The renowned Tuscan painter Domenico Cresti, called Passignano, completed this impressive painting in Florence in 1600 during a very prosperous period of his career. The steady supply of commissions that Passignano received throughout his lifetime were almost all religious, mythological, and historical in subject. Thus, as a genre scene, The Bathers at San Niccolò remains a unique example within Passignano’s corpus, yet passages within the painting still echo elements from earlier in the artist’s career. For example, in the late 1570s Passignano assisted his teacher, Federico Zuccari (1542-1609), in completing the ceiling of the Duomo in Florence. One section of the ceiling he is thought to have worked on was the Inferno scene, which includes a number male nude figures in various acrobatic poses, similar to the athletic postures of the men in the present work. Furthermore, the two male figures that dominate the immediate foreground of the present work recall Passignano’s semi-nude and muscular males that serve as repoussoir elements—details placed in the immediate foreground to increase the sense of depth in the image—for the frescoes in the Salviati Chapel in San Marco (c. 1589). Rather than augment the sense of depth, however, the two figures in The Bathers at San Niccolò envelop the foreground and serve as anchors for the inventive perspective that Passignano has employed.
The historical precedence for this subject matter and setting can be found in works of the masters that preceded Passignano as well in the works of Zuccari, with whom the artist began working in the 1570s. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were known to have explored the tradition of executing figure studies at public baths, and this practice of drawing directly from life and nature was perhaps one of Federico Zuccari’s most lasting influences on Passignano. Indeed, the spontaneity of the groupings of the figures in the painting, as well as the individuality of their appearances and poses seem to suggest that Passignano was making studies and observations directly from the Florentine life around him. In fact, a number of red chalk nude studies that mirror many of the poses found within The Bathers at San Niccolò can be found in a number of collections, including the Uffizi and the Musée du Louvre (fig. 1). Finally, one would be remiss to not mention that Zuccari himself completed a drawing of bathers on the banks of at San Niccolò in the 1570s (fig. 2), and even if Passignano was familiar with this work of his teacher’s, he transformed the scene into a grand composition of his own accord.
The sensual theme portrayed may seem unusual, but some have suggested that a point of reference for this subject matter be the Battle of Càscina, a clash between the Florentine and the Pisan armies. In his chronicle of the battle, Filippo Villani notes that as the Florentine army advanced to Cascina, just outside of Pisa, on an unbearably hot day, they decided to remove their burning armor and recover from the heat by bathing in the waters of the Arno. With their guard down and defenses relaxed, Pisan spies reported the situation to their commander who then set out to launch a surprise attack on the Florentines. The Florentines, however, were warned of this surprise attack through a distant trumpet and quickly armed themselves to meet the Pisans back on the road. Refreshed and revitalized, the Florentines quickly returned to the battlefield, ultimately defeating the worn and tired Pisan forces. In 1504, Michelangelo was commissioned to create a fresco for the Florentine Room of the Great Council depicting the Battle of Cascinà. While he never completed the fresco, he did complete a number of studies and a full sized cartoon for the work. The cartoon no longer remains intact, but its original format is known through numerous engravings of the work, including that of Michelangelo’s pupil Aristotele da Sangallo (fig. 3). This engraving demonstrates Michelangelo’s intention of capturing the pivotal moment of the nude Florentine army leaping out of the Arno river to re-arm themselves. The dynamism and vitality of the figures woven throughout the engraving have counterparts within The Bathers at San Niccolò.
In his 1959 article, Alberto Martini notes Mina Gregori’s suggestion that the present painting could possibly be the one referenced in Baldinucci’s recordings of the works of Bilivert.1 In his early writings, Baldinucci had drawn a connection between a painting by Bilivert in the Marchese Filippo Niccolini collection (formerly in the Riccardi collection) and another painting in the Niccolini collection by Domenico Passignano he describes as “figure la città di Firenze col fiume d’Arno e diverse femmine in atto di bagnarsi”.2 While on the one hand it can be suggested that perhaps Baldinucci only knew of the painting by Passignano but never saw it in person and assumed the swimmers were female, J.L. Nissman on the other hand has suggested that Baldinucci might have conflated the Passignano painting with another painting known to be in the Niccolini collection of Cloelia and the Tiber, which is a scene that often includes a number of female swimmers.3
1. See Martini, under Literature.
2. See Baldinucci, under Literature.
3. See Nissman, under Literature.
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