Rediscovered Belisarius: a work by Legnanino for Prince of Carignano

Luca Fiorentino (from Nuovi Studi 26, 2021 anno XXVI)

A large canvas by Legnanino representing Roman leader Belisarius has recently been discovered in a private collection

Covered in centuries old dust, previously and ambitiously attributed to Luca Giordano, the painting by Stefano Maria Legnani known as Legnanino (Milan 1661 – 1713), titled Belisarius, is presented here for the first time to a larger public. The painter was a multifaceted artist, being able to fulfill commissions of great prestige and scope with an innovative, fully Baroque style, connected with the great classical models of the past but renewed with contemporary taste. Unique from his early days, Legnanino is a highly recognizable painter still today; in the words of Marina Dell’Omo, to whom we owe his first monograph, he plays “a role as an innovator in the Lombard scene in the years preceding the arrival of Tiepolo and the fashion of the great eighteenth-century fresco.” The wrong attribution to Giordano is an “intelligent error” that went unquestioned for generations in the family that owned the painting, which made an unknown scholar of the late nineteenth century fantasize about the great baroque painter as its maker: The freshness of the brushstroke, the Venetian flare, and the pictorial acuity are justifying clues for an attribution that survived until recently.

Stefano Maria Legnani detto Il Legnanino, Belisario, collezione privata

The work is conceived as a large composition that tells the story of one of the most important Roman leaders of the Eastern Empire, Belisarius, who fell into disgrace and ended up a beggar; the six characters are placed in two groups over a wide background, rendered with fast and occasionally expressionist brushstrokes, as well as flashes of lights traveling through the shadows and pastel tones used for the sky. These are typical Legnanino features at the end of the 17th century, which he indeed shared with Giordano’s work. However, the former has received the historical recognition he deserved only in the last twenty years.

The critical rediscovery originates in the early 1990s with the punctual essays by Simonetta Coppa and Marina Dell’Omo among others. Scholars have not only clarified his career and the great commissions in Lombardy, Piedmont and Genoa; they have also brought to light important documents, exceptional pictorial evidence, and a sense of his cultural milieu. New discoveries have increased the knowledge we have of this artist. Among the most significant is the account of his Bolognese and Roman apprenticeships thanks to a rediscovered exchange of letters; they concern the recommendation of the young artist by the illustrious patron Vitaliano VI Borromeo of Isola Bella, whose palace was a destination for important Lombard artists at the time.

The letters also confirm that Legnanino was working in Bologna in 1682 for important aristocrats such as the Marquis Cesare Tanari (his initial host), Count Pepoli (probably Ercole) and Signor Pizalli (the Bolognese referent for the Borromeos). The Pepoli family had blood ties with the Borromeos and the reception of Ercole Pepoli in February 1679 at the court of Turin is significant for the artist, as we will see. The figure of Pizalli, as demonstrated by Monferrini, is also to be taken into great account since he was the owner of an enviable art collection, centered on the great Bolognese, Venetian and central Italian painters. The Belisarius was created for a Piedmontese court precisely thanks to Pizalli, who met the Prince of Carignano in 1686 when he organized the transport to Turin of two paintings by Antonio Francesco Peruzzini from Bologna. The Prince additionally lived in Bologna during his exile from Turin, imposed by the King of France because of a dispute over his marriage. In Bologna, he frequented the local aristocracy such as the Pepoli family and the surrounding artistic scene, although he never met Legnanino, who had already left for Rome. (Marina Dell’Omo has uprooted a letter the artist sent to one of his patrons that proves his move to Rome, where he lived until 1865.) Despite the missed encounter in Bologna, the Prince’s familiarity and liking of the Bolognese and Roman scenes, a preference that he shared with the Turinese nobles before him, worked as the ground for his invitation to the artist to work for them.

After his early influence from Scaramuccia in Milan, Legnanino embraced the Bolognese classicism, further pursuing it in Rome and greatly exemplified in the only remaining work there: the Sacra famiglia con la Santissima Trinità at the San Francesco a Ripa church, datable between 1684-85. Paolo Coen highlights the importance of Olimpia Ludovisi in the commission of this painting: The princess of Piombino was also a follower of the Bolognese scene and artists such as Carlo Cignani e Domenico Maria Canuti. The Bolognese artists had a strong impact on Legnanino, who had to carefully research and study the works of the great Emilian masters to understand how they had grafted their style into the Roman environment. The evidence can be found in many of his paintings. Among them are the four canvases with the Stories of Bacchus and Ariadne (Municipality of Saronno, formerly in Palazzo Calderara in Milan), where the figures are derived directly from the Farnese fresco by Annibale Carracci, for example in the half-naked woman on the left who carries the wicker basket and the Silenus riding a donkey supported by two satyrs.

