A masterpiece of silk and damask: Tobias and the Angel by Jacopo Vignali

Jacopo Vignali's Tobias and the Angel is one of the most interesting works of seventeenth-century Florentine art, and is kept in Lucca, at the Pinacoteca di Palazzo Mansi.

There is a precise reason, theological and political, for the frequent presence of works featuring Tobias and his angel in almost all Italian collections that include a substantial number of seventeenth-century objects. The fact is that the most intransigent wings of the Protestant Reformation had rejected the belief in the angelic custody of the individual believer, which was instead one of the most solid foundations of the Roman church, affirmed with conviction since the time of patristics. In his Instutio, Calvin had expressly denied the idea that every Christian has his own guardian angel, discussing all the passages in the New and Old Testament texts on which Catholics had relied to support it. If Jesus Christ, in Matthew’s gospel, had said that children’s angels see the face of God all the time, that does not mean that every little one has his or her own. If in the Acts of the Apostles Peter’s companions recognize the angel assigned to him, that does not mean that that angel was his perpetual guardian. And so on: on these assumptions, the discussion would continue long into the seventeenth century. And to the texts of the Reformed theologians, Roman Catholics firmly opposed the account contained in the book of the prophet Tobiah, taking care to have it properly illustrated by artists. Sculptures, frescoes, paintings, printed works: there was no medium that was not employed to spread the story of the legendary, adventurous journey that young Tobias undertook with his guardian angel, the archangel Raphael, to cure his father Tobi.

In 1622, when Jacopo Vignali executed his Tobias from the collections of Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici and now housed in the Pinacoteca di Palazzo Mansi in Lucca, the vexata quaestio of angelic guardianship was still a topical issue, and in the Florence of the first decades of the seventeenth century a luminous painting of evident Counter-Reformation inspiration was still being practiced. Not infrequently then, the paintings took on additional meanings: the Lucca work belongs to a series of variants on the same theme, the most significant of which is the canvas painted the following year by Vignali for the Spezieria di San Marco, in a cycle centered on miraculous healings, such as the cure that, in the book of Tobias, enabled the prophet’s father to regain his lost sight. Vignali’s first biographer, Sebastiano Benedetto Bartolozzi, author of a Vita di Jacopo Vignali pittor fiorentino written, mentions the work as an “arcangiolo Raffaello who with the young Tobiolo separates the fish purchased on the banks of the Tigris in order to draw from it the medicament with which old Tobiah was to be restored from his blindness.” And this is indeed the moment that the elegant Pratovecchio painter captures: the young Tobias (or “Tobiolo,” Florentine style, as the ancient texts used to name him so as not to confuse him with his almost-homonymous father) is intent on opening the fish with a knife, to extract the medicinal ointment: under his elbow he already has ready the jar where the miraculous gall will be placed. The guiding angel helps him in the operation, holding a flap of the fish’s skin, and the faithful little dog, who accompanies Tobiah and Raphael along the journey, watches with lively and obvious curiosity, resting his paws on the rock where the prophet has placed the large fish, which hadhad assailed him on the way, and against which, spurred on by Raphael, Tobiah had fought, and then eventually defeated it and, again at the suggestion of the guardian angel, deprived it of its entrails in order to draw from it the singular medicine.

Jacopo Vignali, Tobia e l'angelo (1622; olio su tela, 132,8 x 164,5 cm; Lucca, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi)
Jacopo Vignali, Tobias and the Angel (1622; oil on canvas, 132.8 x 164.5 cm; Lucca, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi)

Up to this point, it could be a description of one of many paintings in the 17th century that dealt with the subject of Tobias caught working with fish to find the cure that would allow his father to continue to see. But Vignali, a devout painter, succeeds in exalting a theme that has become ordinary by crafting a painting of balanced grace and unparalleled elegance, cloaking it in the refined refinement that would always be the most distinctive feature of his brush, so much so that to some Vignali might appear a prissy artist, excessively languid, too close to the sentimentalism and devotional softness of’a Francesco Curradi, a painter to whom Vignali had approached precisely in the second decade of the seventeenth century, to such a mark as to lead an art historian like Carlo Del Bravo to indicate, in Tobias and the Angel, the product of an excessive surrender to the “minutiae” of his older colleague. A melancholic temperament, that which transpires from the Lucca canvas, which Franca Mastropierro also recognized in Vignali: and she recognized it as evidence of a temperament shared with Curradi.

