Older women of this type appear in Northern Italian art in the 16th and 17th centuries, sometimes as details within larger paintings, and other times as the central subject of a work, as in Giorgione's La Vecchia (1506), often serving as momento mori's, or reminders that time inevitably conquers beauty. In the present work, the older woman, holding the distaff and the spindle, is also reminiscent of one of the three Fates of classical mythology, responsible for the thread of life. Furthermore, the juxtaposition between the older woman and her companion to the left also may allude to the allegory of unequal love.
Although it is unclear as to whether the painting was meant to be allegorical or moralizing, what is clear is that this work was intended to amuse the viewer. It embodies the genre of the pitture ridicole, or comic painting, a tradition that had become well established in Lombardy during the second half of the 16th century, particularly in the regions of Cremona and Milan. In these pictures, which were inspired by Leonardesque figure studies as well as the caricatures of Flemish artists such as Massys, Bosch and Aertsen, artists chose subjects from the lower classes and depicted them half length or three quarter length and (usually) in mildly amusing ways or ribald situations, sometimes with moralizing or allegorical overtones.
In addition to artists such as Niccolò Frangipani and Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, among the most celebrated early practitioners of this tradition was Vincenzo Campi, a Cremonese artist who played a central role in the development of this genre in Northern Italy in the late 16th century. Although Campi was also known as a painter of religious scenes, he turned his attention to realistic and naturalistic depictions of low-life subjects in amusing situations by the 1570s. His works, characterized by an expressive dynamism and vitality, were instrumental within the tradition of pitture ridicole, and at the same time inspired a close circle of artists and followers.
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