CAGNACCIO DI SAN PIETRO (Natalino Bentivoglio Scarpa)

Desenzano del Garda 1897 - Venezia 1946


spring, 1923 – 1925
(also The Two Sisters or The Letter)


Oil on canvas, cm. 139 x 134
Signed and dated lower right: Cagnaccio / 1925


Provenance:
Rome, private collection


Exhibitions:
XIII Mostra di Ca’ Pesaro, Venice,1923; Esposizione d’arte dei combattenti delle Tre Venezie, Venice 1925; Galleria del Levante, Cagnaccio di San Pietro 1897-1946, Milan 1971;  Galleria d'arte Narciso, Cagnaccio di San Pietro, Turin 1971; Galleria d'arte Stivani, Cagnaccio di San Pietro 1897-1946, Bologna 1973




Description

Natalino Bentivoglio Scarpa is better known by his artist's pseudonym Cagnaccio di San Pietro, after his grandfather's dog and San Pietro in Volta, the village on the Venetian lagoon from which his parents hailed. The picture, painted by the artist when still only in his twenties, is coeval with The Mother (1923), The Evening (1923) and the portraits of Colomba and Napoleone Scarpa (1924) with which it shares the popular religious sentiment that pervades them, the unique, almost glassy enamel brushwork and the incisive draughtsmanship that were to characterise his eminently recognisable style from then on.

In-depth research specially conducted on this occasion has enabled us to reconstruct the unpredictable history of this painting, leading to a very important rediscovery of this Desenzano-born artist's work. The picture can now be identified as Spring, a painting shown by the young Natale Scarpa Cagnaccio (who had not yet fully evolved into "Cagnaccio di San Pietro") at Ca' Pesaro in 1923 (1) despite the fact that it is very clearly dated 1925 below the signature Cagnaccio. This contention is borne out by the fact that it was shown under the same title at the exhibition of the Combattenti delle Tre Venezie in 1925, when it was reproduced in the exhibition catalogue (2) where it is easily recognisable even though the background has been changed (a circumstance confirmed by infra-red photography, which has revealed the existence of the underlying brushwork).

It may have been after the Combattenti exhibition, when the part of the paintng with the vegetation behind the two women was altered, that the artist signed it – this time as Cagnaccio di San Pietro – and redated it. By this time the climate of "Magical Realism", a style developed by Massimo Bontempelli in literature precisely in 1925, had already taken hold, and Cagnaccio had acquired a greater awareness of the fundaments of his art. While he had initially been more inclined to favour such themes as portraiture and the human figure (3),, he now felt a need to rid the picture of its too obvious naturalism, which explains why he covered what he may now have considered excessively detailed, possibly even too earthy, with a mist that appears to swallow everything up, offering the observer the artist's own vision of a reality so clean and clear, so completely purged of the circumstantial element, that it becomes eternal.

The difficulty involved in unearthing documentary material for this retiring artist has not allowed us, for the moment, to identify any other exhibitions at which the painting may have been displayed over the relatively lengthy period of time stretching from 1925 to 1971, when it was shown at the Galleria del Levante in Milan from 19 January to 7 March under the title The Two Sisters (4) and at the Galleria d'arte Narciso in Turin from 20 October to 10 November of the same year under the title The Letter (5), and indeed this was still the title under which it was shown at the Galleria d'Arte Il Gabbiano in Rome in 1974 (6).
The fact that a catalogue of works on display at the Galleria Stivani in Bologna in 1973 lists both titles – no. 4 The Letter and no. 5 The Two Sisters – as though they were two different paintings of exactly the same size may be the product of a minor misunderstanding (7), prompting Rosalinda Collu in the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Galleria Gian Ferrari in 1989 to use the title The Two Sisters, possibly referring to The Letter (8; while in the bio-bibliographical section of the catalogue of an exhibition on "Magical Realism" held in the same year and curated by Badellino, the two titles are listed separately as though they were two different paintings (9). It was not until 1991, in a lengthy essay on Cagnaccio's painting in the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Museo Correr in Venice, that Giuseppina Dal Canton rediscovered documentary traces of the painting and revived its original title of Spring – although unfortunately the picture was neither published nor shown on that occasion (10), thus making it impossible to complete the attribution of the title to the image.

