Red chalk and oil paint, on paper.
198 x 160mm. (7¾ x 6¼ in.)
Carlo Cignani is said to have held a position in Bologna, his native city, akin to that of Maratta in Rome. Born into a noble family, his biographer Giovan Pietro Zanotti declared that Cignani worked for glory, not for need. During his training, Cignani had become a favourite of Francesco Albani, whose classicism he absorbed. At the age of thirty, he was commissioned to paint two frescoes with scenes from the history of the Farnese family, in the Sala Farnese of the Palazzo Communale in Bologna. His links to the Farnese family continued when he went to Rome in the entourage of Cardinal Girolamo Farnese. One of his first commissions there was to paint two monumental frescoes in the apse of S. Andrea delle Valle, thereby completing a series of scenes from the life of St. Andrew which had been begun by Mattia Preti.
Although it might be imagined that Rome would affect his style, Cignani continued to approach his art with a delicate and sensual style and he was considered by contemporaries as Correggio’s most brilliant interpreter.
On returning to Bologna, Cignani’s studio was besieged with commissions and he began to employ a large team of assistants, amongst whom Marcantonio Franceschini was the most relied upon. Further work for the Farnese family included a fresco cycle for the Palazzo del Giardino at Parma, to complete the decorations which had been begun by Agostino Carracci. This project is considered the finest manifestation of Bolognese classicism in the second half of the 17th century. In 1663, Cignani began work in the cupola of the chapel of the Madonna del Fuoco in Forli cathedral, a huge Assumption of the Virgin conceived of as an act of homage to Correggio. He spent two decades working on this project and became known as a fanatical perfectionist and a very slow worker. When the Accademia Clementina, Bologna’s first municipal art academy, was founded in 1709, Cignani was made Principe perpetuo – director for life. Much of his later work had to be delegated to assistants and a list of his recorded pupils numbers sixty-four.1
The naturalistic gesture of this woman turning her head away from her right hand, upon which, it seems to have been resting, strongly suggests that this is a study from life; she appears to be answering someone standing beside her as she lies amongst drapery. Drawn with great fluidity in thin oils it is also a study of light as it falls on skin and highlights the features of an upturned face. Not surprisingly, as a spontaneous sketch from life, it has not been possible to connect the figure to a painting although it is very similar in type to a number of female nudes in Cignani’s frescoes, such as the female allegorical figure amongst clouds in an oval in the Palazzo Davia Garagnani2.
- See M. Oretti, Bologna, Bib. Com, B.129, viii., fols 225-61, cited by Dwight C. Miller in his biography of Cignani in the Dictionary of Art, edited by Jane Turner.
2. See Renato Roli, Pittura Bolognese 1650-1800 Dal Cignani ai Gandolfi, Bologna 1977, fig. 3a.