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Virgin and Child

cat 115.jpg

CAT 116.  Traunfellner after Francesco Solimena. Virgin and Child. From the Gallery of the Prince of Kaunitz-Reitberg, 1797.

Francesco Solimena (1657-1747) is associated with Naples the way the Mitellis and the Carracci are with Bologna. He painted in a variety of styles from Baroque to neo-classic and on a variety of surfaces, especially those of the churches of Naples. After studying with his father, Solimena settled in Naples in 1674 and began to receive major fresco commissions. By the early 1690s, he had established an active studio and workshop which made him a major fixture in Neapolitan art into the 1740s. Solimena assimilated an impressive variety of styles throughout his long career. As a young man, he responded to the naturalism of Caravaggio, Ribera, and Guarino, which he then extended into the grandeur of the Roman Baroque as variously exemplified by Pietro da Cortona, Lanfranco, the Carracci, Domenichino, and Guido. Throughout his career Solimena created solid figures and compositional forms in the tradition of Raphael (Pavone 36-39). Lanzi marveled that at the degree to which he achieved “universality in every style he attempted, extending himself into every branch of the art” (2:61). By the early 1800s Solimena had become a major European artist, with important commissions in Berlin, Dresden, and Segovia as well as those in Naples.

The image of the Virgin and Child in the print that Melville collected shows a purity and tenderness similar to Sharp’s engraving of the Saint Cecilia then attributed to Domenichino (CAT 112). The image of both mother and child bear a strong resemblance to the Modonna col bambino that Solimeno painted in fresco in the church of S. Nicola alla carità in Naples in 1684 (Bologna, figs. 64, 65, pp. 181-82). The intense gaze of the mother on the child, the decorum of her clothing in relation to the soft whiteness of the body of the child, the delicacy with which she lifts a corner of the bright enveloping cloth with the hand that is not cradling him—all these features present an excellent subject for the reproduction in mezzotint that Melville acquired. The soft bright textures in the foreground stand out brilliantly against the steps and pillar that recede into the background.

The letterpress inscription on the print indicates that painting was in the collection of the Prince of Kaunitz-Reitberg. Prince Wenzel Anton Kaunitz (1711-1794) was State Chancellor of the Hapsburg Monarchy from 1753 to 1792. One of the great figures of the European enlightenment, Kaunitz “had a particular enthusiasm for the visual arts and prided himself on having doubled the painting collection assembled by his ancestors . . . The private collection in his summer palace in Mariahilf consisted of over 2000 pictures.” Kaunitz founded the Copper Engraving Academy in Austria. He had “an extensive collection of engraved reproductions of the great works of Western art.” Kaunitz was a deep admirer of Raphael and of the neo-classical investigations of Winckelmann. He was a strong supporter of the classical style in music as exemplified by Gluck and Mozart and of the neo-classical literary explorations of Lessing. Although extremely influential in the world of European politics and statecraft, Kaunitz was equally devoted to the centrality of the arts to Austrian and European culture (Szabo 23-27). 

The “Traunfellner” who engraved Solimena’s Virgin and Child in 1797 could have been either Jacob  (1743-1800) or his son Gottfried (1778-1811). Each worked in the mezzotint medium, so perhaps they created this print together. Thieme-Becker does list an engraving after Solimena as one of five works on which Gottfried may have collaborated with his father Jacob; Nagler attributes a Mother and Child by Solimena from 1795 to Gottfried alone. If Solimena did paint Melville’s Virgin and Child about the same time as his Madonna col bambino in the church S. Nicola alla carità in Naples (1684), this would have been at a very early stage of a very long and productive career, as he was then in his late twenties and lived to be ninety.

Melville does not mention Solimena’s name in the Naples portion of his 1857 journal, though he did visit at least two the churches adorned by his frescos. Melville spent much of his one week in Naples on day-trips during which he visited Pompei, Vesuvius, Sorrento, Posilipo, the Bay of Baiae, and Lake Avernus, seeking out the tombs of Virgil and Tasso along the way. These visits were to enrich the poetry of Clarel and Timoleon. The extended rambles in which he savored the teeming street life of Naples itself, as “tumblers” and other entertainers performed in the face of ubiquitous soldiers and weapons, provided the primary inspiration for “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba,” the unpublished poem he intended as a sequel to “At the Hostelry” (NN J 101-05; NN BBO 139-202).