures (which also show strong Caravaggesque influences) here. Sweerts's interest in the poor and destitute seems to have had a marked religious element, and some time after he left Rome he joined, as a lay brother, a missionary organization, from which he was later expelled for his difficult behavior, and he died in Goa.

The Italian aristocracy remained the principal patrons of genre pictures, partly perhaps because these offered a diversion from the mainstream religious works which they already possessed in abundance. Yet genre art maintained its somewhat unsavory reputation.

Sweerts's near contemporary Salvator Rosa once complained that what these patrons deplored in real life suddenly became acceptable in a picture, though Rosa himself produced 'Beggars' Encampment Amid Ruins,' one of the wilder versions of wine-sodden, brawling, layabout life among the riffraff displayed in the show.

The aristocracy played a role in nudging Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665-1747) in the direction of genre. One of his patrons, Grand Prince Ferdinand de'Medici in Florence, already possessed Bamboccianti works and Crespi, who had decided impulses of his own to find an alternative to the academic tradition in which he had been trained, was encouraged by their example to make a distinguished contribution to the field. It is a shame that his cycle of paintings depicting the rise and fall of a penniless but pretty young opera singer, here represented by his amusing and closely observed 'The Flea Hunt' scene, is for the most part lost. But his legacy also lived on in the powerful influence he exerted over the Venetian painters Piazzetta and Pietro Longhi.

Giacomo Ceruti (1698-1767) became so identified with his pictures of tramps and beggars that he himself became known as 'Pitocchetto' (the little vagabond). He did a fascinating series of canvases of vagrants, ragged peasants, cobblers, child porters and poor working women and girls for the patrician Avogadro family in Brescia. These are now dispersed in a number of collections, and it is one of the exhibition's achievements to have been able to bring them together again.

These are real character studies, not social, comic or sentimental stereotypes, each subject emerging as a complex human being, as worthy of our attention as any of the infinitely more prosperous sitters for portraits. Ceruti demonstrates a genuine depth of sympathy with the nameless poor, and in the concluding section of the show, of self-portraits by genre artists, he depicts himself as a pauper and one of them. This and other painters' likenesses of themselves make for an eccentric and sometimes roguish lineup. Italy's genre artists were indeed a thoroughly mixed bunch, but a few of them achieved remarkable things.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023