Dr. Gustav Arens, Vienna;
Lise Haas (née Arens), Vienna;
Confiscated and allocated to the Fuehrermuseum in Linz (inventory no. 2632);
Restituted May 1948 (MCCP inventory no. 1707) and thence by descent.
In the second book of his famous Trattato dell'arte della pittura (1584), Lomazzo discusses the four "temperaments" (or emotions), and how they relate to painting. In order to illustrate his point, he describes a painting by the early quattrocento Milanese artist Michelino da Besozzo:
Michelino, a very old Milanese painter of about 150 years ago, and the foremost in Italy in those days, as his works attest...made in paint an outlandish joke, which is still imitated, and which really was beautiful and worthy of describing. He depicted four rustics that laugh together, two men and two women, and portrayed the oldest one all shaven, who looks around and laughs as if he is amused beyond all limits, and one could not find a man who is so melancholy and sad, that would not be moved to laughter by beholding him; while with his left hand he lasciviously gropes the country woman to his left, who herself has in her arms a cat that also seems to amuse itself by wagging its tail, and who thrusts her right hand into the hose of the old man who is laughing, looking him in the face and laughing while enjoying it all. And behind this [Michelino] placed another woman, who is laughing less, but in the same decorous act as her peer, namely she has pulled up the clothes of the other bumpkin and tries to put her left hand in his hose, which causes him to break out in a huge smile, so much so that one can almost hear him cackle, at any rate showing his teeth with such an open jaw that one could almost count them all. But what really gives them all great charm are their hats done in the old style, with the rest of the clothing in the fashion that was then common amongst country folk, and which even in our times are used by some, but not in such an absurd manner.1
It seems unlikely that such a ribald painting by Michelino, whose artistic style was far more decorous, ever existed; rather the precise and florid description would appear to be a pure invention of Lomazzo himself, designed both to make his point regarding the comic in art, and to assert the stature of Lombard art by attributing the invention of such a genre of painting (sordid though it might be) to so venerable a Milanese artist as Michelino (see note below).
Whatever the exact genesis of the description in the Trattato, the parallels between the painting described by Lomazzo and the present composition—albeit in a slightly modified and highly "censored" form, are clear. Dressed in what would have been in Lomazzo's day an outdated manner, four peasants are shown with outlandishly broad grins across their face. At far left is a beardless man—most likely the man "tutto raso" mentioned by the artist, standing next to a rather more elegantly dressed lady who indeed holds a cat. Behind her is the smirking figure of an adolescent boy, his head turned slightly upward making his grin even more absurd. And finally, to the right a bearded man in a strange, flapped beret. The image is quite unusual and is clearly intended to amuse the viewer, although it is unclear what is causing all of the merriment. In fact, the painting exemplifies perfectly the genre of the pittura ridicola, a type of painting that had become well established in Lombardy in the 16th century. In these pictures, artists chose subjects from the lower classes and depicted them (usually) in mildly amusing ways or situations, and often with moralizing overtones. The Campi family had been practitioners of this genre, as had Lomazzo himself.
The present composition belongs to a small number of pictures of similar composition and subject that Bert Meijer grouped together in 1971, and which have at various moments been ascribed to Niccolò Frangipani and to the circle of the Campi family.2 Like the present picture that was unknown to him at the time, all of these pictures are of half-length format depicting a group of four people. Of this group, there are four pictures which parallel the present panel quite closely, with the male figure at left and the woman holding the cat nearly the same, but with differences of detail and costume. One of these, a picture in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers, switches out the two figures at right for a woman and another clean shaven young man, thus matching more closely the staffage mentioned in Lomazzo's description of Michelino's work. Another picture (present location unknown) similarly changes the figures at right, again with another woman, but with at far right the profile figure of a turbaned grotesque old man. With his jutting jaw, heavy bottom lip and bent nose, this version clearly derives inspiration from the caricatures of Leonardo, and indeed the two women in the painting similarly betray his influence. Much closer, however, are two other examples. One, in the Galleria dell'Accademia Ligustica di Belle Arti, Genoa, is populated with the same four types as the present picture, with changes in detail of costume. Closer still, however, is a painting formerly in the Museo Civico, Novara (before 1974). That painting appears to closely follow the composition of the present panel, with only minor variations. The woman's pendant in the ex-Novara painting is rounded and not subtly cruciform, as in the present panel, and the neckline of her dress is more rounded. The cloak of the man at left lacks the band of trim around the edge and down the side as in this panel.
