(Naples 1607 - 1656)
Saint Barbara
Oil on canvas 100 x 73 cm.
Milan, Giorgio Baratti Collection
A diagonal and dynamic layout characterizes this female praying figure, who stands out against a mottled sky of blue and dark clouds. The attractive young woman in rich clothing is Saint Barbara, as can be deduced by the presence of the tower that identifies the martyr. The hagiography, like a dark tale, tells us about her father Dioscorus, a third-century satrap, who imprisoned her to make her renounce her Christian faith. After miraculous escapes Barbara, who was recaptured each time, was beheaded by her father, who was punished by God who burned him with lightning. The painting is a summary of the whole affair, that seems to capture a moment of escape, but evokes at the same time the lightening that, in the form of a snaking fibula, strikes the tower creating a symbolic crack. The representation of the young girl seems almost like a fairy-tale, with the bright chromatic contrasts between the pale skin and the vivid hues of the fabric that give the image an enchanted look. Intense shadows that outline the locks of hair and the clouds reveal a sentimental artistic language, typical of mid-17th century Neapolitan painting, when Caravaggio’s decisive shadows join the cooler lights brought by Domenichino and other Emilian artists. Pacecco De Rosa, who has been rightly considered the author of this beautiful painting for some time, embodies, better than any other, this aesthetic hybridization that combined naturalism and classicism.
Pacecco was at the centre of an artistic crossroads, also given his family situation. Son of the painter Tommaso and then, upon the death of his father, stepson of Filippo Vitale, Francesco became, along with his sister Annella De Rosa, a student of Massimo Stanzione and then brother-in-law of Agostino Beltrano and Juan Do. Such a mix of artistic experiences could only make Francesco a perfect exponent of the most eclectic and sophisticated Neapolitan culture.
The work in question documents an expressive stage that demonstrates the long and sinuous shapes of Stanzione, but the expressive character and attention to decoration that we find in the paintings when Pacecco reaches full maturity can already be seen. It is dated to around the 1640s. Effective comparisons can be found with the many female figures painted by the artist. Just think of the Flora del Kunsthistorisches Museum di Vienna, to find a similar formal synthesis as well as the same bright colour palette. It is in fact the more translucent female complexions, which focus on a blush on the face, to have decreed the artistic fortune of Francesco De Rosa. The Saint Barbara of Baratti, already part of the Gallery Canesso in Paris, is one of the greatest productions of the artist.
Massimo Pulini
Bibliography: V. Pacelli, 2008; M. Pulini, 2010, pp. 82-83.
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