What are you looking at?

A Carracci School Landscape on the lid of a virginal at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney

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Fig. 1 Virginal Overall

On display in the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, at the moment is a virginal, which according to the label is a Bolognese work of 1629, made by a local priest, Vincentius de Taeggiis (85/372 OIC) (Fig. 1). The underside of the lid is painted with a landscape, by an unidentified artist (Fig. 2).  It is in a rather old-fashioned (for 1629) Flemish style, with layered trees, hunting scenes, trees composed of broad leaves painted light over dark over light (centre) and a yellow light in the sky. But there are also Carracci elements: the stress on Pozzoserrato-like mounds (Louvre Hunting landscape), a composition extending laterally with evenly weighted vertical elements, open expansive landscapes between, and framing coulisses (Berlin River Landscape), and especially the men fishing with nets in a river that has fish net weirs stretched across it (Louvre Fishing). The wide format means that there are three vertical accents, two side coulisses, and four distances. It seems to hark back to the 1580s or 90s, and one wonders whether it might not be a little older than the virginal apparently is. Or else a rather old fashioned painter. On reflection, it might best be classified as ‘Carracci school’.

The distance at the left is higher than the others, Flemish style, and shows a three-storey palazzo or villa with side wings, a tower behind, and a terrace in front (Fig. 3). I can’t think of an obvious building to which this might refer. Below the terrace is a formal giardino, rendered as green areas (grass or simply a reluctance to detail it further) divided by ochre paths. There are two main divisions along a central axis aligned with the palazzo doorway, forming two rectangular plots, and in the centre of each plot is a cypress in a circular or oval bed. There is an interesting play of variations, not only between the two plots, but within each, where the left side is different from the right. The left plot makes more play with circles, the right with squares. I wonder whether there are precedents for this kind of asymmetry in published designs, such as those by Serlio. As I recall, all of Serlio’s designs are perfectly symmetrical.

The first of the three vertical accents is a hillock with steps leading up and a little pavilion on top (Fig. 4). This consists of four columns on a square plan, supporting entablature beams. Above the beams is a kind of attic zone, with projections above the columns linked to a cresting pierced by a round hole at the centre on one visible side, and something different on the other: I think this is meant to be a view of the inside of the corresponding feature on the other side. Rising from the column projections are ribs that meet in the centre that seem to form a flattened arch. A ball with some kind of projection marks the crown of the arches. The material of the structure might be stone or wood, and it is all covered with leafy foliage. On top of the two side column projections are small living trees, seemingly planted in ball-shaped bases. There are no trees on the other two projections—perhaps they are omitted for clarity. One could say that the artist has a habit of showing two sides, rather than four, probably because this makes representation easier. Four men with ruffs are seated within the pavilion, while a servant ascends the steps with a tray with a glass on it.

In the left coulisse is a little rocky outcrop or grotto, with a pool in front with a fountain (Fig. 5). The fountain basin is a circular bowl on a low ball-shaped stem, with water apparently flowing out at three (presumably four) points. The artist shows them coming out of the bottom of the bowl, which makes little hydraulic sense. Placed in the bowl is a statue group of a boy with a trident—presumably an infant or comic Neptune—riding a sea monster with a twisted tail. It may perhaps allude to those seas-monsters at the Casino of Pius IV, or at least the Roman type to which these refer. A jet of water emerges from his mouth.

In the ground between fountain and pavilion hillock a dance is going on (Fig. 6). On the left seated women are lined up, perhaps sitting on a bench. Nearby, four women play musical instruments: a cello-like instrument, a wind instrument (recorder or flute), a drum, and a harp. The fact that they are women is interesting, and I think unusual: I cannot think of any representations of female musicians at this date, though others might know them.  The dresses are of various colours, dark blue or black, red, mauve(?) and orange (?). One woman on black stands apart: perhaps she is in charge in some way. To the right are the men, all standing, and all wearing hats. One carries a gun. It is as if they have been hunting, as we see elsewhere in the picture, and have knocked off to join the dance. In the middle a couple is dancing, while behind them another pair is about to join them. There are no ruffs here—all the men wear low collars of the type fashionable from the 1610s or 20s onwards, and the women wear shawls and aprons.

On the right side of the picture are hunting scenes (Fig. 7). In the background is a hunt of two deer, which are being pursued by hounds and two unarmed huntsmen. A similar hunt, but with the men on foot, appears in the second bay from the right. In the right foreground a wild boar has been tackled by two dogs, and a third is about to join them, while a man comes up from the left with a spear. A man on horseback fires a musket at the boar. He wears a sash, broad-brimmed plumed hat, and a ruff. Another man, apparently on horseback, is visible behind him, partly obscured by a tree. This theme is typical of Paul Brill.

In the second bay from the left are the aforementioned fishermen, which do not appear in Brill but are a staple of Annibale Carracci and his followers, including Domenichino and Grimaldi (Fig. 8). One is half-naked and his long nightshirt is tied up and around his left leg: he wears a hat of the same cloth. His companion wears a loose green top and collar, and again seems to have stripped off his lower garments. Each holds a pole to which one end of a net is attached. They seem to have been moving to the right, trapping fish in the net between them. A third man, dressed in a red jacket over a light-coloured nightshirt and a hat, also holds a pole. This might be attached to the third side of the net, the idea being that he lifts it up to trap the fish. There are eye-like forms in the water, which might be attempts to represent fish or may simply be the way the artist rendered the water. In the distance beyond the net weir a typical Carracciesque boat is being punted; it has an arched covering over the centre part and some sort of framework on the stern.

© David R. Marshall 2010

Contact: david.marshall@unimelb.edu.au

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