Arcadia in Painting. Donato Creti's pastoral fable at the Pinacoteca di Bologna.

The Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna preserves one of Donato Creti's (Cremona, 1671 - Bologna, 1749) most beautiful works, the "Arcadia Scene," an idyllic landscape that gives shape to the dreams of early 18th-century literati.

Renato Roli wrote in his monograph on Donato Creti, published in 1967, that the Emilian painter’s Scena d’Arcadia , now housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, was worth more than any of his other works to earn him the “flattering appellation of ’Bolognese Watteau.’” With the fundamental difference, one might add, that the measured Creti still managed to be less prissy and even less conventional than the illustrious French painter to whom he was often compared. Perhaps it would not be daring to consider Creti, the most famous pupil of that Lorenzo Pasinelli who in turn had studied with Simone Cantarini, the most tempestuous and restless of Guido Reni’s pupils, a sort of Guido Reni redivivivus, who knew how to update the great master’s classicism by adapting it to the taste and novelties of early 18th-century painting. Donato Creti’s art was crystal-clear, based on a very accurate drawing, capable of tackling à la page themes to satisfy the needs of his clients, but also endowed with a shrewd lucidity, able to meet, wrote Luisa Vertova, "the favor of Enlightenment and neoclassicists as well as today’s taste, accustomed to geometric shapes and mineral hues.

Here, then, the Arcadian Scene becomes a highly refined summary of the best of Donato Creti’s painting. In a landscape of invention, a verdant and lush landscape, we witness the pastoral fable invented by the Bolognese painter: we are in Arcadia, the ancient region of the Peloponnese that the ancient myths had elected as a land of sweet, serene, carefree life, a land of amorous skirmishes between nymphs and shepherds, a land of endless forests, clear lakes and rivers, abundant fruits, where time flows happily among games, loves, festivals, rural idylls. By the end of the seventeenth century, it had occurred to someone to revive that myth, and in Rome a group of a dozen literary men of letters, led by Gian Vincenzo Gravina and Giovan Mario Crescimbeni had founded, dated 1690, the Academy of Arcadia: a literary sodality that met in the name of Christina of Sweden and whose members (who called themselves, rightly, “shepherds”) published rhymes moved by a desire to react to the complexity, artifices and excesses of Baroque literature, by means of a poetry founded on a classical, rational rigor, and devoted mostly to bucolic themes that looked back to ancient lyricists. Soon the fashion shifted from literature to the visual arts, and Donato Creti’s Scena d’Arcadia offers an iconic translation by image of the ideals of the Arcadians.

Donato Creti, Scena d'Arcadia (1720-1730 circa; olio su tela, 129 x 161 cm; Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 398) Donato
Creti, Arc
Scene (c. 1720-1730; oil on canvas, 129 x 161 cm; Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 398)

Creti’s Arcadia, as mentioned above, corresponds exactly to that warm land yearned for by the literati of the early 18th century: an idyllic landscape on the shores of the sea where, under the foliage of some oak trees, we witness the vicissitudes of the large group of characters that the painter arranges in the foreground and in the distance. On the left, two women in old-fashioned clothing sit on top of a rock and are intent on passing a rose to each other: the beautiful flower is the focus of the narrative. We find it in the center of the scene: it is a symbol of love, and we must therefore imagine that this is the theme Creti intended to address with her painting. A third woman seated under the tree that rises along the entire vertical axis of the composition holds some flowers in her lap as she observes a fourth companion, intent on removing a twig from the viscous putto who holds out his hands toward her. At her side, against the light, a shepherd who has placed his flute on the ground talks to his dog, while further back we see games between two nymphs in front of another putto and, on the right, a pair of lovers caught in dialogue among the trees. Back, mountainous peaks silhouetted against a blue sky, enlivened by white clouds and darker clouds gathering overhead in the foliage of the trees.

Creti’s work gives substance to images that were frequent in the rhymes of Arcadian poets. As an example, one could take some verses we find in a collection, published in Bologna in 1718, by the Ferrarese poet Giuseppe Antonio Fiorentini Vaccari Gioia, who, like many of his colleagues, did a completely different job (he was a doctor), but in his spare time dabbled in poetry: who died in 1717, he was highly esteemed in the milieu, and some of his compositions were included by Crescimbeni himself in the anthologies of the Accademia dell’Arcadia. Creti was no stranger to the milieu: it should be mentioned that he personally knew the astronomer Eustachio Manfredi, also an Arcadian poet for pleasure, who collaborated with Creti when the painter painted his famous Astronomical Observations now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Returning instead to Gioia, in one of his lyrics we encounter the topos of the women who, in the woods, gather roses and violets: the rose is the “regina de i fior vezzosa,” the most beautiful of the wide array of flowers, to be woven into garlands with violets and laurel under the blessing of “holy love.” Renato Roli advanced the idea of interpreting the scene as an allegory of summer, due to the presence of the bathers in the background, and the fan held by the young woman with the turban on the left, although elements typically associated with the season (the ears of wheat, for example) are missing.

Whatever the significance of Donato Creti’s painting, from a purely artistic point of view it is one of the happiest products of eighteenth-century Bologna, rooted in the precedents of Guido Reni, Francesco Albani (for the atmosphere, the woodland setting), and Domenichino (the just-mentioned girl with the turban is closely reminiscent of Domenico Zampieri’s Sibyls). And the figures find parallels both in other paintings by Donato Creti (the woman seated on the right is identical to the Cumaean Sibyl preserved at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) and in the works of masters who preceded him: the woman pulling the twig away from the child cannot fail to recall, complete with waving veils, Guido Reni’s Fortuna . What has changed in Creti is, if anything, the flavor of the atmospheres, the patina conferred on the painting: Roli, for his part, could not help but notice “the puristic, neo-Renaissance flavor of Creti’s attitude, which in this canvas reaches moments of particular intensity, both in the modeling of the figures, rounder and fuller, and in the bright and almost acrid range of the local tones.” the classical beauty of this painting invests both the landscape and the graceful, ebony forms of the women in the foreground, which for the scholar almost presented “Ingres and his dream of the whole formal perfection.”

Of the early history of the Arcadian Scene we know little. We can be certain that the painting was originally in another format, and was curtailed to make it oval: we infer this from the fact that the group of the shepherd and dog is cut in a manner not traceable to the artist’s will. Such a cut could not have been compatible with his taste. And we can hypothesize that in ancient times it was part of the Zambeccari collection, the sumptuous picture gallery of the noble Bolognese family that became part of the Pinacoteca Nazionale at the end of the nineteenth century, with an act that followed up on the wishes of Marquis Giacomo, who in 1788 had ordered that his collection be destined for the public. In any case, even in the uncertainty about the overall meaning of the painting and its history, one thing is certain: this painting, for those who commissioned it, was the form of a dream, the dream of a happy land, so different and so far from the everyday world from which probably even the archaeans were trying to escape, finding a welcoming refuge in ancient myths.

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