Failed sales and bizarre manners: two paintings by Paolo Pagani

Paola Apreda & Odette D’Albo
(from Nuovi Studi 26, 2021 anno XXVI)

Far from their birthplace and distant from their context, the strange destiny of two Baroque paintings would strike a chord with their maker

Since 1962, two remarkable canvases by Paolo Pagani (Castello Valsolda 1655- Milan 1716) have been silently kept in the episcope of Ferentino, not far from Frosinone, waiting to be brought to the attention of the scholars. The superintendency of the Italian region of Lazio, and in particular Lorenzo Riccardi, who is responsible for the south-eastern area of Rome known as La Ciociara, is to be credited for the rediscovery; they promoted and guided the recent restoration of the paintings, helping the study we are presenting here.

Paolo Pagani
Paolo Pagani, “Sacrifice of Muzio Scevola”, early 18th century. Ferentino, Museo Diocesano.

Two Pagani paintings from the Parignani Gizzi collection to the Diocesan Museum in Ferentino

The Diocesan Museum of Ferentino was established by bishop’s decree on June 30th, 2011 by Monsignor Ambrogio Spreafico. It is located in the ancient episcopal palace, which is part of the complex of the cathedral of Ferentino. The building now houses the museum exhibition on the first floor, divided in four rooms and featuring works from various places of worship in the city, from donations, but mainly from the patrimony of sacred furnishings and paintings of the cathedral chapter. The layout preserves and evokes the characteristics of the ancient bishop’s residence. Of particular value is the corpus of sacred furnishings, which includes works by relevant artists of 18th and 19th century Roman goldsmithing. 

The Pagani paintings came to the Diocesan Museum through the donation of Commendatore Giuseppe Parignani, a landowner originally from Amelia, and his wife Luigia Gizzi, member of an ancient noble family from Ceccano and great-granddaughter of the cardinal Tommaso Pasquale Gizzi, the Papal Secretary of State from 1846 to 1847. Although this is not the place for a historical, quantitative and qualitative investigation of the entire Parignani donation, it is important to retrace the events that led the paintings to Ferentino. In his will, the donor wished for his assets to belong to a new religious foundation established in the memory of his daughter, Giovanna Parignani Gizzi, who died prematurely. The bishop of Ferentino was to be at the helm of the foundation, which would take the name of “Casa di riposo del Clero – Giovanna Parignani Gizzi”, located in Palazzo Gizzi in Ceccano, and was officially recognized by the Italian state in 1953, a year after Parignani’s death. His widow was named the usufructuary of the assets while alive.

The donation comprised a large number of paintings, small sculptures and furnishings intended to be sold to generate an income for the clergy house. The paintings were subjected to expert evaluation: according to a letter sent by the then Minister of Finance Giulio Andreotti to the bishop of Ferentino in 1957, the writer and art critic Francesco Sapori examined the collection as a whole, suggesting a review of the state of conservation and a more suitable environment for its presentation. Despite these indications, in 1960 Parignani’s widow decided to auction off the paintings and other artworks to ensure the financial stability of the foundation.

Paolo Pagani
Paolo Pagani, “Escape of Aeneas from Troy”, early 18th century. Ferentino, Museo Diocesano.

On April 25th, 1961, the paintings were delivered to the Arte auction house in Palazzo Lancellotti in Rome. The list of works included two framed canvases already attributed to Paolo Pagani: in the catalog of the sale, which took place from May 21st to 27th, they were listed but not illustrated with the numbers 242 and 243 and with the respective subjects, ” Aeneas at Avernus” and “Aeneas with his father Anchises.”

The works, for which the minimum price was fixed at 600,000 lire each, remained unsold, and on June 15th they were returned, together with other works, to the widow, who subsequently entrusted Professor Giovanni Lanzi to keep them in his Roman house. 

Here they remained until the beginning of 1962, when, following Lanzi’s wish to move them, Monsignor Leonetti suggested they be taken to Ferentino for a second attempt at liquidation. However, their large size and high cost had made the sale complex again: The minimum price proposed in the sale of May 27th was no longer acceptable for the Parignani Gizzi widow, who was now asking for twice the price.

