Edited by Francesco Leone

The painting is certainly an autograph work of the Bolognese painter Pelagio Palagi, one of the most important Italian artists between Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Painted with exquisite refinement and in excellent state, it belongs to a precise moment in the Milanese figurative culture and in the prestigious career of Palagi, which is worth briefly retracing here.

Palagi was sent to Rome as a pensioner of the Academy of Fine Arts of Bologna in 1806. He was protected by the powerful Count Carlo Ulisse Aldrovandi, perpetual President of the Bolognese institution since 1807. His mentor saw him as the architect of the moderation and restructuring, respectful of the Bolognese tradition of the Carraccis.

Arriving in Rome, partially betraying these expectations, the young Palagi became instead the interpreter of more radical neoclassical tendencies, updated on the Northern primitivism (in dialogue with Ingres), on the poetics of the sublime and on the Nazarene figurative culture. Together with Hayez (who arrived in Rome in 1809), Palagi traced from Rome the new boundaries of the figurative culture that would then spread throughout Italy.

Destined to a brilliant career as a history painter, he would have been soon engaged in the most prestigious Roman pictorial commissions of the time, such as the Napoleonic decoration of the Quirinale palace (1811-1813) and the frescoes in the now destroyed Teseo Gallery in the Torlonia Palace in Piazza Venezia (1813-1814). Between 1810 and 1820, Palagi created heroic and mo- numental figures with a severe layout, slightly anticipating Hayez thanks to his direct knowledge of Felice Giani’s innovations in Bologna.

As he matured, Palagi combined this radical and modern language with the moderation of a classicist brand that looked to Raphael but, above all, to the great protagonists of the Bolognese tradition, such as Domenichino and Guido Reni. The first important result of the Palagi’s original and mature style can be seen in the mural paintings of the Teseo Gallery in Palazzo Torlonia. The Stories of Theseus were approached by Palagi with a grace similar to that of the coeval sculptures by Antonio Canova. Moving to Milan in 1815 (where he remained until 1832), Palagi became the interpreter of a graceful but authoritative neoclassicism, impeccable and perfect in form and execution, proposing an alternative to the new romantic taste diffused in Milan by another colossus such as Francesco Hayez.

The painting under discussion here is an exquisite, elegant and flawless example of this particular nature of Palagi’s neoclassicism, in which the classic theme of Venus playing with doves is declined in a naturalism immersed in the calm and composure typical of the artist’s Milanese period. Even when, following the path traced by Hayez, he tackled explicitly romantic themes, such as the Visit of Charles VIII to Gian Galeazzo Sforza in the castle of Pavia, Palagi did so with a figurative code that could not renounce the principles of his academic classicism.

Francesco Hayez, Venus playing with two doves (Portrait of Carlotta Chabert), 1830. Trento, Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto.
Fig. 1 Francesco Hayez, Venus playing with two doves (Portrait of Carlotta Chabert), 1830. Trento, Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto.

This painting can be dated to c. 1830. In the same year Hayez, Palagi’s longtime friend, exhibited in Brera one of the most seductive works of the entire Italian 19th century: the deified portrait of the ballerina Carlotta Chabert in the role of Venus (fig. 1), commissioned by her lover, the count from Trentino Girolamo Malfatti (Trento, Museo d’arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto).

Hayez’s painting featured Venus / Chabert while she plays with two doves. The painting, which today appears to us a masterpiece of European rank, was much criticised as, rather than responding to the canons of the beautiful ideal of neoclassical inspiration, it seemed to portray, in its brazen sensuality, “one of the most disgusting women of the populace”, as coeval critics wrote. As a matter of fact, Carlotta, deified in the features of Venus, was so rough and full of eroticism that she aroused a myriad of controversies at the Brera exhibition.

The newspapers and the critics accused Hayez of having made fun, with with provocative desecration, of the classic aesthetic canons of beauty, transforming the idealised features of a divinity derived from ancient sculpture into the sensual, real and transgressive ones of a random ballerina. It was therefore probably immediately after seeing the painting of his friend and rival Hayez that Palagi decided to make the same in this small-size painting, that depicts the very same subject (Venus plaung with two doves) but in a more chaste, orthodox and classicist manner.

Ironically, Palagi, who in 1832 was appointed court painter of King Carlo Alberto of Savoy in Turin, was commissioned a few years later by Count Malfatti to portray the same Carlotta Chabert as a goddess (Bologna, Musei Civici d’Arte Antica - Collezioni Comunali d’Arte). Palagi’s charming painting was completed in 1835.

Pelagio Palagi, Diana huntress (Portrait of Carlotta Chabert), 1835. Bologna, Musei Civici d’Arte Antica - Collezioni Comunali d’Arte.
Fig. 2 Pelagio Palagi, Diana huntress (Portrait of Carlotta Chabert), 1835. Bologna, Musei Civici d’Arte Antica - Collezioni Comunali d’Arte.

He portayed Carlotta in the role of a more measured and composed Diana (fig. 2), immersed in a bucolic vegetation that exemplified Palagi’s refined figurative neoclassical syntax, merged with some new naturalistic and romantic notes. The model’s pose in the role of Diana is very similar to that of the Venus discussed here; see, e.g., the position of the seated body and, above all, the setting of the shoulders and the movement of the neck and face towards the right. These specific features attest that Palagi kept this Venus playing with two doves in mind while painting Carlotta’s portrait as Diana.

Another comparison can be established with a slightly earlier and larger painting, Venus educator of Love today in the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. Venus is depicted in an idyllic landscape context that recalls the setting of the work presented here. A second reduced version of the same subject, also on wood, is known.

Related Art