Edited by Odette d’Albo

Wrapped in a large cloak of a brilliant mustard color, the Magdalene brings her right hand to her breast and approaches the other to the amphora of perfumed oil, an iconographic attribute of the saint who, according to the Gospel (Lk 7, 36 -39), having repented of her sins, anointed the feet of Jesus with the precious balm during the supper at the Pharisee's house.

The young woman is depicted half-length while an angel behind her delicately embraces and invites her to turn her gaze towards heaven. The ecstatic face of the converted sinner is tinged with a subtle sensuality which is accentuated by her white shirt, opened to reveal her chest.

rResurfaced in 2021 and presented here for the first time, the painting can easily be attributed to Giulio Cesare Procaccini, one of the greatest Lombard painters of the early 17th century. The face of the Magdalene and the delicate dialogue with the angel behind her can be compared to those in the St Cecilia in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan (Fig 1.), datable between 1620 and 1625: see also the pose of the saint’s neck, slightly leaning on the on the left, while the heavenly messenger acts as a counterpoint on the opposite side1.

A similar compositional solution, but in counterpart, appears in the Repentant Magdalene in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, datable to c. 1620 (Fig. 2)2. A further comparison is provided by the Magdalene in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, also painted at the end of the second decade of the 17th century, despite the saint is depicted in profile, facing the angel (Fig. 3)3.

This last version of the subject, repeated several times by Procaccini, can be compared with the one discussed here for the liveliness of the handling. The drapery is built up in the same way, expressing the rustling texture of the fabric, outlined with great rapidity and pervaded by subtle flashes of light; the same can be said for the soft hair of the Magdalene and of the angel, brown with golden reflections.

The general chromatic scale of the painting, played mainly on ocher shades and the features of the faces, with almost engraved profiles, brings the penitent Magdalene close to the Constantine receives the relics of the Passion (Milan, Castello Sforzesco), painted in 16204. The canvas opens the late phase of the painter’s career, characterised by the use of a darker palette and greater attention to drawing. This hypothesis is confirmed by the figure of the angel, repeated in a very similar Pietà (current location unknown), characterised by the same brown palette and also datable to the last years of the master’s activity5.

The most surprising aspect of the work here discussed is perhaps the extraordinary executive freedom of the details, such as the magnificent yellow sleeve in the foreground, outlined with quick and definite brushstrokes, reminiscent of the “sketches” and the “spots” which made the painter’s fortune during his lifetime. These works, all characterised by a deliberately unfinished appearance, such as the Madonna with Child and an angel in Capodimonte (Naples) or the Burial of Jesus in the Molinari Pradelli collection in Marano di Castenaso, were suggestively defined “autonomous sketches” by Roberto Longhi6.

These works, characterised by a prodigious speed of execution, were not intended by Procaccini as sketches for larger compositions, but were considered works of art in their own right. This way of painting was much appreciated by the artist’s patrons, especially the most eminent of the Genoese patricians, Giovan Carlo Doria. As first observed by Girolamo Borsieri in his 1619 Supplemento alla nobiltà di Milano, Giulio Cesare had “formed a manner that closely resembles that of Parmigianino, particularly in the colouring”7.

According to Borsieri, Procaccini had revitalized a genre already experimented by Parmigianino, making it more spectacular by mixing it with the knowledge of Rubens’ Genoese works. These “sketches” were executed by Giulio Cesare his career until the very end, as attested by the Mysteries of the Rosary surrounding the Madonna and Child and Saints Dominic and Catherine in the church of San Pietro al Rosario in Novara, a large altarpiece delivered by the artist shortly before his death, in 16258.

The rapidity of the execution and the presence of some “sketched” parts in the Repentant Magdalene here discussed must not be considered only an elegant exercise. The painting is actually unfinished, as I was able to clarify also thanks to the restoration carried out with sensitivity by Studio Colombi in Milan in 2021. This is attested by the visible brown brushstrokes, traced quickly to delineate the background and outlines of the Magdalene’s head, which are lost in the brown imprint, as well as the undefined naked breast.

The dark streaks on the saint’s neck and angel’s face create a strong visual impact which allow the observer almost to experience their strokes while the painting is being executed. Delicate and superimposed brushstrokes, not uniform enough to be considered accomplished, build up the Magdalene's pink cheeks, lips and her raised hand on her chest which accentuate the liveliness and energy of the painting.

The sketchier parts of the artwork allow us to appreciate directly Procaccini’s extraordinary way of painting. They are alternated with others where the degree of completion is greater; for example, the jar of perfumed oil in the foreground. The elegant attribute of the saint recalls the painter’s taste for refined gold-smithing. It is rendered with shiny streaks, similar to the Brera Magdalene and in the tournament wheel that the master holds in his hands in the Self-portrait of the Museo Lechi in Montechiari9.

The subject of the painting is mentioned several times in source documents. Because of the existence of many versions of the same composition, it is not possible to trace back the provenance of the Magdalene with a great degree of certainty. However, a few mentions may be connected to it. A “Magdalene from life” by Procaccini is included in the list of paintings brought to Modena from Milan in 1635 by the abbot Roberto Fontana, ambassador and art procurator of Francesco I d’Este10. Another “Saint Mary the Magdalene, by Procaccini”, estimated at “livres 100”, appears in 1678 in the collection of Giovan Luca Doria in Genoa. While a “penitent Magdalene” is attested, before 1763, in the collection of the Marquis Michelangelo Peralta in Milan11.

1 Hugh Brigstocke, Odette d’Albo, Giulio Cesare Procaccini. Life and work, with a catalogue of his paintings, Torino 2020, p. 367, no. 125. 2. ivi, pp. 361-362, no. 116.

3 ivi, p. 371, no.133.

4 ivi, p. 372, no 134.

5 ivi, pp. 393-394, no. 183.

6 ivi, p. 332, no. 65; ivi, pp. 334-335, no. 69; Roberto Longhi, L’inizio dell’abbozzo autonomo, “Paragone. Arte”, XVII, 196 (1966), pp. 25-29

7 Girolamo Borsieri, Il supplemento alla nobiltà di Milano, Milano 1619, p. 64.

8 Brigstocke, D’Albo 2020, p. 401, no. 197.

9 ivi, p. 351, no. 97.

10 ivi 2020, p. 459.

11 ivi, pp. 438, 456.

Related Art