Despite her willingness to negotiate the price and potential acquirers, like Monsignor Leonetti and the Croatian baroness Elda Kuperlwieser, known for her commitment to Istrian exiles in Italy, the canvases did not find a buyer. Parignani Gizzi was not willing to lower the price beyond a certain amount; Lanzi even believed them to be worth “up to three or four million”, a figure which, he claimed, could have been reached if Roberto Longhi had taken care of the sale, summoned to guarantee a good outcome of any new negotiations. Other paintings in the collection were sold in the following years to the widow’s satisfaction; others, subjected to further evaluations by experts, saw their attribution and consequently their price significantly reduced. Pagani’s works, however, never left Ferentino.

Two examples of Paolo Pagani’s “extravagant manner”

In November 2018, when we approached the two paintings in the Diocesan Museum of Ferentino, the traces of their attribution to Paolo Pagani had been lost, although it was already indicated in the documentation relating to the Parignani Gizzi collection we rediscovered.  The muscular and bursting bodies of the figures and the monumentality and originality of the composition unmistakably reflect the “great invention” and the “extravagant manner”, as Pellegrino Orlandi already described them in the early 18th century, of the restless painter from Castello Valsolda. Given this stylistic coherence, there is little doubt that such attribution is correct, although it remains unclear who first thought of it. The Roman auction of 1961 already listed the works as Pagani’s, although studies on the artist were scarce at the time. For example, it is not known how the paintings had reached the Parignani Gizzi collection and their attribution back then was rather casual. 

The 1929 and 1936 essays by the German art historian Hermann Voss on the most emblematic of Pagani’s works, the frescoes in the church of Castelllo Valsolda, inaugurated the modern research into this painter. Historians Giuseppe Fiocco, Edoardo Arslan, and later Nicola Ivanoff continued to work on the topic with significant reports, although Voss still remains the one scholar who most contributed to what we know of Pagani, identifying features such as his Venetian training, his “unbridled imagination” (to use the historian’s own words), and the audacity of painting nudes that seemed to derive directly from Michelangelo himself.

All of the characteristics Voss evokes are clearly recognisable in the paintings in Ferentino, which the German scholar was familiar with thanks to two reproductions conserved in his photo library. One of them, Escape of Aeneas from Troy, was discovered by Alessandro Morandotti, while the second, in which the subject of the work is generically identified as a historical or mythological scene, strangely bore the attribution to the Florentine Gregorio Pagani.

These are the earliest known images of the canvases, which were not included in the catalog of the Roman auction in 1961. They show a reference to the Gonnelli auction house in Florence on the back and on one of the two Voss noted the year 1965. None of the photographs mention the location, but it is safe to assume that they were sent to Voss to confirm the Pagani attribution as part of a further sale attempt, following the failure of the previous ones. These images contribute to the history of the paintings and constitute a precious document concerning the state of their conservation in the mid 1960s, probably after a fresh cleaning and restoration. Both show some small gaps in the paint layer, and more importantly, the addition of a 15 centimeter extension, probably needed to adapt the canvases to the format of the frames within which they are still inserted. With regards to the condition of the works in general, Aeneas fleeing from Troy is undoubtedly the painting that has suffered the most, also according to a recent restoration report. The paint layer is abraded in correspondence with the arm of Aeneas and the face of Creusa, now reintegrated with glazes to restore chromatic uniformity to the whole. 

Paolo Pagani, “Escape of Aeneas from Troy” (detail), early 18th century. Ferentino, Museo Diocesano.

The two paintings were most likely executed at the same time due to the similar size and proportions of the figures; they both illustrate two events from Roman history. One is the escape of Aeneas from Troy, loyally depicted according to the Virgilian poem, in which the hero, destined to found Rome, stands out on the left and is captured as he leaves the burning city, carrying his father Anchises vigorously in his arms; to his right, as narrated by Virgil, is his son Ascanio who, frightened, clings to his legs, followed by his wife Creusa, daughter of Priam, who would disappear shortly thereafter that very night. Harder to understand is the iconography of the second painting, set in a cave that was long thought to be the underworld; the work was therefore identified as “Aeneas in Hades”. In reality, as Andrea De Marchi pointed out to me, the work depicts another episode of Roman history as narrated by Livio: the Sacrifice of Muzio Scevola.  At the center of the composition, Muzio Scevola, a young and vigorous Roman patrician, is placing his right hand on a burning brazier to punish himself for not having killed Porsenna, the Etruscan king who had placed Rome under siege: he is depicted on the top left, among his soldiers, as he leaps to his feet, incredulous at the act of extreme courage that is being performed before his eyes.

