Provenance: Santambrogio Antichità, Milan; sold, 2007 to:
Filippo Pernisa, Milan; by whom sold, 2010, to:
Private Collection, Melide, Switzerland
De Primi Fine Art, Lugano, Switzerland; from whom acquired, 2011 by:
Private Collection, Connecticut (2011-present)
Literature: Ferdinando Arisi, “Ancora sui dipinti giovanili del Panini,” Strenna Piacentina (Piacenza, 2009): pp. 48, 57, 65, fig. 31, as by Panini
Ferdinando Arisi, “Panini o Ghisolfi o Carlieri? A proposito dei dipinti giovanili,” Strenna Piacentina, (Piacenza, 2010), pp. 100, 105, 116, fig. 101, as an early work by Panini, a variant of Panini’s painting in the Museo Cristiano, Esztergom, Hungary.
This architectural capriccio is one of the earliest paintings by Giovanni Paolo Panini, the preeminent painter of vedute and capricci in 18th-century Rome. The attribution to Panini has been endorsed by Ferdinando Arisi, and a recent cleaning of the painting revealed the artist’s signature in the lower right. Like many of his fellow painters working in Rome during his day, Panini was not a native of the Eternal City. He first trained as a painter and stage designer in his hometown of Piacenza and moved to Rome at the age of 20 in November 1711 to study figure painting. Panini joined the workshop of Benedetto Luti (1666-1724) and from 1712 was living on the Piazza Farnese. Panini, like many before and after him, was spellbound by Rome and its classical past. He remained in the city for the rest of his career, specializing in depicting Rome’s most important monuments, as well as creating picturesque scenes like this one that evoked the city’s ancient splendor.
The 18th century art historian Lione Pascoli, who likely knew Panini personally, records in his 1730 biography of the artist that when Panini came to Rome, he was already “an excellent master and a distinguished painter of perspective, landscape, and architecture.” Panini’s earliest works from this period still show the evidence of his artistic formation in Piacenza, especially the influence of the view painter Giovanni Ghisolfi (1623-1683). However, they were also clearly shaped by his contact in Rome with the architectural capricci of Alberto Carlieri (1672-1720), whose works have previously been confused with the works of the young Panini.
The present work is particularly interesting as an example of an imaginary scene that, rather than depicting real fragments of classical buildings and art, emerges completely from the mind of the young artist. The elaborate architectural ruins, including a partial colonnade on the left and a triumphal arch to the right, show clear signs of decay: the columns are chipped and the entablatures covered with plants dappled with orange flowers. The arches, with their articulated vaults, frame a distant view of a town on a hill that is seemingly separated by a body of water. This towering architecture also serves as the setting for a distinctly Roman religious scene that plays out in the middle ground. An apostle (probably Saint Peter) accompanied by two disciples is shown preaching to a crowd of women and children. In the foreground, two men in turbans approach the unfolding scene while a seated male figure looks on from below. The movement and energy of these figures, captured in their dynamic poses, reveals the artist’s early interest in studying models from the life.
Two of the most striking details of the composition are the relief fragment with Roman soldiers and the large historiated vase in the lower left. The extremely elaborate and detailed vase is particularly accomplished and is clearly a product of Panini’s close study of examples of antique sculpture found in abundance in Rome. It is decorated with a group of dancing bacchants that wind around the exterior of the vessel. Additionally, a sculpted satyr is shown climbing up one of the handles and peering down into the mouth of the vase, which contains a plant whose leaves splay out like a fountain. Although it is not based on a known classical example, the vase is likely a representation of a late Hellenestic kylix, like the Borghese Vase now in the Louvre (Fig. 1), which were produced in Athens to satisfy Roman demand for lavish villa and garden decorations.
Following the rediscovery of this painting in the early 2000’s, it was authenticated and published by Ferdinando Arisi, the leading scholar on Panini and the first to accurately reconstruct the artist’s early career. Arisi considered it a fully autograph work by Panini painted shortly after his arrival in Rome and compared it with the key painting of Panini’s early Roman period: the Preaching of an Apostle in the Museo Cristiano in Esztergom, Hungary. He considered our painting the best of several variants based on this prototype, describing it as “more delicate, mature, and brighter” than the Esztergom painting. Furthermore, Arisi suggested that the painting dates slightly after the work now in Esztergom, assigning it a date of c. 1711-1712.
The present painting also provides fascinating insight into Panini’s working processes early in his career when he is painting entirely independently, without the aid of a workshop or assistants. Panini clearly developed a repertoire of motifs (most likely a stock of drawings) that he frequently drew upon, as several components of the present painting—including the architectural frame, sculptural elements, and even several figures—are swapped out, re-elaborated on, or repeated in other works. The historiated vase frequently appears in Panini’s works of this period, each time with a newly designed relief, as does the pair of sculpted legs that stand above the triumphal arch. Additionally, Panini revisited the figural group of the apostle preaching to the people in the middle ground of the present work in a painting in a private collection. The lone male figure seated on the ground also reappears, in reverse, in versions of the Preaching of an Apostle in the Pinacoteca Civica Piceno and in a private collection.