Private collection, Rome, from the early nineteenth century (as Jusepe de Ribera);

Anonymous sale, Milan, Finarte, 8th June 1995, lot 66;

Private collection, Italy until 2016.

Naples, Museo di Capodimonte, Ritorno al Barocco da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, 12th December 2009 – 11th April 2010.

P. Piscitello in Ritorno al Barocco da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, exh. cat., Naples 2009, cat. no. 1.48;

A. della Ragione & R. Doronzo, Cesare Fracanzano: Opera Completa, Naples 2014, p.19, illustrated fig. 28 and plate 38.

This charmingly rustic Adoration of the Shepherds takes place in an improvised stable located in the ruins of a pagan temple - an allusion to the end of the old order with the birth of Christ, commonly found earlier in the iconography of Renaissance paintings by artists such as Botticelli (c. 1445 – 1510) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519).

The painting was exhibited as a work by Cesare Fracanzano in a major exhibition of Neapolitan painting at the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples in 2009/10, the attribution confirmed by both Nicola Spinosa, curator of the exhibition,1 and Patrizia Piscitello, who wrote the catalogue entry for the picture.2 More recently it was published in the 2014 catalogue raisonné of works by Fracanzano by Achille della Ragione and Ruggiero Doronzo.3 The late Federico Zeri also independently attributed our picture to Cesare Fracanzano.4

The views of these scholars are confirmed by the strong correspondences with other works by Fracanzano. The figure of the Virgin seems to be drawn from the same model as the artist’s Dying mother or Charity (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna),5 while the figure of the peasant woman in the left foreground of the Healing of the man possessed by demons (Quadreria del Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples)6 resembles the peasant woman with the basket of chickens in the present Adoration. The figure of the kneeling shepherd to the right of the Virgin in our Adoration is very similar to that of the central white-haired apostle in the Assumption of the Virgin (Eremo dei Camaldoli, Naples).7

The Colnaghi Adoration is an interesting amalgam of realistic elements, deriving from Cesare’s master Jusepe de Ribera, and more idealizing tendencies which owe their inspiration to van Dyck and to his study of the work of artists such as Guido Reni and Giovanni Lanfranco. The figure of Saint Joseph, for example, recalls van Dyck as well the saints and prophets of Pietro Novelli, while other elements in the picture show the impact of Riberesque naturalism on the artist’s training. The scene is divided into two groups: on the left is the Holy Family centred on the Virgin, her sweet, angelic face contrasting with the earthy figure of the kneeling shepherd. The right-hand side is composed of a young peasant woman carrying the gift of a basket of pigeons, an old woman with covered head and a wrinkled face, and the bucolic figure of a shepherd playing a rustic bag-pipe, who wears a rough sheep-skin jacket and woollen shoes very similar to that worn by one of the shepherds in another altarpiece of the Adoration of the Shepherds in the cathedral of Castlemare.8 These genre elements are frequently found in the paintings of Ribera and the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the low-life detail of the pigeons in the basket is reminiscent of Giovan Battista Recco’s Basket of pigeons in a private collection, Milan.9

The Colnaghi Adoration has been dated to c. 1645,10 a period when the artist’s work was characterised by a naturalism combined with more idealised elements, as noted above. Also typical of the period is the vivid palette, which ranges from the ruddy, earthy tonalities of the rustic figures to the delicate modulation of colour, seen in the pinks of the Virgin’s dress and the vivid lapis lazuli of her cloak. These rich passages of colour can be compared to other paintings by Fracanzano: see, for example, the intense orange robe of Saint Euphemia (private collection, Naples),11 which shows a response to Venetian painting probably transmitted through the paintings of Novelli and van Dyck.

