Edited by Alessandro Brogi

The exquisite painting discussed here is undoubtedly by the hand of Felice Giani, perhaps the major representative of Italian Neoclassical painting and one of the most heterodox and original artists in the European scenario.

The typical stylistic brushstrokes, and the superlative quality need no further comment1. Giani’s production of easel painting is, so far, very little known. In his vast production, interior decoration is pre- dominant: mural painting is his most congenial area, a segment in which the bizarre inspiration of his “overabundant imagination” could find free rein, as expressed by his juvenile friend Arcangelo Migliarini2. If very few easel works survive, even fewer (less then 30) are those made in oil on canvas, often made like this one in small or very small format, intended for an amateur’s cabinet.

The subject represented, the mystical marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria with the little Jesus in the presence of Saint Joseph (as here) or other characters, is among the most frequent in modern age painting, and was usually executed in small formats and intended for private devotion. Giani’s “visionary and neurotic love” (Ottani Cavina) for the great Renaissance and Baroque tradition is well attested by the many drawings made after ancient paintings of sacred subjects. However, these sketches, mostly in pen and brown ink, transfigure the original composition, animating it by irrepressible and hallucinatory impulses, an overwhelming expressive acceleration, an almost total redefinition of space and form that transfigures their original appearance.

Even in the present case, this love for old masters is evoked by the composition, inspired to the models by Correggio and the Carraccis in the form of a general sedimentation of visual culture, as no precise figurative source is recognisable. On the other hand, it is clearly recognisable the influx of two masters much closer to the young Giani, Ubaldo and especially Gaetano Gandolfi, protagonists of the late Baroque of Bologna3. This source of inspiration is attested by the creamy aspect of the pictorial surface, extremely refined in the mid-tones and thus slightly different from the graphic energy and the bright palette typical of Felice.

This said, it must be observed how Gaetano Gandolfi’s rich brushwork, inspired by the Venetian Rococo, is transformed here in something completely different, a synthetic and very modern writing that remains lively even in small formats ant that constitutes Giani’s signature. This sophisticated freedom may remind of Fragonard, but the Italian master appears even more modern, as evoked by the bald head all’antica of St Joseph.

The same cultural and stylistic amalgamation can be found in a group of small oil paintings dated by Anna Ottani Cavina to the 1780s or 1790s: the Nativity freely inspired by Correggio’s Night (Bologna, Lucchese Salati collection), the Jupiter fed by the Amalthea goat (Bologna, private collection), and the magnificent Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Venice, private collection), inspired with masterly vivacity by the Ribera of the Certosa di San Martino in Naples4.

Another term of comparison is a small oval with a gracious subject, Strokes of Love (formerly Rome, Pico Cellini collection), which recalls the 17th century iconography of Charity5.

Despite this influx, the oval attest “an emancipation... from the Gandolfi Legacy; ... Giani’s brush... follows [here] a seductive image of grace with sudden and underlining... entirely specific of his own style” and with a constant goal: “to oppose statuary classicism with the apparent neglect of the unfinished”. These illuminating words, devoted by Anna Ottani Cavina to the Strokes of Love, apply perfectly to our beautiful Mystical marriage.

1 On the painter see Ottani Cavina 1999.

2 Stella Rudolph, Felice Giani: da Accademico “de’ Pensieri” a Madonnero, “Storia dell’arte”, 29/31 (1977), pp. 175-186.

3 The artist was very attached to the older master, for whose funeral, celebrated in Bologna in 1802, he created an Allegory of Modesty: Notizie 1802.

4 Ottani Cavina 1999, II, esp. pp. 638-639, no. D4, fig. 899; pp. 369-370, no. D7, fig. 902; p. 671, no. D67, fig. 954. The recognition of the figurative source of the Lamentation advanced here for the first time and, once again, confirms the omnivorous voracity of Giani’s interests, which do not exclude even a sample of the most visceral 17th century naturalism such as that of the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera. 5. Oil on canvas, 46.6 × 33 cm (Ottani Cavina 1999, II, p. 663, no. D55, fig. 942).

Anna Ottani Cavina, Felice Giani (1758-1823) e la cultura di fine secolo, 2 vols., Milano 1999

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