A whole series of elements – an uncommon subject, with powerfully characterised figures and a painstaking description of detail; an imposing size; complete command of artistic skills, reflecting a fully matured language; subtle psychological perception; and a chromatic range enlivened by brilliant tones of red, blue and white – make this painting one of the most noteworthy achievements by Giacomo Ceruti.
The scene is set in a daytime exterior, where a heterogeneous group of soldiers is caught during a moment of relaxation and pastime. We can intuit from the context and expressions of these men that this is only a meagre consolation for their general condition. They have used a military drum to make an improvised table, on which they are playing cards, probably a hand of scopa, using a pack of cards from Treviso in the Veneto. This detail, like many others in the painting, helps us to define its geographical area and thus identify the protagonists of this most interesting collective genre portrait. Indeed even at first glance we cannot help but notice the peculiar style, not to mention the variations, of the uniforms worn by the five men, who can be recognised as belonging to the so-called Oltremarini or Schiavoni, who not only filled the ranks of the Venetian army but were specifically assigned to the frontier troops of the Habsburg Empire, starting at the beginning of the eighteenth century. We are looking here at the grenzer, or border infantry, formed of soldier-peasants who were enrolled through subsidies or exemptions to protect extensive outlying areas of the Serenissima’s territory, grouped in small patrols and supported by watchtowers. They came from various areas and consisted mostly of Pandurs, Slavonians, Dalmatians, Croatians, Wallachians, Germans, Transylvanians, and Hungarians, many of them defined by their free, gypsy-like spirit. Such origins also appear to be confirmed by the characteristic facial features of the individuals seen here. Not yet possessing a single uniform, they wore costumes typical of their ethnic groups, often made by their families, which explains the varied dress we see here; uniformity was not a characteristic of the grenzer. Almost all of them wore a red mantle, but the jackets could be of various colours: for instance, Croats and Schiavoni had a dark brown jacket, while the men from the German states had a tricorn hat and white jacket, similar to the one worn by the younger man on the left in our painting. Traditional Slavic headgear was cylindrical or shaped like truncated cones, generally made of felt, bearskin or calfskin, sometimes with black ostrich-feathers and with a hood of crimson wool – all of these types reflected in the costumes seen here. Many of these elements, starting with the uniforms and headgear, indicate Venetian territory; and the sword on the belt of the man standing in the foreground was the weapon worn at the waist by Slavic infantry, with its characteristic interlacing branches of the hilt and squared bronze pommel. Also typical is the ammunition pouch, the natural calfskin saddle bag slung from a shoulder, and the unadorned ankle boots, in Balkan fashion.
In 1785, Sergeant-General Salimbeni described the Oltremarini as strong men who could resist the elements and show skill in weaponry, but with little inclination to discipline. Our soldiers appear to reflect this description perfectly: the climate is harsh, as is clear from the clothing, and especially from the man in the back, wrapped in a red cloak; the men’s expressions show them as tired, and tried; and their appearance as soldiers of fortune is appropriate to the realistic subject-matter so favoured by Ceruti. The artist no doubt had occasion to see many such soldiers in Milan, Brescia and the Veneto, and indeed he represented them a number of times – one example is the Portrait of a Man Smoking in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (Palazzo Barberini), Rome – and he may also have been inspired by the paintings of Todeschini, who as it happens was a native of Austria.
Ceruti adopted the theme of card-playing on several occasions, though he varied its treatment, sometimes depicting street urchins and more rarely soldiers; the Soldiers Playing Cards formerly in the Sciltian collection in Milan is an earlier and more anecdotal version of the subject than ours, quite different both in composition and use of intense expressions. Our canvas has broad areas of pigment, applied in relatively thin, swift brushstrokes, which makes it possible to see several pentimenti, though the painter also indulged in detailed descriptive passages. Card-playing became a very popular subject in painting, often used with moral intent as an example of the negative aspects of idleness, with scenes involving swindling or disreputable situations. Our picture is a more rural and coarse interpretation of the popular subject of cardsharps that had originated with Caravaggio in the 1590s.
