The figure of the Magdalene emerges from the darkness, leaning to follow the curve of the stone support; it is depicted vaulted with an interrogative air towards the dark, as if in an attitude of listening, the left hand raised and the other leaning on the “memento mori” very shortened. In front of her a scourge and the jar of ointment.
Painted en pendant, Saint John the Baptist is depicted as a young man, with a lamb at his feet, in his hand the processional cross with the banner “exception agnus dei”, while with his right hand he draws from the source of water, recalling the episode that will see Jesus Christ baptized.
In both paintings the figures stand out in a strong and incisive way thanks to the black that characterizes the slate plate on which they are depicted.
Dimensions: 37,5 x 26,5 cm — 44 x 33,5 cm (with frame)
14,8 x 10,6 — 17,3 x 13,2 in (with frame)
We are faced with two examples of oil painting on stone. The beginnings of this particular technique are to be placed in the first half of the sixteenth century: after some fifteenth-century experiments it is with Sebastiano del Piombo that the genre takes hold in the sixteenth century. There were different types of support used, also linked to their availability: amethyst, marble in various colors, alabaster and blackboard. The reasons underlying this technical choice refer to Renaissance artistic theories: it is no coincidence that the painter who most often experimented with oil painting on marble was Vasari, the artist / intellectual who decisively influenced theoretical thinking on art in the sixteenth century.
The great Renaissance collections of ancient art could not fail to enter with their demonstrative force in the debate on the “comparison of the arts”: what better proof of the superiority of sculpture over the painting of the eternity of stone in the face of the almost total loss of the pictorial evidence of classicism? So then the choice of a non-perishable support such as canvas or wood could be read as a “passage of degree” of painting in the field of incorruptible stone.
At around 1500s and 1600s, the genre enjoyed particular success in the Venetian Republic in its form of oil painting on blackboard or touchstone. Surely the proximity of the Brescia mines and the Brembana Valley favored the development of this type of paintings, as evidenced today by the studies of Linda Borean who records the presence of a considerable number of paintings in the Venetian collections of the early seventeenth century, with a production mostly linked to a shop commissioner, to respond to the needs of the private devotion of the emerging mercantile bourgeois class.
But the choice of such a dark stone as a background is not only linked to practical reasons: as our two works show, the emergence of the figures from the dark background to the light also fully responds to the new needs of the painting of the time. In the troubled climate of the Counter Reformation, a new research will develop that will lead to the need to express not only the idealized existential certainties of the full Renaissance, but also the anxieties and the opening to new phases, which will already lead Tintoretto to greater attention to reality. and to the luministic contrasts, to then lead in an overwhelming way into the seventeenth-century research strongly played on the contrasting combination of light and shadow.
A more particular analysis of our two works can be made referring to the studies dedicated to the Veronese ateliers, in which the use of the blackboard as a support for oil painting was particularly popular. Among the best known authors was Felice Riccio, known as Brusasorzi (1539-1605), and his pupils, such as Alessandro Turchi, called Orbetto (1578-1649), or Pasquale Ottino, called Pasqualotto (1578-1630). The Magdalene painted here is similar in appearance to a painting from Orbetto preserved in Brera (it is a painting on canvas, datable to the fourth decade of the 1600s) and reproduces the moderate Caravaggesque realism combined with a classical Emilian sweetness. Venetian, clearly visible in the face, real but at the same time sensual and sweet.
On the other hand, the pictorial modes are closer to those of Ottino, of whom we know, from recent studies, a considerable body of works on stone, which largely contributed to the spread of this production, especially in the Veronese workshops. In fact, in addition to the long-known works, including a Psyche in the Giusti collection and the Resurrection of Lazarus in the Borghese Gallery, the corpus has significantly expanded to include a large production of small-sized works, intended for private clients. The two works described here, a clear production of the Venetian area from the early decades of the 1600s, can be attributed to this area.
– H. Seifertova, Painting on stone. An artistic experiment in the 16th and early 17th centuries, Praga, 2007, pp. 16-21
– L. Borean, La quadreria di Agostino e Giovan Donato Correggio nel collezionismo veneziano del Seicento, Udine, 2000.