Solimena had started his artistic career under the magic spell of the Neapolitan and Roman baroque, but towards the second half of the 1690s entered an academic phase, influenced by the Roman classicism of Carlo Maratti, before returning enthusiastically, in the middle of the first decade of the new century or just before, to a baroque vocabulary, subtly echoing again the style of Luca Giordano and Mattia Preti.
This skilful and dynamic drawing, with its elaborate underdrawing in black chalk reinforced by the use of pen and ink, and abundant brown wash in two different tonalities, shows Solimena’s mature graphic style applied to a creative composition full of movement and expressive solutions, echoing Giordano’s vigorous and incandescent rendering of spaces. Luca Giordano, who had returned from Spain to Naples in 1702, was reaffirming in those years his decision to remain faithful to the Baroque tradition, especially in the extraordinary frescoes for the Cappella del Tesoro, in the Certosa di San Martino, a masterful and exuberant work finished in April 1704, the year before his death – a work that was particularly admired and revered by Solimena.2
Solimena revives in this drawing his gift for theatrical representations, subtly combining reality and fantasy, the heroic and the dramatic, in a scene focused on the fury of the battle that recedes from the foreground to the background, framed by the severe and controlled architecture of various classical buildings. At the same time he successfully suggests space and movement, the figures caught with their gestures almost arrested for the benefit of the viewer. There is a great sense of dynamism, only contained by the solidity of the architectural features in the background and a slight indication of the sky, which constitutes the only empty space in the otherwise crowded composition, dominated by the fury of the battle. Moreover, the artist’s highly pictorial approach is enhanced by the delicately applied chromatic layers of brown washes, darker in the figures in the foreground, strengthening the contrasting areas of light.
This important drawing has a distinguished French provenance, and was correctly attributed to Francesco Solimena already when in the Crozat collection; in the description of lot 762 in the collector’s posthumous sale catalogue, it is the only drawing singled out for specific identification: 'Seize Desseins, dont le Combat des Lapithes & Centaures par le Solimene'. The subsequent provenance from the collection of the Marquis de Calvière (1693-1777), whose collection was mostly formed between 1741 and 1777, was recognized by Béatrice De Moustier.3 Although Francesco Solimena hardly left Naples, he was an artistic figure of international standing, and his paintings and drawings were highly prized and in considerable demand throughout Europe. His drawings were especially collected by connoisseurs in France and England.
The same composition was engraved, in reverse, most probably from a copy of this drawing, by Francesco La Marra for his Raccolta di 50 disegni originali degli eccellenti pittori napoletani……., incisi in rame dal Cav. Francesco La Marra, published in Naples by the Terres brothers, in 1792, after the artist’s death.
The present drawing will be included in the forthcoming two-volume publication on the artist, by Nicola Spinosa and other authors: Francesco Solimena e le Arti a Napoli.4
1. The painting was published by Hans Posse, Die Staatlische Gemäldegalerie zu Dresden, Dresden/Berlin, 1929, cat. 496
2. See F. Sricchia Santoro and A. Zezza, Bernardo De Dominici, Vite de’ Pittori, Scultori ed Architetti Napoletani, vol. I, Naples 2008, p. 819
3. See Provenance, Marty de Cambiaire, p. 118, note 1
4. Vol. II (The Drawings), by Cristiana Romalli, no. D45, reproduced
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