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Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647)

March 24, 2011



Transport of the Magdalene

Lanfranco 1602-1604.

Oil on canvas.

For the Camerino degli Eremiti in the Palazzetto Farnese, Rome, now in Capodimonte, Naples.

Cardinal Eduardo Farnese had a camerino built onto the Palazzetto Farnese so that he could retreat into hermit-like prayer.  The imagery of this room was inspired by the penitent hermits of biblical times, Mary Magdalene one of them.  Keeping with the theme of the rest of the house, Lanfranco’s Magdalene is shown descending above a pastoral French landscape.  This painting is an example of Lanfranco’s independent early style, before he dabbled in Carracci, Correggio, and Classical inspired styles.

This is an odd composition and choice of subject matter for a number of reasons.  The floating Mary and angels do not seem to belong in such a landscape.  Knowing the story of how Mary Magdalene retreated to the forests of France after Christ’s crucifixion and lived there naked in solitude helps to understand this piece.  She was given glimpses of Heaven via these angels.  However, one could almost separate two entirely different paintings in this one.  The palette of each portion is very different – Mary painted in light, warm colors with a hint of cangiantismo, and the landscape below in very dark, harsh, earth tones.

Landscapes were not uncommon at this time, but also not extremely popular.  If anything, artists painted landscapes that encompassed a biblical scene (see Carracci’s River Landscape).  However, this narrative is not technically biblical, but apocryphal.  The story of Mary Magdalene’s hermitage was not accepted into the Bible stories.  This along with her unidealized naked body (although crucial to the story) was against the Decrees of the Council of Trent.  But this was also a painting for a very private room, so perhaps the Decrees did not pertain to it like public altarpieces.




Lanfranco 1616.

Oil on canvas.

S. Carlo ai Catarini, Rome.

This painting shows Lanfranco’s short experiment with dramatic lighting perhaps influenced by Caravaggio or other Caravaggist painters.  It is far from Caravaggio’s stark tenebrism, but the light is very obviously controlled and directed.

Here, the rich palette is reminiscent of the Carracci.  The few, but varied hues are heavily saturated creating a unifying effect.  Three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue, create a triangle among the many diagonals that make this piece dynamic yet stable.

The grace in the postures and poses of figures are reminiscent of Raphael.  Mary’s oval face, delicate gesture, and the kneeling poses of both her and the angel, are very Classical.  There are few clouds in this piece, but the composition already feels light and airy.

This piece follows the decrees of the Counter-Reformation much closer than Lanfranco’s earlier Magdalene piece.  It is very easy to understand.  The narrative and message is clear.  It depicts a miraculous event.  Miracles were a popular subject mater defended by Catholics in High Renaissance and Baroque art.



Vision of St. Margaret

Lanfranco 1618-1620.

Oil on canvas.

For S. Maria Nuova, Cortona, now in Galleria Pitti, Florence.

This altarpiece is closer in style to Lanfracno’s Annunciation, Classically inspired, but with less dramatic lighting.

The subject matter of this painting is interesting for its time.  It was common to portray saints, their visions, and their miracles in response to the Council of Trent.  However, St. Margaret, and a Franciscan sister, had not been canonized yet, and would not be for about 100 years.  This shows just how important this woman was to the people of Cortona at the time and their interest in creating saints.

As in the Annunciation, the light in this painting is controlled and directed.  It seems to come from Christ, maybe even from behind him.  Margaret’s face is in the light, but Christ’s is not.  Christ’s wound in his side is, however, illuminated.  The light that shines on his wound lands on both of Margaret’s hands, creating a triangle.  This could perhaps allude to the stigmata of another famous Franciscan, St. Francis.

The placement of the figures in this composition is dynamic and Baroque.  St. Margaret appears to have lost control in ecstasy and may collapse right out of the picture frame.  There is not, however, much sense of depth.  All action occurs at the foreground, which is very Classic.  But Martin’s idea of co-extensive space is predominant in this painting, adding to its drama.

Martin, John R. Baroque. New York: Harper & Row. 1977.



Council of Oylmpian Gods

Lanfranco 1624.


Loggia Borghese, Rome.

Lanfranco’s interest in illusionism begins to show in this ceiling piece in the Loggia Borghese.  He utilized both quadro-riportato and quadratura in this fresco. There is a slight hint of di sotto in su, but most prominently, this is a quadro-riportato.  It can only be seen when the viewer is oriented in the right spot below.  Not only was illusionism a Baroque interest, but also the union of painting, sculpture, and architecture was becoming prominent.

This work is very different from Lanfranco’s earlier pieces both in composition and palette.  Because this was a fresco, the palette is much lighter and brighter.  There is very little chiaroscuro.  Although there are several planes of recession, there is little indication of depth behind the furthest cloud.  The action takes place in the foreground.

Not only is fictive architecture depicted in fresco in the quadratura of this piece, but the figures appear to be inspired by Classical and antique sculpture.  The Belvedere torso can be identified in a few of the muscular men’s contorted bodies.  Also, many of the figures resemble Michelangelo’s idealized male nudes.  Similar figures can be seen in the pendentives of this room recalling the ignudi of the Sistine Ceiling.

Because this was a private commission, the subject matter did not need to heed the decrees of the Council of Trent.  In fact, only educated persons could fully understand this painting.  This is a mythological scene.  Few gods are recognizable by the common person (Jupiter, some river gods, etc.).  This did not need to have a clear narrative and quite frankly does not appear to have one.  It is merely a frieze-like composition of the Council of the gods.  It is Baroque because the figures balance each other out and act as foils in this diagonal twists and placements along the foreground.



Assumption of the Virgin

Lanfranco 1625-1627.


S. Andrea della Valle, Rome.

The painting of this dome is one of Lanfracno’s most celebrated works.  It was the first great dome painting of the Baroque.  Lanfranco’s primary influence was Correggio’s dome in S Giovanni Evangelista (1520-1523, Parma).

The dome is painted entirely in di sotto in su.  The viewer must stand directly underneath the dome for the illusion and perspective to work correctly.

The composition of this Assumption is comprised of concentric circles leading to the peak of the dome.  Lanfranco’s layers of figures are much less distinct than Correggio’s clear sections separated by clouds and space.  Lanfranco’s crowded figures seem to spiral up to the top.

Like Correggio’s dome in Parma, the illusionism produced a co-extensive space-like quality.  The figures above the viewer seems as if they can fall out of their suspension at any given moment.  Although receding away from the viewer, Lanfranco’s successful extreme foreshortening creates the illusions that this scene hovers above the viewer, and that he or she may begin his or her own descent into the heaven-like tip of the dome.

Lanfranco was a contemporary of Domenichino.  During the reign of Pope Gregory XV, Lanfranco fell out of papal favor and Domenichino took his place.  This dome was commissioned after Gregory’s death, so favoritism was not taken into consideration.  Domenichino did, however, get to paint the pendentives around the dome.

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