Psyche and Eros

Santino Tagliafichi

(Genoa 1756 – 1829) Sold

  • Brown ink, coloured watercolour on an underdrawing in black pencil heightened with white lead.
  • 387 × 294 mm (15.2 × 11.6 inches) (sheet), 358 × 270 mm (14 × 10.6 inches) (image).
  • Watermark: crowned trilobed lily above an unreadable inscription. Inscriptions: lower left, in pen and black ink: ‘Santino Tagliafico inv. f. 1800’.

Edited by Luca Giunta Baroni

Santino Fortunato Tagliafichi, also known as Santo Tagliafico, was born in Genoa in 1756 into a large family of distinguished artists1.

His father, Nicolò Gaetano (1698-1776), and his brother Giambattista, were carpenters and scene designers. His other brothers were, respectively, architects (Giovanni and the more famous Emanuele Anrea), a priest (Giuseppe, particularly useful for the contacts with the clergy), and a jeweller (Domenico). He was trained in Genoa in the local Accademia Ligustica, establishing as a sacred painter and decorator in the late 1770's.

In his account of Santino’s life (1865), the historian Federico Alizeri stresses how the artist’s activity coincided with a hard epoch for academic painters, ‘benevolent to the arrogant, stingy of commissions, disdainful of the past style, uninterested to look for a better one, and in which errors were easily covered with freedom2. According to him, many Genoese artists of that period left the profession or left painting for minor works of illumination or engraving.

It is then curious that, today, Tagliafichi is almost better known and appreciated for his carefully executed, bright and colourful drawings than for his somehow old-fashioned altarpieces, indebted to the neoclassical tradition of Mengs and Carlo Giuseppe Ratti.

The sources describe his passion for drawings as a very private one, destined for himself or a selected circle of friends: ‘Looking at his paintings, one remembers what was murmured among his servants, who he would shut himself up in his studio in the only company of drawings and prints every time he could, hoping that nobody noticed3.

Alizeri suggests that his refined drawings were in- tended as preparatory for paintings, but it seems more likely that they were works of art for their own sake, where the artist could freely indulge in subjects from the Old and New Testament and seductive ones: ‘Before setting to work, Santino enjoyed himself in sketching it in smaller size, often on small cartoons patiently coloured in wash and, more rarely, in oil paint, showing the aptitude of an illuminator. The Durazzo collection does not lack such drawings or watercolours, and they are also largely represented in the Civic Library4.

Santino Tagliafichi, The meeting of Jacob and Rachel at the well. Watercolour and gouache over black chalk on paper, 247 × 293 mm. Private collection.
Fig. 1. Santino Tagliafichi, The meeting of Jacob and Rachel at the well. Watercolour and gouache over black chalk on paper, 247 × 293 mm. Private collection.

This is the case, for example, of the tiny Meeting of Jacob and Rachel, that indulges in the representation of a bucolic landscape (fig. 1)5; and is also the case of this impressive Psyche and Eros, by far the most seductive and refined composition among Tagliafichi so-far known works on paper.

The story of Psyche was very well represented in the Genoese palaces and collections and linked to one of the most splendid periods for the city. One must remember the now lost octagonal by Francesco Salviati (1510-1563) on the vault of the Psyche room in Palazzo Grimani, surrounded by four vast canvases on the same topic by Francesco Menzocchi (1502-1574), the cycle of Psyche in Palazzo Lercari-Spinola by Ottavio Semino (c. 1530-1604), and the allegorical role played by the topic in decorative cycles commissioned by Andrea Doria and Sinibaldo Fieschi6.

By 1815 the canvases in Palazzo Grimani had been detached from the vault, forming a small but selected quadreria of old master paintings7. A suggestion hardly missed by Tagliafichi, who was considered (and considered himself) one of the paladins of old master art, and was also an appreciated restorer, connoisseur and intermediary in the purchase, sale and dispersion of the incredibly rich Genoese aristocratic collections8.

Giovanni David, Psyche awakens Eros spilling wax
Fig. 2. Giovanni David, Psyche awakens Eros spilling wax, mid- 1770s. Etching and aquatint, 284 × 190 mm.

Moreover, the topic of Psyche awakens Eros spilling wax had been already illustrated in a significant print executed in c. 1770-80 by the neoclassical Genoese artist Giovanni David (1749-1790, fig. 2) – a work most likely known to Tagliafichi, who seems to quote it in counterpart in the position of the tent and of the bed. The comparison among the two images, however, emphasises Tagliafichi’s explicit reference to mannerists models, instead of neoclassical, as it is particularly evident in Psyche’s sensual nudity and in the carved decorations of the bedside table and of the gilded brazier.

The private destination of Psyche is attested by a feature not immediately perceptible: the figure of Psyche is drawn on a second sheet of paper, cut and pasted on the main sheet and finely retouched in order to become almost invisible. After having executed the first version, Tagliafichi probably decided to improve it and changing the main figure – an intervention that shows the typical graphic meticulousness and precision of his drawings, which, according to Alizeri, ‘are so brilliant and refined that they almost make us to forget his activity as a large-scale painter9.

The coeval inscription on the lower left margin of the sheet, ‘invented and drawn by Santino Tagliafico, 1800’ places the drawing in the most prolific and creative part of the artist’s career.

1 The standard reference on the artist is represented by the monograph recently dedicated to Tagliafichi by Gianni Bozzo (2013); a detailed and early account of his life can be found in Alizeri 1865, II, pp. 379-506.

2Però che quanto visse degli anni maturi, fu in età pessima per la nostra pittura, benevola agli arroganti, avara di commissioni, sdegnosa del passato stile, incuriosa di cercarne un migliore, quando gli errori si coprivano agevolmente di libertà’ (Alizeri 1865, II, p. 382).

3Onde a vederlo nelle opere, corre a mente ciò che se ne andava mormorando fra i suoi domestici, ch’ei si chiudesse in sola compagnia di disegni e di stampe ogni qual volta era d’uopo, d’immaginare com’uomo geloso ch’altri non lo spiasse in quell’ora’ (ivi, p. 389). An example of a presentation drawing likely executed for a friend is the portrait of the pathologist Onofrio Scassi (Sotheby’s – Milano,, lot 105), finely executed in black chalk in order to imitate the appearance of a print.

4Prima di mettersi all’opera, soleva Santino deliziarsi istoriandola in piccolo, talvolta in carticelle pazientemente lavorate a colori, tal altra, e più raramente, ad olio, ma coi vezzi sto per dire del miniatore. Di tali disegni o acquerelli non è priva la collezione del Durazzo, ond’è ricca la Civica Biblioteca...’ (Alizeri 1865, II, p. 397).

5 Sotheby’s, Milano, 5.vii.2006, lot. 149.

6 Cheeney 1963, pp. 337-349; Fratini 2006, pp. 135-140.

7 Cheeney 1963, p. 342.

8 On Santino’s activity as a restorer see Bozzo 2016, pp. 191-198.

9... condotti a sì lunga cura da farci dimentichi de’ lavori in grande’ (Alizeri 1865, II, p. 397).

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