Cagnacci’s Repentant Magdalene
While the National Gallery is embarked on one of its most ambitious rehangs, to make space for next month’s blockbuster exhibition in the Northern rooms, there is a temporary safe haven of tranquillity, in Room 1. The space here is remarkably versatile, accommodating a couple of dozen paintings in recent shows such as the brilliant Dutch Flowers last year, or, as here, concentrating our attention on a single picture – admittedly one of some size (2.3×2.6 m). The intensely beautiful Repentant Magdalene by Guido Cagnacci normally hangs in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, where it has been since 1982, but is with us until May. And as the publicity tells us, the only other Cagnacci in Britain is in the Royal Collection. The texts displayed on the walls in Room 1 draw on the excellent monograph by Xavier F. Salomon, now at the Frick, where the painting has recently been on loan before arriving in London. (Salomon also wrote a short introductory article for Apollo recently.)
As the book tells us everything we need to know about Cagnacci – how original he is, and how important he was once considered, even if he is less well known today – I shall not attempt to do so, being no specialist in seventeenth century Italian religious painting. It’s worth however looking at some of the x-ray imaging on the panels, as they demonstrate some of the artist’s changes of mind in the positioning of the figures in this very ambitious composition. I’m not sure that he ultimately resolved all the problems he set himself: niggling doubts about the perspective and direction of lighting weren’t quite banished by the bravura painting of the flesh – the quality for which Cagnacci was most celebrated.
Indeed I wondered whether this painting was, as we are encouraged to think, an exercise in eroticism, or whether in fact the painting was at heart a far more conventional morality tale? Because for me the really beautiful piece of painting was not the Magdalene’s semi-naked body, but the play of light on her sister’s face. This stood out from the picture almost as Leonardo’s angel stands out from Verrocchio’s Baptism. Although perhaps there is an even more convoluted reading: Martha’s face with its half-open mouth radiates more than mere sanctity.
I’m not however the first to notice this. And the point I wanted to make in this post – which I think is absent from Salomon’s book, but which seems to me both of real interest and of some importance – is that (even if we don’t have any record of the contemporary critical response) we do have the fascinating testimony of a response from the next generation: that of the copy made by Rosalba Carriera of the head of Martha, in pastel.
As the exhibition literature explains, the Cagnacci painting was in the collection of the last duke of Mantua until his death in 1708. The Gonzaga paintings collection was then sent to Venice where it would be dispersed over the next few years. The Cagnacci was acquired by Rosalba’s friend Christian Cole (with a view to selling it to the Earl of Dartmouth, although in the end it was the Duke of Portland who bought it), but what isn’t mentioned in the exhibition is that Rosalba had been independently involved (together with the painter Niccolò Cassana) in an attempt to sell the pictures to Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm. She prepared a report on the pictures which she sent to the court at Düsseldorf (the Elector’s payment to her of 3200 ducats was sent by Baron Wiser on 5 January 1712 with a charming letter which survives). But the copy of the head of Martha seems to have been made for her own pleasure. She probably gave it to Crozat, for it was from his collection that it entered the Hermitage where it now belongs (see J.21.2421 in the Dictionary for further details): it was no. 133 in the 1772 sale contract with Catherine the Great:
The pastel would not have been allowed to travel to London, but perhaps a small reproduction of it might have been admitted to the wall texts of this otherwise excellent show.