The authorship of this painting was first correctly attributed to Ceruti in the exhibition I pittori della realtà in Lombardia (Milan, 1953), where it was published as “Polish Soldiers” and dated to between 1733 and 1735. Mina Gregori put forward an even earlier dating, in the 1720s, but Francesco Frangi believed it was a more mature work, painted somewhere between the 1730s and 1740s, close to the pictures carried out for Marshal Matthias von der Schulenburg. The present writer agrees with this last hypothesis, regarding the work as tied to Ceruti’s Venetian period and the possible patronage of Schulenburg, who was not only a great admirer of the artist’s paintings of paupers but was himself in the service of the armed forces of the Republic of Venice, and was therefore unquestionably familiar with the subject and its figures.
Born in Milan, but active above all in Brescia, in the Veneto and in Padua, Giacomo Ceruti was also known through the pseudonym “Pitocchetto” (“little beggar”) precisely because of his continual depictions of figures of the lowest social class. Poor men and women, peasants, and beggars, often dressed in rags, formed the benchmark for Lombard painters of reality, and Ceruti was one of the greatest exponents in this field, together with Antonio Cifrondi and Giacomo Cipper, called il Todeschini. Ceruti was trained by Carlo Ceresa, specializing in so-called genre painting. His scenes and figures are steeped in quotidian reality, often of the least comfortable kind. As he evolved, the artist gradually eliminated elements that smacked of caricature, ultimately leaving us with a vivid and dignified view of life. The painting studied here is an excellent example of this approach.
Bergame, Steffanoni; Rome, Suardo collection; 1968, Rome, Galleria Sestieri; 1968, Milan, Algranti; Switzerland, private collection.
- E. Fornoni, Note biografiche su pittori bergamaschi, ms., 9 vols., Bergamo, Archivio Curia vescovile, 19151920, VI, pp.110-111;
- I pittori della realtà in Lombardia, ed. by R. Longhi, R. Cipriani and G. Testori, exh. cat., Milan, Palazzo Reale, AprilJuly 1953, p. 67;
- R. BassiRathgeb, “Un ritratto aulico del Pitocchetto”, Bollettino del Museo Civico di Padova, LIV, 1965, p. 117;
- M. Gregori, Giacomo Ceruti, Cinisello Balsamo (Milan), 1982, pp. 9, 44, 431, no. 45;
- F. Noris, “Bartolomeo Nazari”, in I Pittori Bergamaschi dal XIII al XIX secolo. Il Settecento, vol. I, Bergamo 1982, p. 237, no. 53;
- M. Bona Castellotti, La pittura lombarda del Settecento, Repertori fotografici Longanesi, Milan, 1986, pl. 169;
- F. Frangi, in Settecento lombardo, ed. by R. Bossaglia and V. Terraroli, exh. cat., Palazzo Reale and Museo del Duomo, 1 February – 28 April 1991, Milan, 1991, pp. 139140, no. I.105;
- F. Frangi, in Da Romanino a Moretto e Ceruti. Tesori ritrovati della Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, ed. by E. Lucchesi Ragni and R. Stradiotti, exh. cat., Brescia, 22 October 2005 19 March 2006, Conegliano, 2006, pp. 162, 164, 172;
- E. Lucchesi Ragni, in Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo. Catalogo delle opere. Seicento e Settecento, ed. by M. Bona Castellotti and E. Lucchesi Ragni, Venice, 2011, p. 145;
- F. Frangi , in Giacomo Ceruti 16981767. Popolo e Nobiltà alla vigilia dell’età dei Lumi, ed. by F. Frangi and A. Morandotti, exh. cat., 30 October 13 December 2013, Robilant+Voena, Milan, 2013, cat. no. 9, pp. 4447.
- Settecento lombardo, ed. by R. Bossaglia and V. Terraroli, exh. cat., Palazzo Reale and Museo del Duomo, 1 February – 28 April 1991, Milan, 1991;
- Giacomo Ceruti 1698-1767. Popolo e Nobiltà alla vigilia dell’età dei Lumi, ed. by F. Frangi and A. Morandotti, exh. cat., 30 October - 13 December 2013, Robilant+Voena, Milan, 2013.