Cesare Fracanzano, brother of the better-known Francesco, was born in Bisceglie on 16 October 1605. His father, Alessandro, was an undistinguished late-Mannerist painter from Verona, while his mother, Elisabetta Milazzo, was from Barletta. Both brothers learned the rudiments of their craft from their father before moving to Naples in the early 1620s where in 1629 Cesare painted an altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin for the Church of Sant’Agostino and a Christ for the church of Santissimo Sacramento in Ruvo. In 1626 Cesare married Beatrice Covelli in Barletta; they had four sons, two of whom were painters. According to De Dominici, Beatrice was the artist’s favourite model and this probably accounts for the fact that the same female figure appears in a number of his altarpieces as the Virgin or various female saints. She appears as Saint Helena in the eponymous altarpiece in the Church of Saint Mary of Nazareth in Barletta, as an angel in the Flagellation (Quadreria dei Girolamini, Naples) and as the Virgin in the Immaculate Conception (Santa Maria della Speranzella, Naples), where Cesare completed the decorations of the Presbytery left unfinished by Cosimo Fanzago. Around 1630 the brothers entered the workshop of Ribera and his influence can be seen in such works as Saint John the Baptist (early 1630s, Capodimonte), in which the colouring is strongly redolent of the master although lacking his harsh realism. Between 1633 and 1635 Cesare worked in Barletta and he painted a series of frescoes for the Choir of Santa Maria della Sapienza in Naples in 1639-41. During this period he also received some important commissions from the Jesuits, including the altarpiece of San Francesco Saverio baptising the Natives for the church of Il Gesù Vecchio in Naples (1641), and the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception for the church of San Francesco Saverio (now San Fernando), Naples.

Cesare’s strong interest in light and Venetian colouring is reflected in such works as Christ at the column comforted by angels (c. 1629-30; Quadreria Girolamini, Naples) and the Saint Michael (c. 1635; Museo Nazionale di San Martino, Naples), which were inspired by the glowing colours of van Dyck, whose art was strongly influential on Neapolitan painting at the time. After 1630 his art became more academic reflecting the influence of Massimo Stanzione, as in the Magdalene (Palazzo Vescovile, Andria) and of Guido Reni in the Crucifixion (San Fernando, Bari). In 1640 Fracanzano frescoed the vault of the nun’s choir in S. Maria della Sapienza, Naples, with an Assumption of the Virgin which suggests the influence of Lanfranco. Probably his last work was the fresco cycle of c. 1650, very similar in style, with scenes from the Martyrdoms of Saints Cosmas and Damian at Conversano in Apulia. 

Footnotes
1. Verbal attribution recorded by Piscitello: P. Piscitello in Ritorno al Barocco da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, exh. cat., Naples 2009, cat. no. 1.48.
2. P. Piscitello in Ritorno al Barocco da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, exh. cat., Naples 2009, cat. no. 1.48. Piscitello also records that Mina Gregori had suggested an alternative attribution to the German artist Franz Werner van Tamm, known as Monsù Daprait or Dapper (1658-1724), who specialised in flower paintings and hunting scenes.
3. P. Piscitello in Ritorno al Barocco da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, exh. cat., Naples 2009, cat. no. 1.48.
4. On the back of a photograph in the Fondazione Federico Zeri, Bologna, fasc.12, Cesare Fracanzano, busta n. 514, scheda n. 50708.
5. A. della Ragione & R. Doronzo, Cesare Fracanzano: Opera Completa, Naples 2014, pl. 39.
6. A. della Ragione & R. Doronzo, Cesare Fracanzano: Opera Completa, Naples 2014, fig. 31, pl. 14.
7. A. della Ragione & R. Doronzo, Cesare Fracanzano: Opera Completa, Naples 2014, pl.10.
8. A. della Ragione & R. Doronzo, Cesare Fracanzano: Opera Completa, Naples 2014, pl. 6.
9. P. Piscitello in Ritorno al Barocco da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, exh. cat., Naples 2009, cat. no. 1.225.
10. P. Piscitello in Ritorno al Barocco da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, exh. cat., Naples 2009, cat. no. 1.48.
11. P. Piscitello in Ritorno al Barocco da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, exh. cat., Naples 2009, cat. no. 1.49.