Jean - Luc Baroni Ltd

Antonio Mancini


Antonio Mancini

Rome 1852 - 1930

Portrait of the painter Giovanni Trussardi Volpi




Oil on unlined canvas. Labels of the Lovere and Naples exhibitions on the stretcher.
60 x 100 cm (23 x 39 in.)

Provenance: Private collection, Milan; Private collection, Naples.

Exhibited: Lovere, Accademia Tadini, Antonio Mancini (1852-1930), Il collezionismo del suo tempo in Lom- bardia, 1997; Modena, Palazzo Cremonini, Raccolta di dipinti e sculture dell’Ottocento e del primo Novecen- to, 2006; Naples, Galleria Vincent, Novecento, 2010.

Literature: D. Di Giacomo, Antonio Mancini: la luce e il colore, Pescara 2015, pl.LXIX, p.115.

Although critics have tended to set the painter Antonio Mancini in the context of Neapolitan Verismo of the end of the nineteenth century, from the moment of his debut at the Salon of Paris in 1872, his work actually belonged to the wider culture of European art.

Mancini’s life was rich in events that have become almost legendary. He was born in November 1852 to a lower-class tailor, in the outskirts of Rome, in Via dei Pianellari, and was baptised in St. Augustine’s Church. At the age of thirteen, being a precocious talent, he was enrolled by his parents at the Institute of Fine Arts of Naples, where Domenico Morelli, nicknamed the despot, and Giuseppe Palizzi, were teachers. The story goes that Morelli once declared of Antonio, whom he called Totonno, A stu guaglione io nun aggio cchiù niente da ’mparà (I have nothing more to teach this youngster).1

Here Antonio Mancini associated with Vincenzo Gemito, who was the same age, and also with Francesco Paolo Michetti. Mancini’s training indeed took place in the context of Neapolitan Verism, and he received considerable praise from painters such as Giuseppe De Nittis, Michele Cammarano and Mariano Fortuny, and showed, in the opinion of some critics, a certain receptiveness, in this early stage, to the delicate work of Gioacchino Toma; but, early on, there began to appear in Mancini’s paintings the strongly luminist and plastic quality that later became the unmistakable, original mark of his style, and that some critics trace back to the luminism of the seventeenth century. During his first period in Naples, from 1864 to 1873, Mancini produced his first masterpieces: Lo scugnizzo (Terzo comandamento), 1868, Dopo il duello, 1872, Il cantore, 1872, La figlia del mugnaio, 1872-73, Bacco, 1874. In the latter picture, the boy’s powerfully lyrical face emerges from a dark background into the light. This painting is a strong confirmation of Mancini’s ties to the Old Masters and to Caravaggio in particular, but its lyrical luminism is totally modern, without being naturalistic or literary; it is intimately expressive, and touched with melancholy and wonder, the typical moods of adolescence.

The constant themes of Mancini’s poetics already began to appear during this early period: a precocious feeling of the emotional upsets of youth, almost a childhood lost in regret. This appears, for instance, in the superb portrait of a child in Lo studio, ca.1875. Mancini’s deep psychological sensitivity to the sitter, which has, however, led some critics to classify this picture wrongly as genre painting, lumping it with the many contemporary pictures of Neapolitan street urchins and paupers, has never been equalled in European paintings: not even a Lombard (not Neapolitan) painter like Tranquillo Cremona, who, during the same years, portrayed Milanese upper-middle-class young women, for instance in the painting In ascolto, of 1874, reached the level of Mancini, who probably was the greatest Italian portraitist of the last three decades of the century.

Alongside this psychological penetration, another strong theme emerges: that of the characterisation of the indoor scenes by means of the presence of objects that are not decoration, but convey a symbolic connotation, in order to achieve the definition of the sitter. Consider, for instance, the stock character’s costume placed on the table, and the bottles and empty cups on the floor, in Lo scugnizzo (Terzo comandamento); the blood-stained white coat in Dopo il duello; and the seemingly jumbled-up objects in La figlia del mugnaio and Lo scolaro povero, of 1875. Mancini detaches this procedure from Verism, entrusting to objects an important character-building function that will be constantly present in his paintings, including the one we are presenting here, with the bust of a boy, the book the sitter holds, and the sculptures visible in the background.

Mancini, by then, was already a modern painter, bursting out of the nineteenth century and advancing into the twentieth. After nine years in Naples, in 1873 he travelled to Paris for the first time. There he was engaged by Goupil & Compagnie, who assigned him a monthly stipend while giving him freedom in the choice of subjects. This granted him a living while the gallery was able to promote his fame on an international level. Only a year before, in 1874, the first official exhibition of the Impressionists had been held in the photographer Nadar’s studio; others followed in the Durand-Ruel Gallery, in 1876 and 1877. So Mancini had come to Paris in a very eventful period for painting; but he already had his own, completely independent style, and was not influenced by the impact of these novelties.

In Paris, however, he began to show the first symptoms of a nervous depression that later, in certain periods, made it difficult for him to work. He returned to Naples in the grip of nervous fits in which persecution mania and delusion appeared. In 1881 he was sent to the Mental Hospital of the city, from which he was discharged in February 1882, after being declared recovered. During that period he made some portraits of doctors and a great number of self-portraits.

In the same year he moved to Rome, where he was backed first by Marquis Giorgio Capranica Del Grillo, who also partly acted as his art dealer. In a diary from that period, Mancini reported that seeing paintings by Velásquez, Innocent X in the Galleria Doria and the Self-portrait in the Galleria Capitolina, had a deep influence on him2.

