The Adoration of the Magic by Giovanni Bernardo Carbone, a genius between Van Dyck and Stomer

The Adoration of the Magi is one of the masterpieces of Giovanni Bernardo Carbone (Genoa, 1614 – 1683), a Genoese painter who looked north: the work, preserved in the Museo dell’Accademia Ligustica, moves between the Flemish Antoon van Dyck and Dutch Matthias Stomer.

In the large team of artists who gave life and form to the Genoese Baroque, one of the most hidden positions today, although it should not have been so in its time, is the one occupied by Giovanni Bernardo Carbone , an artist best known for his activity as a portrait artist, which earned him great honors in mid-seventeenth-century Genoa, and which, of course, given the proper proportions, represented a kind of alternative to Van Dyk’s spectacular portraits. “What can I say I should not,” wrote Carlo Giuseppe Ratti in his The story of Ligurian painters, sculptors and architects, “By the famous Gianbernardo Carbone, who with his beautiful portraits, however, makes even the curator misunderstand, judging them by Vandych”. Of course, he was perhaps a little exaggerated when he claimed that Carbone’s portraits could be confused with works by Van Dyck, but what is certain is that the Genoese’s activity helped to ensure that the model of the great Flemish master beyond of course that of Rubens, whom Carbone had also looked at, it remained for almost the whole century to remain the favorite of the Genoese aristocracy, who wished to retain the image of themselves.

However, it would be limiting to tighten the circle around Carbone’s business in such a clear way as the Genoese could try, and with results of considerable quality, also in other genres: Ratti states that Carbone, who came from a wealthy family, as soon as he decided to start his own career as a painter, he began with “works of historical or fabled subjects, of which he had much praise for the correct distribution of the figures, indeed for their natural movements”. Nor was there a significant religious vein missing from his curriculum that might find its peak in St. Louis of the Vastato Basilica, while the certainly less scenographic one is another altarpiece quoted by ancient sources, Visit painted for the church of San Francesco in Lerici, where it is still admired today. Other achievements reached what is perhaps his most important masterpiece in production destined for private devotion, theWorship of Magic kept at the Museum of the Ligustica Academy of Fine Arts in Genoa, which is certainly to be counted among the “some of his tables showing how worthy he was of a follower of the distinguished Vandyk,” which Ratti spoke of, and that “in private houses are still preserved “. In fact, we do not know the history of painting until 1851, when the canvas reached the Academy with the Monticelli Scholarship. And the attribution to Carbone is more recent: Until 1989, the work languished in a gray anonymity, and this is due to Mary New as the right task for the Genoese painter. Someone in the past has apparently thought of publishing it as Van Dyck’s work, as revealed by the apocryphal initials “AV” that appeared during a recent restoration.

Giovanni Bernardo Carbone, Worship of the Magne (ca. 1665; oil on canvas, 132 x 157 cm; Genoa, Museo dell'Accademia Ligustica)
Giovanni Bernardo Carbone, Worship of Magic (C.1665; oil on canvas, 132 x 157 cm; Genoa, Museo dell’Accademia Ligustica)

The scene painted by Carbone is quite crowded: a virgin with a teenager’s profile sits to the left, holding the baby in her hands, sitting on her knees, trapped while rummaging through the golden cup, as Gaspare, the eldest of three Magi, with his vermilion -coat, brightly colored blade that enlivens a scene where earth tones dominate, capturing the observer’s attention and conveying it towards the center of the composition. Behind him stands the figure of Belshazzar, the young dark-haired man, also with a cup in his hand, wrapped in a white cloak tied as best he can to his chest, and further back stands Melchior, the middle-aged man to whom he leans. to observe the scene and to sacrifice his gift, the little balm of incense which he holds tightly in his hands. Other figures appear behind them, we see, for example, Saint Joseph in front of Melchior, while an orange curtain, hooked to the bottom of the pillar, which we observe to the left, opens to reveal a glimpse of the landscape at sunset at the bottom.

We are facing one of the peaks of Carbone’s production. We are surprised by the setting of the scene, characterized by a happy and engaging narrativism, the play of irony (we observe the Madonna’s dress, Baldassarre’s sleeve with the light that brings out the green velvet in the elbow fold, or the sleeve of Gaspare), the precision in characterizing the faces, typically for the rest of a portrait. In his monograph on Carbone, Daniele Sanguineti described it as a work “of astonishing quality for the skill in the realistic execution of the details, such as the jewels of the stomachs and the chiseled cups containing the gifts, and for the deep accuracy lenticularly assigned to the heads of the characters” a canvas that is able to show “the taste of a refined and skilled painter who modulates the image paste with endless variations now to create a lean background layer now to give compact brightness to complexion (from the moon of Virgo to the of Baldassarre’s ebony) and then illuminate the curtain with precious and mixed iridescent effects, as luminous and rich as in a painting by Bernardo Strozzi ”.

Sanguineti also suggested placing the painting in a period close to the altarpiece by Madonna della Misericordia made in 1665 for the parish church of Celle Ligure: The similar rendering of the Virgin and Child made the scholar imagine a dating back to that year. . As for the figurative sources, references to Worship by Rubens preserved in Sint-Janskerk in Mechelen and in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. For the dark magician, it is impossible not to think of the great portrait of Elena Grimaldi, a Van Dyck masterpiece in which the noblewoman is accompanied by a dark-skinned servant who protects her from the sun with an umbrella. However, we could assume a much more precise precedent for Carbone’s canvas: it isWorship of Magic by Matthias Stomer today at the National Museum in Stockholm, where it entered in 1914 as a gift from the noble Adolf Tersmeden. A variant is known which can be found at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, but the Swedish is a decidedly more precise reference for Carbone, which faithfully reproduces the compositional idea and the line-up of the characters: two diagonal lines converging towards the eyes of the Virgin, and on which there are placed the figures of Gaspar and the Child, in the bottom line, and those of Melchior, Baldassarre, and St. Joseph in the top line. Carbone introduces a variant by moving the supposed father of Christ close to the two spells, thus leaving space over the Madonna without figures and replacing St. Joseph with the curtain. Stom, on the other hand, had certainly looked at Rubens, but also atWorship of Magic by Hendrick ter Brugghen from 1619, today at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and above all that of Theodoor van Loon today at the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna (curious to note how the child in both of these canvases finds himself rooted in Gaspar’s cup: the previous is Rubens of Mechelen).

Carbone looks at Stomer’s precedent, adjusts it, updates it (the painter from Amersfoort was probably painted in Naples in the 1930s) and rereads it according to his sensitivity, but a revival that seems to reveal an accurate knowledge of painting brings us back to the theme for Stomer’s collection in Genoa, a city where passages by the Dutch are not recorded, at least as far as we know, but which at least were not impenetrable to the suggestions that came from his brush, which Antonio Gesino has richly demonstrated in the essay written for the exhibition catalog Caravaggio and the Genoese held in 2019 at the Palazzo della Meridiana. The presence of Stomer’s works in the collections of the Genoese nobles, especially those from the Palermo period, “should not be surprising”, Gesino wrote: “The economic interests of Ligurian families in Sicily were many and remarkable”. We do not know the passages thatWorship of Stomer he met before ending in Baron Tersmeden’s collection. But given it almost overlaps with the magnificent Worship of Carbone, it would not be surprising even to eventually discover that Stomer’s work was in Genoa at a time when Carbone was able to see it.

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Federico Giannini

The author of this article: Federico Giannini

Art journalist, born in Massa in 1986, graduated in Pisa in 2010. I founded Windows on Art with Ilaria Baratta. In addition to these pages, I write about Art and dossier come on Left. Follow me on Twitter:

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