(Naples, ca. 1722 – Rome 1770)
The Monk, the Maiden, and the Novice
Oil on canvas
24⅜ x 29⅛ inches
(62 x 74 cm)
Bence Collection, Uruguay (from the 1920s); thence by family descent until 2015
The secular paintings of Gaspare Traversi are extraordinary depictions of Italian society, treating all classes, seen through the ironic, at times acerbic eye, of a master story-teller. Scenes from everyday life are transformed into high drama in paintings that can be at once moralistic, tragic, tender, or comical. The present work is a newly discovered painting by the artist, one that has survived in spectacular condition, and in its original frame.
In it we see three figures in an intriguing dramatic triangle. A bearded monk is lecturing a beautiful maiden as she tentatively holds, and he forcefully points to, a small painting of the Madonna and Child. We are clearly witnessing a lesson in moral behavior as the girl contritely bows her head and modestly covers her bodice with a shawl. At the left a young novice shyly peers out at the viewer. We are left to provide the backstory to this intimate scene, but the exchange and avoidance of glances among the protagonists suggests that whatever transgression the maiden has committed, she had done so with the complicity of the young monk.
Prof. Nicola Spinosa, who has examined the present painting at first hand, has written of it (Naples, July 31, 2016):
This painting, unpublished and in excellent state, depicts a scene of religious devotion among everyday working-class society within the poorest neighborhoods of Naples and Rome in the middle of the eighteenth century: the port zone, Borgo Vergini, and the Rione Sanità in Naples, and the quarter of Trastevere in Rome. A Capuchin monk, bald and with a long reddish brown beard, accompanied by a young and distracted novice, shows to a beautiful, elegantly attired young woman a picture of the Madonna and Child –specifically, the “Madonna delle Grazie” (Our Lady of Graces)– an especially venerated popular devotional image. He is perhaps attempting to persuade her to seek redemption from her sins and to forsake material temptations --possibly those that come from the sad profession of prostitution to which she may have been driven by the pressures of poverty.
By its style and forceful naturalism, the present canvas is without question a work by the Neapolitan painter Gaspare Traversi, whose work was shaped from an early age by the examples of Francesco Solimena and Giuseppe Bonito, and who became a student and imitator of the latter around 1730. Traversi’s earliest documented independent works, of religious subjects destined for ecclesiastic settings, date from 1749 (Church of Santa Maria dell’Aiuto, Naples), but he had already been occupied with depicting genre scenes, with subjects similar to those painted with great success by Bonito between the years 1735 and 1740.
Across the long arc of his career, Traversi painted scenes and events from everyday life, populated by the humble, derelict, and socially marginalized populace; or the local rich and emerging middle-class, depicting them much as they were in contemporary popular theater (the so-called “commedia dell’arte”). Figures of bourgeois origin were portrayed dressed and with the manners of the mid-century aristocracy --with satirical, humorous, and moralizing intent, but with, as in the painting under discussion, human understanding and a kind of conspiratorial sympathy.
From this moment in Traversi’s career in Naples, between the years 1747 and 1752, just prior to his move to Rome, belong a series of paintings with depictions of seduction scenes, marriage contracts, popular games and dances – as well as subjects, like the earlier works of Giuseppe Bonito, of old beggars, school-masters, seamstresses with their young students, apprentices, performers of various musical instruments, or parlor recitals at the piano, spinet or bass viol. In these paintings, today in public and private collections in Italy and abroad, Traversi captures and records diverse aspects of contemporary society, but with a subtle critical eye, an ethical rigor and with a visual intensity not found in the earlier treatments of similar subjects by Giuseppe Bonito. Particularly for this reason, Traversi’s paintings were not well received by Neapolitan patrons, forcing the painter to move to the Trastevere section of Rome sometime before 1752, where he received the support of the Capuchin friars that he knew and that he had earlier worked with in Naples.
The painting under study, clearly depicting a Capuchin monk with his young assistant, is an important document that confirms how strong the long-term bonds were, largely for reasons of patronage, between the painter and the Capuchins of the Franciscan Order. (In a painting, 101.5 x 76.5 cm, now in the collection of the Cassa di Risparmio of Pesaro, Traversi depicts as well an elderly Capuchin with a novice.) Both in Naples and immediately following his move to Rome, Traversi had painted for the Capuchins biblical subjects (Rome, Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mure, formerly in a Capuchin church in Trastevere), as well as portraits of celebrated members of the Order, known to him both before and after his arrival in Rome: Padre Gaetano Politi da Laurino (Milan, formerly Art Market), Padre Gherardo degli Angeli (Private Collection), and Padre Raffaello Rossi da Lugugnano, the Vicar and later General Minister of the Order (Mentana, formerly Federico Zeri Collection; Rome, Convent of San Francesco a Ripa).
Among other works in 1753 Padre Rossi had commissioned from Traversi the sizeable and important cycle of religious canvases painted for the Collegiata of Castell’Arquato, near Parma, today divided between the Cathedral and Church of San Pietro d’Alcantara in Parma, the Museum of the Collegiata di Castell’Arquato, and the Church of San Rocco in Borgo Val di Taro.
It follows that the present painting, datable around 1750, not only serves as a clear testimony of the relationship already established in Naples between Traversi and the Franciscan Order, but is a notable addition to the catalogue of his known paintings.
For the paintings by Traversi painted between Naples and Rome cited above, and for other aspects of his career, see the exhibition catalogue Gaspare Traversi. Napoletani del ‘700 tra miseria e nobiltà, ed. by N. Spinosa; Napoli, Castel Sant’Elmo: 13 dicembre 2003 – 14 marzo 2004; Electa Napoli Editrice, Napoli 2003.