With these works, Pagani offers a magnificent example of his ability to reinterpret the stories and myths of the classical world with an eccentric and imaginative vision, proposing a reading of the two episodes which, despite the dark and nocturnal setting, conveys an extraordinary vitality. In Escape of Aeneas from Troy, where darkness is inevitably linked to the events unfolding in the middle of the night, Pagani set up the light in a theatrical and artificial way, illuminating the scene from the bottom left with the intention of giving the impression that the Trojan hero is surrounded by flames that, refracting on his face, give him a ghostly air. Entirely unsettling, unless it was a specific request from the client, is the choice to imagine the sacrifice of Muzio Scevola in a dark scenario, characterized by black clouds from which Porsenna emerges as a sort of Vulcan, whose forge includes the brazier with incandescent embers of magmatic and almost fleshy consistency.

An artist of inexhaustible creativity, Pagani inherited the restless Michelangelo style of Pellegrino Tibaldi, a native of Puria di Valsolda, not far from his hometown of Castello Valsolda. The link with the great 16th century Valsoldese emigrant, an elective affinity rather than a precise influence in terms of figurative models, could be one of the reasons underlying the neo-mannerism already evoked as the interpretative key of the painter’s style, which would demonstrate solid territorial roots. We don’t know whether Pagani ever had the opportunity to see the most capricious of his countryman’s creations, the Ulysses room in Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, which would certainly have matched his taste. The occasion may have arisen by accompanying his most important patron and collector on one of his trips to Emilia, the Marquis Cesare Pagani (Milan 1635-1707) who, starting in 1690, often went to Parma and Modena for diplomatic assignments carried out in the service of the Elector Palatine William of Neuburg.

The figure of the Milanese nobleman, rediscovered in rather recent times as one of the most sensitive and up-to-date collectors from Milan between the 17th and 18th centuries, is central to the story of Paolo Pagani, who was linked to him not only because the marquis was his main patron, but also because, following a debated legal case, the painter fraudulently managed to take possession of his inheritance despite the fact that the two were not related.

It is reasonable to point out that the two works reveal an expressive awareness and inventive freedom comparable to Pagani’s most emblematic, post 1696 period: the definitive return of the painter to Lombardy after an intense period of activity in Central Europe.

paolo pagani
Paolo Pagani, “Study for male head”, Olomouc, Research Library.

Following his initial training in Valsolda in an artistic family of solid Lombard tradition, comprising sculptors, architects and decorators, Paolo Pagani moved to Venice around 1665, making his own style by reworking the heterogeneous cues from the masters active in the Lagoon city at the time: from the light and joyful sensuality of Pietro Liberi to the manner of the ‘tenebrous’ Johann Carl Loth and Giovan Battista Langetti, from the frayed and emphatic painting of Johann Liss to the sophisticated elegance of the French Louis Dorigny. After absorbing the variegated references he could find in Venice, the artist seized the opportunity to fully enter the international context by leaving in 1690 for the then imperial Vienna, Moravia and Poland, where he worked under the aegis of Karl II von Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, Prince-Bishop of Olomouc, decorating his residence in Kroměřìž, the abbey of Velehrad, and executing other paintings across the imperial territory.

Documented again in Castello Valsolda in March 1696, Pagani began the most daring of his creations: the frescoes on the vault of the village church dedicated to San Martino, which he decorates at his own expense by the end of the following year. The protagonists of the Ferentino canvases find their most evident comparisons precisely among the imposing and grandiose bodies of the saints depicted on the candid ceiling of the parish church. The snappy pose of Porsenna who, with his eyes almost bulging in amazement, leans over the young Muzio Scevola, recalls the figure of the Precursor stretched out towards the crowd fluctuating at his feet in the Preaching of the Baptist frescoed in Valsolda. The figure is comparable to that of Jesus in the Descent into Limbo formerly at Villa Gallia in Como and now at the Casa Pagani Museum, also in Valsolda. The firm and tense flesh of Muzio Scevola, Porsenna and the handsome soldiers encamped in a circle around them are linked to the large collection of nudes that animate the painter’s works at the end of the 1690s, including the Fall of the Giants at Azay-Le Ferron and the Fall of the Rebel Angels, both in a private collection. The atmosphere in the picture is nonetheless relaxed, with the sole exception of the soldier in the foreground, whose powerful shoulders close the scene on the right. 