In 1885 he met Hendrik Willelm Mesdag, a Dutch banker, painter of seascapes and patron, who began to purchase his paintings, having Mancini send them directly to The Hague, a situation which continued until after 1900. Mesdag presented three works of Mancini’s, La jeune mère, L’enfant de choeur (1872) and Studio di bambina at the Exposition des XX in Brussels. He became a steady point of reference for Mancini, and organised exhibitions of works of his in 1897, 1899 and 19023.

Most of the aristocracy and upper middle class of that period, the artists Thomas Waldo Story, H.T. Abbot, the families Pantaleoni, Almagià, Ambron, Bondi, Volterra, Sonnino, Charles and Mary Hunter, and the American billionaire Isabella Stewart Gardner, became clients of Mancini. Mrs Stewart Gardner, who had come to Rome in 1895 and already owned a work of his, Ciociaretto portastendardo, asked him to paint her portrait.

In 1901 Claude Pensonby, one of Sargent’s friends, invited Mancini to London, where he stayed until 1902. In London Leopold Hirsch asked him to paint a portrait of his wife Mathilde, who at that time was also being portrayed by Sargent. The latter painted the Ritratto di Mancini (1902) now in the Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. During his stay in London, Mancini also painted the portraits of Mr and Mrs Hunter and the Ritratto della signora Wertheimer, wife of the connoisseur and art dealer Asher Wertheimer.

From 1890 onwards, Mancini’s work went through a transformation: the pigment of his colours became increasingly thick, and eventually became a considerably raised surface. During the same years he also began – and he was the only artist to do this in that period – to use a frame with perpendicular threads forming a grid, called a reticolato, similar to the one used by the old masters to reproduce a sketch on a larger scale. Mancini, however, used it for a different purpose: that of creating an actual screen between himself and the surface of his painting, so as to be forced to apply the paint between the squares of the grid, thus obtaining a thick layer of colour on which the perpendicular lines left by the threads of the grid are still visible4. This procedure, which was unknown to all the contemporary painters, anticipated some experiments of pictorial language synthesis carried out later by Cubism and abstract painting.

Among the earliest examples of this technique, are Ciociara che annusa un fiore, later in the Du Chène de Vère collection in Milan, Ritratto di Aurelia Ciommi, 1897, in the Rijksmuseum Van Bilderbeek-Lamaison, Dordrecht, and the portrait of a young woman, ca. 1898, in the Gerrit Van Houten collection in Groningen.

The tendency to apply a thick layer of painting with a spatula rather than a brush reappears also in two horizontal canvases, both of them in the Van Houten collection, that seem to foreshadow the present portrait: Bloemenverkoopster, ca. 1898, and Portret van een vrow, ca. 1898. And the closest antecedent of our Ritratto del pittore Trussardi Volpi (60cm x 100 cm) is an only slightly larger canvas from 1898, La venditrice di frutta (72 cm x 102 cm), formerly owned by Mesdag and now in the Dordrecht Museum.

Giovanni Trussardi  Volpi (1875-1921) was born in Bergamo and had studied in the Accademia Carrara, later enrolling in the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence. He moved to Rome shortly after 1900 and struck up a friendship with Mancini, who became a father figure to him. Mancini portrays him here in his studio with a sculpture of the bust of a boy to the left, reflected by mirrors at the centre of the picture and to the left, an invention that recurs in other paintings of this period.

The structure of the composition, with a half-length figure surrounded by objects (although in this portrait the figure is at the centre and in Venditrice di frutta it is at the right), the same mechanism of light that is projected on the figure and makes it stand out from the background, and the thick, substantial accumulation of paint, suggest that the two pictures may have been made in the same period. Another painting that is close to these two because it shows the same relationship between construction and matter is the portrait Mio padre, 1904, in which the figure however, stands out on a light-coloured background.

Mancini also painted another portrait of Trussardi Volpi, who had been introduced to him by Chène de Vère after the death of Mancini’s father: the face is in three-quarter profile with the same straw hat, but on a light-coloured background (as in the portrait Mio padre, from 1904). Here the light runs opposite to that of our version, which is closer to that of his ‘Flemish-style’ paintings. The latter are all based on the idea that the shapes, immersed in darkness, are revealed by a light that comes from an artificial source rather than a natural one – a typical feature of Caravaggio’s and Rembrandt’s paintings5.

The present Portrait of the painter Trussardi Volpi most likely belongs with the group of portraits executed on a black background, marked by a strongly luminist quality and painted by Mancini chiefly in the years from 1895 to 1905, several of which were purchased by Dutch clients.

Translated from a text by Marco Fagioli

1    105 opere di Antonio Mancini, Mostra commemorativa sotto gli auspici della Reale Accademia d’Italia, nel decennale della morte, Turin, March 1940, p. 6.
2    Antonio Mancini 1852-1930, a cura di Bruno Mantura e Elena di Majo, XXXIV Festival dei Due Mondi, Spoleto, 28 June-1 September 1991, Leonardo-De Luca, Rome, 1991, p. 124.
3    Hanna Pennock, Le opere in Olanda di una “Mente geniale”, in Antonio Mancini 1852-1930, 1991, pp. 13-25.
4    Hanna Pennock, Antonio Mancini en Nederland, Dordrechts Museum, 30 May - 20 July 1987, Enschede-Zonen, Haarlem, 1987, pp. 19-26.
5    Dario Cecchi, Antonio Mancini, Unione Tipografica Editrice Torinese, UTET, Turin, 1966, plate. 43, p. 280.

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