The painting appears to depict a simple family scene. We are probably looking at two sisters sitting next to each other in the open air, both reading a letter which the first sister is holding in her hand while the second places her hands on her sibling's shoulders, visually creating a chain of affection as though to comfort and to reassure her. In the foreground on either side of the sisters we see two large bundles of greens, almost a votive offering that appears to have recently been picked in the field behind the figures. The greens may be waiting to be washed and cooked for dinner.
Yet as we look at the painting, we feel a vaguely disturbing sensation that is completely unjustified by the normality of the scene depicted, which on the face of it has absolutely nothing disturbing to it whatsoever. Painting, however, is another matter.
This may be because everything illustrated on canvas also simultaneously voices its own contradiction, triggering a process of antinomy that sparks a certain concern – starting with the perspective, which has a steepness reminiscent of a stage set in which the stage has been strongly tilted towards the observer and is circumscribed by a landscape that acts as its backdrop. We find this viewpoint adopted again in the arid setting of Pain, the central panel of The Mother.
Equally ambiguous is the similarity between the two women. It is so glaring (they are even sitting in the same position) that they almost appear to be the same person; in fact if it were not for their clothing, we might almost be looking at a mirror image of the same figure. What we see here is "the subtle double of existence" (11), to cite Maurizio Fagiolo: "The double of the vision is the multiplication of the eye, it is the magical threshold that swallows up appearances, it is the stage curtain that merges all of the objects it perceives, cancelling them out," (12), in other words the style typical of "Magical Realism". Seen in this light, a number of other considerations acquire equal interest: for example, the colours of the two women's blouses – one blue, the other yellow – seek to strike a balance between cold and warm tonalities, a device that we find in another dual portrait, Ubaldo Oppi's The Friends (1924), a painting considered of cardinal importance in Franz Roh's "Magischer Realismus" which was shown at the comprehensive one-man show held by the artist in the context of the Venice Biennale of that year and which Cagnaccio himself probably also appreciated. One could add that the two figures are indeed depicted in the open air with a landscape behind them, but we are led to believe that they must be near a large country house whose presence we intuit from the shadow looming over the women. The shadow envelops them, yet they are not immersed in it because their faces and arms are lit by another source of light striking them from the left – a source of light that is completely imaginary and "other" compared to the painting's overall composition, highlighting their features the way they might be highlighted by a lantern at night, yet a strip of blue sky at the top of the picture tells us that we are in broad daylight.
This sacred – not to say religious – light harks back to the Madonnas of Giovanni Bellini and of Venetian painting of the Quattrocento (Vivarini, the Bellinis, Carpaccio) which also appears to be evoked by the pseudonym that the artist has chosen. Toni Toniato argues that Cagnaccio "sounds like a distortion of Carpaccio" (13). Just as Venetian artists in the Quattrocento used to explicit their debt to northern European art (14), so Cagnaccio with his subtle psychological allusions and his "depiction of reality with precise, harsh, cutting strokes, a palette made up of enamelled but chilly luminescence and a merciless introspective analysis" (15) now displays his elective affinity with Germany's Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).

Thus we find confirmation of the contention that "… the truest of the true in Cagnaccio's work is a product not only of his careful observation of reality but also of a cerebral process, of a revisitation of the objective fact, studied over and over again in his workshop, gradually emptied of all immediacy and captured for ever in the reality of painting that is intended to deliver it to us in the unchangeability of a sort of vetrification…"(16), where every aspect of the subject's physiognomy is analysed in sharp detail yet at the same time it is surrounded by marks bearing hidden meanings which appear to be at odds with the objectivity of the vision. Thanks to this cerebral process the artist transcends the subject of the painting and grasps a "second reality" (17), a duality intuited in Cagnaccio's style by Giovanni Testori in an exhibition catalogue in 1971, when he points out that the painter "instantly swerves into opposites; and as soon as he begins to touch the hem or the limbo of his poetic substance (we are here in the early 1920s), he immediately shows us that he feels and wishes to be alone, seeking out solitude as the only way of salvaging his own perception of reality…" (18).

 

 

Notes

 

