The demise of a ruling class: the Genoese "Detention" of Alessandro Magnasco

Alessandro Magnasco's (Genoa, 1667 - 1749) "Restraint in a Garden in Albaro" has often been read as a desecrating painting about the decay of the Genoese aristocracy. Perhaps an extreme interpretation, but nonetheless the symptoms of decline can be felt in the painting.

Don’t be fooled by the title. There is little that is lighthearted or delightful about that Trattenimento in un giardino di Albaro that stands out in Room 23 of Palazzo Tursi in Genoa, Ga: even a painting that seemingly guides us among the amusements and ozî of the Genoese nobility of the eighteenth century is actually a reflection of the ironic, biting, ambiguous and nonconformist nature of its author, that Alessandro Magnasco who was “a painter of a peculiar character in his paintings,” as Carlo Giuseppe Ratti had to define him. Pittor pitocco by self-definition and by vocation, “painter of dissent in the crisis of European conscience,” according to an effective and recent expression by Fausta Franchini Guelfi, lucid and disillusioned, capable of daring what others had never dared to paint, anticipator of the civilization of Enlightenment, intolerant of authority, Magnasco was a careful investigator, a ruthless and disenchanted observer of reality, far removed from the reassuring, idyllic frivolities of his contemporaries who dictated taste at Italian and European courts. Magnasco’s world is that of the gypsies, the layabouts and vagabonds begging for a living, the rough soldiers camped outside the cities, the unfortunates tortured by theInquisition, of the spindly, bony and desperate mountain friars, of the poor storytellers who roam through ruined cities, of the picaros who earn their bread by more or less lawful methods.

Magnasco’s sharp and penetrating gaze was not detached, however: on the contrary, he was a participatory and critical artist. So much so that, in accordance with a choice that was symbolic and ideological at the same time, Genoa decided to dedicate to him, in 1949, the first exhibition in the Palazzo Bianco reopened after the destruction that the war had brought to the city, including among the museums. In the second half of the last century, he was almost elevated to the rank of a contemporary artist moved by intentions of social denunciation of an almost twentieth-century kind: but even under the blanket of exaggeration one can still catch a glimpse of the figure of a modern artist, who is placed, wrote Franchini Guelfi who is Magnasco’s greatest expert, “in an isolated position [...], along with a patronage that, in sharing his strongly critical accents, also appreciated his pictorial language far from any reassuring and optimistic vision of reality.”

Alessandro Magnasco, Trattenimento in un giardino di Albaro (1740 circa; olio su tela, 86,3 x 198 cm; Genova, Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Bianco, sale di Palazzo Tursi, inv. PB 81)
Alessandro Magnasco, Restraint in a Garden in Albaro (c. 1740; oil on canvas, 86.3 x 198 cm; Genoa, Strada Nuova Museums, Palazzo Bianco, rooms of Palazzo Tursi, inv. PB 81)

It has often been pointed out how De Andrè also looked to a certain extent to Magnasco, given what is believed to be a kind of commonality of intent. In a celebrated photo by Guido Harari of him playing in his home, among the objects scattered on his bed is a monograph by Magnasco. A Punchinello by the Genoese painter sits sprawled on the cover of the 1991 Concerts . And from his family apartment in Villa Saluzzo Bombrini, turning his gaze toward the Bisagno valley, the young De Andrè could see the same panorama that Magnasco painted in Trattenimento, since in all likelihood the artist also had to execute the work by looking at the hills of Genoa from the garden of the late 16th-century villa.

In his garden, Magnasco stages the decadent spectacle of an aristocracy running ineradicably toward its downfall. The painter’s gaze from the hill of Albaro widens toward the plain of the Bisagno, toward its countryside, now heavily urbanized: in the background, behind the seventeenth-century walls, the Marassi district, the last eastern offshoots of the city, the hills that frame it. In the foreground, on this side of the wall that separates the villa from the countryside, here is the trattenimento, as per the title that was given to the canvas in 1947, two years before it was exhibited at the Palazzo Bianco monograph, for which it was also chosen as the cover image of the catalog: we see ladies and gentlemen, priests and young dames, children and dogs, waiters, even an artist intent on drawing, perhaps an ironic self-portrait (note how he stands solitary, detached, tracing images on a sheet of paper). They are all intent on conversation, playing cards, joking, quietly seated on comfortable deck chairs.

Magnasco’s brush, as is usual for him, is at once swift and mellow, darting and irreverent, merciless, and reaches here one of the heights of his freedom: we are at an advanced stage of his career, around 1740, and the Genoese artist sketches the actors of his unstable stage with a few nervous, fragmented strokes of the brush, the “quick, scornful, artificial touches” of which Ratti spoke, giving life to inexpressive, elongated, flickering figurines, emerging from dense clumps of earthy hues. They do not even look like human beings: they look, if anything, like larvae caught a moment before they dissolve never to return. There is a strong sense of uneasiness, precariousness, anguish, and supreme insecurity, underscored even by the villa’s perimeter wall, which seems as if corroded, in ruins, destined to collapse at any moment: there is even a little boy, dressed in rags, climbing over it. It is a sarcastic detail, as if to suggest that those delights among which the nobility serenely guzzles are threatened from outside.

The view is also suffocating, oppressive, unusual: how many painters will have painted views of Genoa without showing its sea? On the occasion of the exhibition dedicated to Magnasco and held again at Palazzo Bianco, but in 2016, news was given of the discovery of a painting by the Van Deynen brothers, a Genoese Reception in honor of Archdukes Albert and Isabella of Habsburg, so similar to the Trattenimento that it could be considered a direct precedent, which proposed to the viewer roughly the same view, but the gaze of the two Flemings extended as far as the sea, to delineate with precision the outline of the lazaretto, at the mouth of the Bisagno, and the bend of the gulf entering the city. It is true that probably at the basis of Magnasco’s view was a precise requirement of the commissioner, one of the members of the Saluzzo family: that of including the sanctuary of Nostra Signora del Monte, to which the Saluzzo family was linked. But a view of Genoa without the sea still gives a sense of asphyxiation.

The city was then in full decline: political, economic, social. It is as if even that sea on which Genoa had over the centuries built its power became here an accessory now emptied of its relevance. But that elegant and motionless procession, those gentlemen and noblewomen almost stupefied by their pleasures, seem to be oblivious to nothing, completely detached from politics, from the administration of the city, from the tasks of government, caught up in the inanity and vanity of their entertainments, and almost crushed by their villas scattered in the countryside, their parks and their verziers, if we want to look at the landscape according to that icastic reading that, in 1969, the historian Franco Venturi, author of a description of the painting often quoted even in art history books, gave it.

This “marvelous picture,” as he called it, was the clearest image of the decadence of a city with an ever-diminishing political weight, where the economy stagnated and the same private wealth struggled to expand, where the families that had made it illustrious and prosperous were drying up, where immobility reigned. “These are the nobles, the patricians that Alessandro Magnasco painted, precisely in those years, in his marvelous painting, preserved today in Palazzo Bianco: petty and small, closed in their minute lives of play, conversation, rest, accompanied by their abbots and their little dogs [...]. A dry and arid decadence in men, ornate and rich in things.” Thus Venturi. Now, we do not know how far the painter could have gone. Certainly, if the patron was a member of the Saluzzo family, it is rather hard to imagine that he shared such a fierce vision. And to see the curtain of history come down on that “civilization of conversation, chocolate and coffee,” Clario Di Fabio noted in describing this painting, would have taken another fifty years. But in this Retreat, at least, one can feel the first symptoms.

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