Stefano Maria Legnani known as Il Legnanino, Stories of Bacchus and Ariadne, detail, Saronno, Town Hall (formerly Milan, Palazzo Calderara)
Stefano Maria Legnani known as Il Legnanino, Stories of Bacchus and Ariadne, detail. Saronno, Town Hall (formerly Milan, Palazzo Calderara)
Annibale Carracci
Annibale Carracci, Bacco e Arianna, particolare. Roma, Palazzo Farnese, Galleria dei Carracci

The Carracci fresco must have impressed Legnanino so much that during his career he copied figures from it elsewhere too: the woman with the basket returns in the Altarpiece known as the Victory or the Nativity of the Virgin (church of San Massimo, Turin) in the figure on the far left; the woman playing the cymbals in the Hannibal fresco is very similar to one of the corbels in the Palazzo Carignano. The chariot of the Night (unfortunately not well readable due to a less than excellent state of conservation) of the so-called Midnight Apartment in the ‘camera longa’ on the ground floor of Palazzo Carignano takes up Guercino’s Aurora Ludovisi. 300 to 400 prints are recorded in Legnanino’s estate, most likely engravings by Pasqualini reproducing the Ludovisi frescos by Guercino (dated 1621) and engravings by Pietro Aquila of the Caracci fresco (dated 1670-1679). However, the real life experience of those works could not happen in print: to achieve such sophisticated interpretations of other people’s painting, the artist must have spent much of his time in Rome life-drawing everything he liked of the classic painters, including the daring scenographic characters and their most compelling artistic novelties.

efano Maria Legnani known as Il Legnanino, Nativity of the Virgin (Victory Altarpiece), Turin, San Massimo

Once back in Milan, Legnanino’s recognition allowed him to expand beyond the city’s limits, being asked to work in Novara, Sacro Monte di Orta, Lodi, and Monza. However, the turning point for his career came only in 1694 when he was invited by the Turin court to work simultaneously on the Chapel of the Bankers and Merchants (with the commission of Father Provana di Druent) and on the Palazzo Provana di Druent (now Palazzo Barolo). These were but the prelude for his most important commissions: works in the palace of the princes of Carignano, designed by Guarino Guarini as the last project before his death and already completed in 1684. We can only presume that it was Pepoli and Provana who recommended him for this job, with other Bologneses playing a leading role, Ercole Agostino Berò above all.

Born deaf, Prince Filiberto had a difficult childhood, having to learn multiple languages despite his disability and to assert his knighthood in several military campaigns. He had to resist court intrigues and power games for the succession to the throne. In 1682 Prince Tommaso married a French bourgeois, leaving the responsibility to Filiberto to ensure that the hereditary line went to a couple of noble blood. (Tommaso was disinherited in the meantime.) Against the wishes of Louis XIV, Filiberto chose Angela Maria Caterina d’Este, daughter of Borso d’Este. The reaction of the French ruler was harsh: he asked Vittorio Amedeo II to exile the prince, instilling a sense of being wronged in Filiberto, who had previously fought in the French military campaigns. His careful program for the decoration of the palace featured specific iconography glorifying the Carignanos and indirectly commenting on the unjust exile.

Legnanino worked on a dozen rooms of the palace between 1695 and 1703, and again in 1707. The first series of frescoes glorifies the Prince, depicting him as Hercules and celebrating his intellectual and ethical virtues. On the second floor, the prince is described as a glorious warrior, introduced to Olympus, featured along with the continents, the liberal arts, and the four parts of the night. Legnanino’s work in the palace reminds of Daniel Seiter (also called to court after a Roman experience), however their styles and the roots of their culture differ greatly despite their common references. In Turin, Legnanino was inspired by the Genoese painters working there, appreciating their compositional lightness. However, the two artists had to observe each other and together they promoted, albeit in competition and through two parallel paths, a new reading of light and Baroque splendor, anticipating the innovations of Sebastiano Galeotti at the Castello di Rivoli and the novelties of the Venetians. Legnanino and Seiter were also a guide for the new painters who were born in or passed through Turin between the two centuries, perhaps even beyond. In fact, they represented the great painting the court would seek in the following years: a courtly and solemn art of classical origin that united the academies of Bologna and Rome. The rooms they frescoed were studied, for example, both by Beaumont and his pupils, and by Francesco De Mura and Corrado Giaquinto, the latter having lived in Turin early in his life in the third decade of the eighteenth century. 