Paolo pagani
Paolo Pagani, “Study for male nude from the back”. Bergamo, Accademia Carrara.

A watercolor drawing by Pagani, conserved at the Carrara Academy in Bergamo, comes to mind too; it is a notable example of his abilities in the field of academic studies of nudes, analogous in the pose and in the nervous rendering of the tense muscles in the effort to arch the pelvis, further accentuated, due to the presence of the large purplish mantle that covers the lower part of the bust and the legs in the painting of Ferentino. If in the Sacrifice of Muzio Scevola Pagani aims at defining the muscles of the protagonists, almost bodybuilders avant la lettre, in the Escape of Aeneas from Troy he instead adopts a different stylistic register, connoted by a more liquid and flaky use of color, with a stronger link to the Venetian tradition.

Paolo Pagani, “Sacrifice of Muzio Scevola” (detail), early 18th century. Ferentino, Museo Diocesano.

Both works remain difficult to date. Pagani painted in different ways at the same time, continually returning to meditate on his own previous experiments. However, in one of the Voss photographs, Morandotti noticed that the date of 1700 is indicated, which seems reasonable. Important in this regard is the detail of the elderly Anchises, hoary and toothless, resolved with sketchy paint, almost in spots: it is close to Aeneas, who is traced with material whitish elevations, which simulate the light of the flames from which he is fleeing. A similar juxtaposition is found in the Roman Charity, now in private hands and attested in 1706 in the collection of the Marquis Cesare Pagani, but probably executed some time before. It effectively compares with the Escape of Aeneas from Troy also in the meticulous rendering of the jewels: the beautiful bracelet with pendants and precious stones on the arm of Pero, intent on feeding her father Cimone in prison with her milk, is close to the one in the figure of Creusa, more richly adorned, as befits a princess, with pearls in her hair, in her clothes, in the precious buckle on her left leg, and in the thong sandals. The powerful image of the adult figures depicted in the Escape of Aeneas is contrasted by little Ascanio, shrunken inside the black cloak from which thin legs emerge, moving almost in a dance step. His face, characterized by sunken eyes, a straight and slightly upturned nose and tousled and disheveled black hair, seems to find an eloquent visual counterpart in the profile of the young man depicted in a drawing preserved in Olomouc, datable between 1691 and 1695 – this specific representation also reappears in a lighter version in the guise of an angel in the Saint Joseph in adoration of the Child in a private collection, again from the early 1700s.

All these comparisons, equal subjects, and coherent dating help tracing the provenance of the two Ferentino paintings. Although the artist made at least two other versions of the Escape of Aeneas from Troy, both currently in private collections, the sources attest to only one other painting of the sacrifice by Muzio Scevola, now lost but mentioned in 1707 in the collection of the Marquis Cesare Pagani, the major patron of the painter at the time. As emerges from the inventory of the collection, the work was part of a cycle of equally sized canvases exhibited in the “great hall” of the Marquis’s palace, which he commissioned in the last years of the seventeenth century. The series also included Sebastiano Ricci’s Hercules and Nesso and Domenico Piola’s Diana and Endymion, now in private collections, both unearthed for the first time by Morandotti, who reconstructed their history. Together with Cristina Geddo, he also individuated the Escape of Aeneas from Troy, formerly owned by the marquis, in the London antiques market. 

However, the attribution of the Ferentino duo seems to reopen the case, considering the analogy with the subjects of the works attested in the Pagani collection and also the fact that their dimensions, without the later additions, are compatible with those of the paintings by Ricci and Piola. It is not possible to establish whether Paolo Pagani created other versions of the sacrifice of Muzio Scevola or of the two subjects in pairs for other clients besides the Milanese nobleman: hence, the question of provenance remains. What is sure is that these two undisputed Pagani masterpieces find themselves out of context today: they are geographically far from their origin; they are thematically distant from what you’d expect to see in an ecclesiastical institution. The evocative and curious contrast would have probably been appreciated by their extravagant maker.

February 28, 2023