A true chronicler of neapolitan life during the mid-eighteenth century, Filippo Falciatore sketched high society – as he did the less advantaged classes – through small, expressive figures set in the open air and busy with scenes of daily life. The artist’s acute perception also lay in his choice of setting: for the aristocracy, the garden of a patrician villa, surrounded by walls protecting them from inquisitive eyes; for the populace, the beachfront at Mergellina (or any other public space), an open part of the social and urban fabric. The two compositions in the Detroit Institute of Arts, on a larger scale, provide clear evidence of this dual vision of contemporary Neapolitan society.1 One of these – its principal group of figures restated here, in a quite different horizontal setting – represents a concert in a garden. In the first of our paintings, a keyboard player and violinist play in the middle of a tree-filled garden where fountain water brings welcome freshness; the performance lies at the heart of the composition. Other figures enjoy the music, among them a clergyman, leaning on the instrument and no doubt transported by the sound. This idyllic moment is animated by smaller scenes: a servant brings ice-cream on a tray, a child runs with his kite, and a couple strolls in the distance, without paying particular attention to the concert. Two small dogs frolic next to a pot of flowers, enhancing the foreground. To judge by the couple embracing tenderly behind the keyboard player, it seems that this is the height of romance. While a number of variations distinguish it from the canvas in Detroit, our composition is identical to another horizontal version (Berlin, Staatliche Museen), published and illustrated by Nicola Spinosa. 2 In our second picture, too, the presence of secondary scenes around the main subject fills out the depiction of the dance performance, seemingly a pretext for showing off a lovely pink and blue dress. A young man simultaneously plays the viol and teaches dance steps to a young girl, who goes through her motions with great seriousness and concentration, while the painter introduces a touch of humour: a little boy teaches a small, very willing dog to dance, while on the far left a woman cuts a watermelon, its pieces arranged on large round platter. On the right, three other figures are seated around a beautiful snuffbox, itself the kind of objet de vertu that would be displayed to prompt admiration of its precious qualities. Snuffboxes were very fashionable during the eighteenth century, with women too, and Neapolitan workshops specialized in making them out of gilded or encrusted tortoiseshell. One of the young women offers some snuff to the other, reflecting a theme often found in Neapolitan painting – suffice it to think of Gaspare Traversi (1723-1770), who treated such moments as veritable scènes galantes. The red slices of watermelon and flowers (carnations and hollyhocks) recall how much the still life genre flourished in Naples, and help convey the abundance of sun-filled nature in Southern Italy. The various items of dress are sumptuous and no doubt dream-like in the eyes of the simple woman observing Naples’ high society at play as she leans over the wall, holding her little boy. The quality of spectacle in each of these pictures is enhanced by the presence of protagonists who are themselves spectators. The private space of the garden of a villa provides the context for the pair of scenes presented here, both dedicated to the pleasures of music and pastime, and the different known versions of these subjects attest to their success in eighteenth century Naples. The biographer Bernardo De Dominici records that Filippo Falciatore was a pupil of Lorenzo Vaccaro, and then of his son, Domenico Antonio Vaccaro (1678 -1745), an artist whose influence was to pervade all his early work, inspiring small pictures bathed in clear, silvery light and azure tonalities that gradually shaped his “neo-Mannerist” Rococo style.3 Of his activity as fresco-painter little remains, the first point of reference being 1741, when he frescoed the vault and walls of the sacristy of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine Maggiore in Naples. His rocaille sensibility reached the height of preciosity in the five panels with gold backgrounds and the two tondi representing Cain and Abel and Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (Naples, Museo Duca di Martina).4
1. Fernanda Capobianca, “Filippo Falciatore”, in Nicola Spinosa, ed., Barocco da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, exh. cat., Naples, Museo di Capodimonte, Certosa e Museo di San Martino, Castel Sant’Elmo, Museo Pignatelli, Museo Duca di Martina, Palazzo Reale, 12 December 2009 – 11 April 2010, pp. 320-321, no. 1.180.
2. Nicola Spinosa, in Pittura napoletana del Settecento. Dal Barocco al Rococò, Naples, 1993, p. 153, no. 225, fig. 268 (39.5 x 99.5 cm).
3. Bernardo De Dominici, Vite de’ pittori, scultori ed architetti napoletani, Naples, III, p. 494.
4. Nicola Spinosa, op. cit. in note 2, 1993, p. 153, no. 225, p. 324, fig. 268; Nicola Spinosa, “Ancora per Filippo Falciatore”, in Alessandra Costantini, ed. In ricordo di Enzo Costantini, Turin, 2006, pp. 83-93.
London, private collection