Through the documents we can also hypothesize the execution of three canvases by Legnanino for Palazzo Carignano: the portrait of Filiberto (still unidentified), the Belisarius, and perhaps a third that could be identified in that Venus crowned by Cupid, found in a Parisian inventory together with Belisarius and which we’ll discussed later. The recovery of the Belisarius and the personal story of the prince summarized above clarify the intentions behind this painting: on the one hand, it was an official portrait, probably in ceremonial clothes; on the other hand, it depicted the Prince’s alter ego Belisarius (often represented, as in this case, blind asking for almsgiving), a proud Roman general with a story failure. A very rare subject (in the seventeenth century we can only mention the Belisarius by Mattia Preti, now at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen), more widespread with Neoclassicism as illustrated by the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David, Legnanino’s Belisarius summarizes exactly the feeling that Filiberto must have experienced during his exile: a sense of injustice with respect to power, but also a personal story of disability similar to the Belisarius, who was blinded as a punishment.

Destined for the palace and executed at the same time as the frescoes, the work might have been conceived by Filiberto himself, who was knowledgeable of Roman history thanks to the scholar and historian Emanuele Tesauro active at the Savoy court. A payment for the painting is mentioned on 16 August 1697, when Legnanino collected 7,500 lire – to be divided with his companions, probably the assistants and his brother Tommaso – for a “large oil painting representing Belisarius” and for the frescoes in the ground floor apartment. In the 1710 inventory, drawn up on the occasion of the death of Filiberto, the canvas was recorded in the room on the ground floor, facing the square and to the west, “in which the bed of the Signor Principe was kept”, and where “a painting of Belisarius with five other figures, rounded corners, and a large carved and gilded frame” was estimated at about 525 lire.

The Belisarius was particularly dear to the Carignano family: it symbolically represented their virtues. However, it continued its life outside Italy for an unspecified period of time. When Emanuele Filiberto died, his son Vittorio Amedeo (Turin 1690 – Paris 1741) inherited and took over the palace. In 1714 he married Vittoria Francesca di Savoia, daughter legitimized by King Vittorio Amedeo II and his lover, Jeanne-Baptiste d ‘Albert de Luynes, the Countess of Verrua. Rearranging the rooms once inhabited by Emanuele Filiberto, the couple settled permanently in their apartment in the palace until 1718 when they escaped to Paris, leaving behind many creditors who besieged him–he liked to live expensively and squandered his patrimony. The couple settled at the Hôtel de Soissons, Marie de Bourbon Soissons’s family palace near the church of Saint-Eustache and former residence of Catherine de’ Medici.

In the following years, living an excessive life in Paris, Vittorio Amedeo enormously grew his art collection, starting from what he brought with him from Turin. At the time of his death, all of his assets had to be auctioned to cover his debts. Contemporary historians, in particular Giuseppe Dardanello in 2012, have highlighted the consistency of this Parisian collection on the basis of the 1741 in mortem inventory, the 1743 auction catalog, and the lists of works sold to different buyers outside the auction. The Belisarius appeared in this inventory, confirming Vittorio Amedeo transported it to Paris along with other major works. Unfortunately, no further record of the painting can be found in between the mid 18th century sale and its recent rediscovery. 

The refined architect Germain Boffrand renovated the Parisian residence of the Carignanos, following his taste for elegant yet comfortable and functional residences. The garden designed for the Hôtel was enormous. In 1732, to improve his residence even further, Vittorio Amedeo even involved the court architect Filippo Juvarra, who provided a design of a theater within the palace, which ultimately was transformed into Les Halles au Blé by King Louis XV. 