Yet Vignali is a painter who is surprising for the variety of his palette, for the tactile rendering of the silk fabrics that abound in his paintings, and for the inventiveness with which he always knew how to adorn his elegant characters, and then again for his original research on light, for the shady passages of landscape in which the figures are inserted. In the Lucchese painting, for example, Vignali shows himself to be one of the most original interpreters of Guercino south of Bologna: the passages of bright light, modulated according to different intensities, alternating with heavy patches of penumbra with sudden transitions, coexist harmoniously with the preciosity of seventeenth-century Florentine painting, which Vignali knew how to make his own, and he demonstrated this also in the painting of Palazzo Mansi. And even this preciosity, which translates into an almost hedonistic treatment of the fabrics, luxurious, verisimilitude and described with a meticulousness that could almost lapse into the eccentric, has precise motivations at its basis. On the one hand, historical ones, namely, the spread of knowledge in Tuscany of the painting of Correggio and Carracci, from whom the Florentine painters borrowed a refinement conducted down to the most minute outcomes. On the other those social ones, since not even between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the midst of the Counter-Reformation climate, did the Florentine nobility want to renounce those rich garments made of velvets, silks and fine damasks whose market, at the dawn of the new century, was indeed quite flourishing. And the pursuit of this luxury production could not but be reflected in coeval painting.

And so this is why two biblical characters, even in the midst of a long, lonely and dangerous journey, do not lose their elegance: on the contrary, they are very clean-cut, not even bearing signs of fatigue on their faces, but moving with loose naturalness in their refined clothes. Tobiah wears a damask, scarlet cape, cinched at the waist by a very fine green auriser scarf, almost the same color as the tunic, also made of silk, which descends forming sharp folds. The angel is even more richly attired: a yellow silk tunic, stopped at the shoulders with a ruby-decorated stud, reveals elaborate puffed sleeves of precious pearl fabric, embroidered with golden silk floral motifs. And then, the white collar in the seventeenth-century fashion, and the blue blanket with gilded motifs, also of thick silk, with which Raphael sits on the rock so as not to soil the precious tailor’s gown: exquisite fineries of seventeenth-century Florentine tailoring.

And it is fortunate for Lucca that Vignali was a prolific painter and, moreover, that he drew up several variants of the same painting: otherwise, perhaps the collection of Palazzo Mansi would never have received Tobias and the Angel after the annexation of the walled city to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. It had happened that Carlo Ludovico Borbone, sovereign of that Duchy of Lucca created in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, in defiance of the city’s centuries-old republican history, had sold most of the collections that were deposited in the Ducal Palace, the fruit of centuries of private collecting and religious commissions, for gambling debts. After the annexation, the people of Lucca begged the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, to restore Lucca’s losses by giving the city works that, though not directly related to the history of local collecting, could worthily replace what the improvident duke had gambled away. Leopold agreed, partly because he thought it politically advantageous. And of those eighty-two works that the grand duke donated and that now make up the Pinacoteca di Palazzo Mansi, Jacopo Vignali’s masterpiece was also part.

If you enjoyed this article, read the previous ones in the same series: Gabriele Bella’sConcerto; Plinio Nomellini’sRed Nymph;Guercino’sApparition of Christ to His Mother; Titian’s Magdalene; Vittorio Zecchin’sOne Thousand and One Nights; and Lorenzo Lotto’sTransfiguration.