These small changes would not be of terrible import except for the existence of a related drawing from Lomazzo's circle, which was formerly in the collection of the famous 18th century connoisseur of drawings, Giuseppe Bossi, and now in the Accademia, Venice (inv. no. 1205, see fig. 1).3 That sheet depicts the same four figures as in the present composition and matches in all of the details of costume and composition exactly, and much more closely than any of the other known painted versions. Bossi himself, based on an inscription on the reverse of the drawing, understood the relationship of the drawing to the purported Michelino composition.4 Even more intriguingly, the sheet is pricked for transfer, and was thus a "working" drawing, used to create a final painting. Examination of the present panel with Infrared Reflectography, in fact, reveals that the painting was itself prepared with just this technique (see figs. 2-3). There are still clear pouncing marks visible throughout the composition: around the upturned nose of the boy at center, for example, as well as along the nose of the female figure. These "dots" were then in effect connected, with pen and brush, to form a template for the final painting. The compositional relationship between the Accademia drawing and the present panel is clear, and as stated they match in all of the details and in style. However, the drawing does not appear to be a final cartoon for the picture, despite the fact that it is pricked for transfer and corresponds to the composition precisely. The sheet itself measures only 283 by 430 mm, or approximately half the size of the present panel. No painting of this size exists, and thus the sheet might represent a first draft of the composition which was then enlarged onto a bigger piece of paper which acted as a final cartoon for the picture.
Attributing the aforementioned Genoa variant to an anonymous Lombard painter of the 16th century, Franco Paliaga has proposed5 that the source of the design is in fact Bartolomeo Veneto's Concert with Two Laughing Couples of 1506 in a private collection in Florence.6 He questions Lomazzo's claim that Michelino painted the work which he so meticulously describes, suggesting it should be considered a fictional invention, for it cannot be a coincidence that it is so closely based on Bartolomeo's work. Previous scholars, including Pagnotta (op. cit.) had proposed that there was indeed a lost prototype - after which all the variants derive, including Bartolomeo's - which probably originated in Lombardy. This presumably would have been influenced by Flemish caricature and Leonardesque figure studies, and was adapted to suit early 16th century tastes. However, Paliaga is firm in his rebuttal of this idea and insists that Bartolomeo's painting is the source of the design. He goes on to propose that while several of the versions are not easily attributable, on the basis of style the Novara version should be associated with the young Lomazzo, comparing it to another painting attributed to Lomazzo, a Heraclitus and Democritus in the Benvenuti Martinez collection in Milan.7 The present and the ex-Novara painting are the only versions which follow so closely the design of the drawing. Moreover, the close stylistic similarities between the two paintings, particularly the caricatural interest in the figures' teeth, strongly suggest that the two works are by the same hand.
1. "Michelino, vecchissimo pittore Milanese gia di centocinquanta anni, e principale di quei tempi in Italia, come fanno fede le opera sue... fece già in dipintura un bizarria da ridere, la quale va ancora attorno copiata, che veremente per esser bella è degna d'essere raccontata. Egli s'imaginò quattro villani che ridono insieme, due maschi e due femmine, e finse il più vecchio tutto raso, il quale sta guardando d'ogni intorno e ridendo, come che goda oltre misura, che non si trovi uomo cosi malancolico e tristo, che non si muova a riso in rimirarlo; mentre che con la mano manca tocca lascivamente la villana che si tiene all sinistra, la quale ha nel braccio un gatto che sembra anche egli d'allegrarsi dimenando la coda, e caccia la mano destra nelle calze al vecchio che ride, guardandolo nel volto e ridendo in atto di godere del tutto. E dietro a questo colloco l'atra villana, la quale ride un poco meno, ma in atto conveniente appunto ad una sua pari; e ciò perché gli sono alzati i panni dall'altro villano e cerche ella pone a lui la mano sinistra nelle calze, d'onde egli dirumpe in un grandissimo riso; talmente che pare che se ne oda quasi lo schiamazzo, mostrando tuttavia così smascellatamente i denti che gli si potrebbero sino ad un minimo annoverare. Ma quello che dà loro grandissima grazia sono certe berrette fatte all'antica, col resto delle vestimenta nella foggia che allora si usano da villani, et ancora a nostri tempi sono usati da alcuni, ma non così ridicoli." Lomazzo op. cit. 1584, R. Ciardi, ed., Scritti sull'arte, 2 Florence 1974, vol. II, p. 315.
2. See B. Meijer, "Esempi del comico figurative nel Rinascimento Lombardo," in Arte Lombarda, vol XVI, 1971, pp. 263-4, figs. 3-8.
3. See U. Ruggeri, Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia: Disegni Lombardi, Milan 1982, pp. 72-3. cat. no. 56, reproduced.
4. "...Questo invece rappresenta la parte superiore di un quadro famoso di Michelo essendo l'inferiore stata sopressa per l'oscenita. Si puo vedrne la descrizione a c. 359 del Tratt.o del Lomazzo."
5. See F. Paliaga in G. Bora et al. eds., Rabisch : il grottesco nell'arte del Cinquecento: l'Accademia della Val di Blenio, Lomazzo e l'ambiente milanese, 1998, exhibition catalogue, pp. 146-47, cat. no. 15, reproduced in color p. 136.
6. See L. Pagnotta, Bartolomeo Veneto, L'opera completa, Florence 1997, pp. 198-99, cat. no. 20, reproduced in color plates IX and X.
7. See F. Paliaga, "Quattro persone che ridono con un gatto", in C. Pedretti,ed., Achademia Leonardi Vinci: Journal of Leonardo Studies & Bibliography of Vinciana, VIII, 1995, pp. 143-57, reproduced plate 8.
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