Each room had its own theme and decoration. Legnanino’s canvas was found after “un petit passage a gauche de la salle d’entrée” next to The Education of Love by Charles van Loo. The collection was truly boundless, including applied arts arranged in about twenty rooms, many bronzes (some by Ladatte among them), and luxury furniture. The prince made important purchases as soon as he arrived in Paris as regards to paintings too: a Madonna with Child by Andrea Solario (now at the Louvre), a female portrait by Jacopo Bassano, an Adoration of the Shepherds by Tintoretto, four paintings by Albani, two concerts by Valentin, and Poussin’s Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (now at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem). Most came from the collections of Mazarin’s heirs. Other works entered the collection later: Venus and Adonis and a Portrait of a Knight of Malta by Titian (the latter is now at the Staatliche Museum in Kassel), a Mars and Venus by Poussin, as well as paintings by Veronese, Domenichino, two Castiglione from Flemish collections (subsequently selected by the dealer De Brais for the king of Poland, now at the Louvre and in Dresden), paintings by Jacques Courtois (now in the Louvre), The Garden of Love by Rubens from the Countess of Verrua (now Gemäldegalerie in Dresden) and by the same author Loth and his family leave the city of Sodom and Landscape with castle and medieval tournament (now in the Louvre), the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Vermeer, bought as a Rembrandt by the dealer De Brais for Augustus III of Poland.

As this list makes clear, a large part of the Prince of Carignano’s collection is still visible today, scattered among the largest museums in the world: from Paris (Louvre) to Dresden (Gemäldegalerie), from Kassel (Staatliche Museen) to Bologna (Pinacoteca Nazionale) and Turin (Savoy Gallery). Legnanino’s canvas found itself competing with ancient and modern masters; perhaps the artist himself would not have expected to ideally have to confront such a varied and demanding audience of colleagues.

The Belisarius exemplified the artist’s work in the frescos of Palazzo Carignano. While remaining faithful to himself stylistically, he created a painting of light, iridescent, contrasted in the illuminated and imaginative tones of what came in the following century. The six characters are plunged into an environment created with intelligence: on the one hand, the theatrical backdrop of the wall that serves to give greater contrast and relief to the central figure, Belisarius, and to the two soldiers who recognize him astonished; on the other hand, on the left, a Roman lightened landscape inspired by Correggio, yet updated with quick and sudden strokes, greatly interpreting the work of Canuti and Gaulli.

We must not forget the influence of the Genoese painters working at the Turin court who came up with compelling pictorial solutions. The soldiers on the right, built with vigorous and contrasting brushstrokes, evoke the best paintings by Paolo Pagani; they have a strong Venetian undertone, which Legnanino was able to experience in Milan. He yet kept close to classicism in the rhetorical poses and gestures typical of Roman painting. Despite their academic rendering, the figures feature important improvements: those of the woman, the child and the soldier on the far right recur very often in other canvases by Legnanino: the earlier frescoes of the Sacro Monte di Orta and two altarpieces, The Sermon of Saint Sebastian in the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan and the Wedding at Cana in the Church of San Rocco in Miasino. In his Sermon of San Sebastiano, finished shortly after the Belisarius (about 1703), we find again the setting, grouping of characters, treatment of the lights and the cadence of the drapery. In the Miasino canvas, also dated around 1703, the figure of the rich gentleman in the foreground has the same pose as the soldier on the far right of Belisarius. The figure of the latter finds the right correspondence in two lunettes in the room known as the ‘prima antechamber’ of Palazzo Carignano, depicting the Continence of Scipio and Scipio the poet. In the first, the protagonist is similarly presented with a large and dark tent behind him so he can stand out. In the second, the pose traces that in the Belisarius, featuring the same detailed sword.

Stefano Maria Legnani known as Il Legnanino, Wedding at Cana, Miasino, San Rocco

The canvas can be appreciated as a whole through these descriptions here, but only a real life experience can confirm its valuable qualities: paint mixes and thickens in the flesh tones and colors of the fabrics of the soldiers and the general; it ripples in the golden sword hilt on the right; it contracts and becomes a dense whirlpool of shadows in the drapery; or pure light in the glitter of the armor. Suddenly, it expands and lightens, turning liquid, close to a sketch, for example in the quickly rendered character of the old man, dressed in Napolitan yellow toga. The woman on the left points out of the canvas, perhaps alluding to the distant place, Constantinople, from which comes our now blind and poor Belisarius. The interpretation is allusive to a looming future, or perhaps to the evolution of painting that this canvas foreshadows, or even its destiny away from the place for which it was conceived; a story that  we were able to partially discover and rewrite.

August 30, 2023