Allegory of Music
Oil on canvas
78 ¾ x 57 ⅛ inches
(200 x 145 cm)
Probably Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence
Private collection, Zurich
Private Collection, London
Francesco Berti, “Francesco Conti artista dei marchesi Riccardi,” in Stanze segrete: gli artisti dei Riccardi: i "ricordi" di Luca Giordano e oltre, ed. Cristina Giannini and Silvia Meloni Trkulja, exhibition catalogue (Florence 2005), pp. 144, 147, fig. 91.
Marco Ciampolini in Diciotto Dipinti Antichi, exhibition catalogue, Luigi Diciotto Gallery, Piacenza (Rimini 2005), no. 18.
Federico Berti, Francesco Conti (Florence 2010) pp. 42-3, 122-123, 118, 120, 124, 204, 274-5, no. 14.
Federico Berti in Maestri della pittura toscana, exhibition catalogue, ed. Emanuele Piacenti and Leonardo Piacenti, Piacenti Art Gallery (Florence 2006), pp. 38-43.
Sandro Bellesi, Catalogo dei pittori fiorentini del ‘600 e ‘700: Biografie e Opere (Florence 2009), vol. 1, p. 114, vol. 2, p. 167, fig. 342.
This monumental and fluidly painted work is a rare profane subject by the late Baroque painter Francesco Conti. Born in Florence in 1681, Conti trained in the workshop of Simone Pignoni in his native city before moving to Rome, where he studied under Carlo Maratti and Giovanni Maria Morandi. Conti was one of the last great proponents of the Florentine Baroque, best known for his small devotional works and larger altarpieces still present in many Tuscan churches. Upon his return to Florence, Conti became the principal painter to the Riccardi family, producing many religious paintings, as well as a series of allegories for a ceiling in the Palazzo Gaulfonda, for his patrons. Although the original destination of this painting is unknown, it is enticing to speculate that it might have been commissioned by the Riccardi, as the large scale suggests that it almost certainly adorned the walls of a noble family’s private palazzo.
Mina Gregori has called this Allegory of Music the masterpiece of Francesco Conti’s secular work. In this lighthearted scene, the elegant woman playing lute) takes center stage. A putto hovers above, about to place a crown of laurels on her head, while another stands beside her, holding a sheet of music. In the foreground, a bearded man is shown in profile and seated on a stump. He holds a wind instrument in his hands, which he is about to raise to his lips, joining her in play. Nearby, a bagpipe rests on the ground with one of its pipes leaning cleverly against the vertical edge of the frame.
The subject of the painting clearly refers to the paragone between string and wind instruments, with the former being prized over the latter. String instruments were commonly associated with rationality and purity, and wind instruments with irrationality and lowliness. Conti’s expresses this dichotomy through the roughness of the male figure, partially cast in shadow, as compared to the elegance of the female figure who, bathed in light, looks down at her unworthy competitor. This hierarchy of instruments can be traced back to antiquity, particularly in the story of Apollo and the satyr Marsyas, who challenged the Greek god to a musical dual, pitting his reeds against Apollo’s strings, and was ultimately defeated --flayed alive for his hubris. This classical tale was a frequent subject in Italian painting and might have served as a source of inspiration for Conti’s painting. Indeed, the solitary bagpipes, an instrument commonly associated with Marsyas, at right may be a direct reference to this episode.
Conti’s Allegory of Music is a work of high quality, distinguished by its vigorous and expressive brushwork, as well as the freshness of the color throughout. Particularly striking are the dense, parallel brushstrokes invigorate the handling of the flesh of the putti and the man, achieving a remarkable vibrancy and chromatic range. The thick, freely painted brushstrokes used to create the female figure’s angular and rigid drapery are equally appealing. Conti’s achievement as a colorist is also apparent in the soft pinks of the putti’s wings and in the overall harmony of the palate in this work. Francesco Berti has described the face of the female figure as one of the most beautiful feminine visages by Conti. This figure finds an interesting comparison in the Girl Playing a Mandolin (Art Market, New York), as the girl similarly displays an elaborate coiffure and sculptural decoration in her dress.
Marco Ciampolini has dated the present work to the second decade of the 18th century based on a comparison with Conti’s Adoration of the Magi of 1716. Francesco Berti has noted that the Allegory of Music is closest in style and composition to the Delivery of the Keys to Saint Peter, which dates from 1713, suggesting the Allegory must have been painted around this time. Furthermore, both Ciampolini and Berti have emphasized that the present work, with its intense focus on the figures and the inclusion of nature only as secondary elements, intentionally reflects the sensibilities of the Florentine Cinquecento and the beginnings of Mannerism, a trend that is widely observed in Conti’s works.
 Mina Gregori, written communication, November 24, 2004. ‘deve considerarsi il capolavoro dell’attività profana di Francesco Conti’.
 Berti 2010, p. 42. ‘il volto della figura femminile…è tra i più beli che si conosca del nostro pittore’.
 Berti 2010, p. 42.
 Francesco Berti, “Il recupero della tradizione Fiorentina nella pittura di Francesco Conti,” in Paragone, 579, n. 19, 1998, pp. 30-42; Ciampolini 2015.