  1. Catalogo della XIII Mostra di Ca' Pesaro, Opera Bevilacqua-La Masa, Venice 21 April – 30 June 1923, Venice 1923, p. 9 (not reproduced)
  2. Esposizione d'arte dei combattenti delle Tre Venezie, catalogue of works, Palazzo Reale, Sale Napoleoniche, Venice April – July 1925, p. 24 (reproduced)
  3. The movement, developed by Massimo Bontempelli in literature in Italy and by Franzo Roh in painting in Germany, sought to produce an alienating impact on the observer.
  4. Cagnaccio di San Pietro 1897-1946, catalogue of the first retrospective exhibition, Galleria del Levante Milan 19 January –7 March 1971, Milan, 1971, s.p., n. 11 (illustrated as The Two Sisters)
  5. Cagnaccio di San Pietro, exhibition catalogue, Galleria d'arte Narciso, Turin 20 October – 10 November 1971, Turin F. Garino & C., 1971, s.p. n. 10 ( ill. The Letter)
  6. Cagnaccio di San Pietro, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Il Gabbiano, Rome 23 March – 13 April 1974, Rome 1974, n. 6 (The Letter); oddly, both the Galleria Del Levante exhibition catalogue and the Narciso and Gabbiano exhibition catalogues carry the same introduction by Giovanni Testori.
  7. Cagnaccio di San Pietro 1897-1946, Galleria d'arte Stivani, Bologna, 13 October – 13 November 1973, Bologna 1973, p. 30, n. 4 "La lettera", 1925
  8. Rosalinda Collu, Chronology in Cagnaccio di San Pietro, exhibition curated by Claudia Gian Ferrari, 24 May – 22 July Milan, Electa editore 1989, p. 77 (where it is called The Two Sisters) Claudia Gian Ferrari, Il santo e la bestia, (photographed)
  9. Enrico Badellino, Repertorio bio-bibliografico: artisti, compagni di strada, esposizioni, riviste, in Realismo magico: pittura e scultura in Italia, 1919–1925, exhibition curated by Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco, Milan, Palazzo Reale 16 February – 2 April 1989, Mazzotta editore, Milan 1989 p. 292
  10. Giuseppina Dal Canton, La cultura figurativa di Cagnaccio, in Cagnaccio di San Pietro, exhibition catalogue, Museo Correr Venice, organised by the Comune di Venezia, Assessorato alla Cultura, Venice, Electa editore, Milan 1991, pp. 19-39, esp. p. 36
  11. Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco, Realismo Magico. Ragioni di un'idea e di una mostra, in Realismo magico: pittura e scultura in Italia, 1919-1925, Milan, Palazzo Reale 16 February – 2 April 1989, Mazzotta editore, Milan 1989, pp. 11-33, esp. p. 32
  12. ibid
  13. Toni Toniato, Stile della verità, in Cagnaccio di San Pietro...(op. cit.) 1991, pp. 40-49, esp. p. 41
  14. See also Saverio Simi, Cagnaccio di San Pietro a Venezia, in "Provincia di Venezia", a. XV, n. 4/6, Venice July – December 1991, pp. 95-96; my thanks to the author for his valuable suggestions.
  15. Toni Toniato, Stile della verità, in Cagnaccio di San Pietro...(op. cit.) 1991, pp. 40-49, esp. p. 41
  16. Giuseppina Dal Canton, La cultura figurativa di Cagnaccio, in Cagnaccio di San Pietro... (op. cit.)   1991, pp. 19-39, esp. p. 36
  17. ibidem, p. 37
  18. Giovanni Testori, Cagnaccio di San Pietro, exhibition catalogue entry,  Cagnaccio di San Pietro,1897-1946, Galleria del Levante Milan 19 January – 7 March 1971, Milan, 1971, s.p., n11

Literature:
Catalogo della XIII Mostra di Ca’ Pesaro, Opera Bevilacqua- La Masa, Venice 21 April - 30 June 1923, Venice 1923, p. 9 (Primavera);  
Esposizione d’arte dei combattenti delle Tre Venezie, catalogue of works, Palazzo Reale, Sale Napoleoniche, Venice April – July 1925, p. 24, n.19, ripr. (Pimavera); 
Cagnaccio di San Pietro 1897-1946, catalogue of his first retrospective exhibition , Galleria del Levante Milan 19 January -7 March 1971, Milan, 1971, s.p., n. 11 ripr. (Le due sorelle); 
Cagnaccio di San Pietro, exhibition catalogue, Galleria d'arte Narciso, Turin 20 October - 10 November 1971, Torino F. Garino & C., 1971, s.p. n. 10, ripr. (La Lettera); 
Cagnaccio di San Pietro 1897-1946, Galleria d'arte Stivani, Bologna, 13 October - 13 November 1973, Bologna 1973, p. 30 (La lettera); 
Cagnaccio di San Pietro, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Il Gabbiano, Rome 23 March – 13 April 1974, Rome 1974, n. 6 (La lettera); 
Enrico Badellino, Repertorio bio – bibliografico: artisti, compagni di strada, esposizioni, riviste, in Realismo magico: pittura e scultura in Italia, 1919-1925, exhibition curated by Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco, Milan, Palazzo Reale 16 February – 2 April 1989, Mazzotta editore, Milan 1989 p. 292;  
Rosalinda Collu, Cronologia, in Cagnaccio di San Pietro, exhibition curated by Claudia Gian Ferrari, 24 May – 22 July Electa editore, Milan  1989, p. 77; 
Giuseppina Dal Canton, La Cultura figurativa di Cagnaccio, in Cagnaccio di San Pietro, exhibition catalogue, 20 April – 30 June 1991, Venice, Museo Correr, Electa editore, Milan 1991, pp. 19-39, esp. p. 23 (as Primavera)


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