Edited by Massimo Pulini

In front of a blue sky, which shows a linear marine horizon, three naked children, sensibly described in various pinkish complexions and in different expressions, are grouped on a stone-like pedestal, similar to a fragment of an ancient sculpture floating on the water’s surface.

There is also a newt, a large fish with a wide snout, with open jaws and a tail winging up between the putti’s legs. The improbable scene is made even more enigmatic by the children’s gestures that refer to the outcome of a battle, rather than to the act of playing on the waves. The only child standing is in fact forcibly lifting a companion who appears unconscious, while the third child, although impenetrable in his feelings, holds his arm raised, as if he were punching the fish.

Even if the research on an ancient sculptural model is still open, it seems reasonable to identify the probable inspiration of this painting in a Greek or Roman sculptural prototype, perhaps a bas-relief or a lost wall frieze here translated into painting.

The artists active in Baroque Rome fished with both hands from this kind of mythological subjects, declining in infinite variations the water games between cherubs and tritons, nereids, sirens and sea nymphs. Be that as it may, the painting here discussed does not limit itself to evoke a decorative genre, but brings it back to life implying the mind of a resourceful master.

Passed anonymously to the antiques market, the painting can be attributed without hesitation to the refined brush of Giovanni Battista Salvi, known as Sassoferrato, and identified as a rare testimony of his early production.

According to the sources, Sassoferrato was trained in the Roman workshop of Domenichino (Bologna 1581- Naples 1641). So far, no proof of this link between Sassoferrato’s mature style and this early Bolognese cultural matrix was known. The painting here discussed, on the contrary, can be interpreted as the missing piece that links Domenichino’s manner with Salvi’s later works.

The Three putti and a newt is in fact halfway between the classicist eclecticism derived from Annibale Carracci and the marked purism typical of Sassoferrato. The tonality of the flesh, the expressive containment and the dry and decisive chromatic range are the most explicit proofs of his autograph.

Giovanni Battista Salvi called Sassoferrato, Amorino with a guitar
Fig. 1 Giovanni Battista Salvi called Sassoferrato, Amorino with a guitar

Perhaps only another known work by the artist possesses such properties as to testify to his precocious maturity. This Amorino with a guitar (fig. 1), albeit unpublished, had been already been studied by the late François Macé de Lepinay, who attributed it to Sassoferrato in a letter addressed to the current owner. Here too, the physical forms of Eros, his expression and the town in the background expressly refer to Domenichino’s classical taste. It may be observed that the two paintings share the same measurements.

These two early works by Salvi can be dated to the end of 1620s, on the eve of Domenichino’s stay in Naples, when the young artist was starting a path that would have led him to the coherent maturity that distinguishes his later style. A monographic study that follows the arc of his career, from the first youth to the mature Madonnas, is still lacking. However, if the intense activity of the workshop makes it difficult to understand how Giovanni Battista Salvi painted in the 1680s, the two works here discussed allow to retrace the quality that characterised the artist’s early years, a phase that still needs further investigation.

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