An authoritative voice that of Antonio Pellegrini, who achieved widespread European fame from the very beginning, with registers of style that amaze with ideas, solutions for large decorative parties and full adherence to Rococo exuberance.
He is the author of the painting, which goes hand in hand, due to its scathing style and almost identical dimensions, with the Encounter with the Queen we talked about some time ago1.
The subject, however, is not easy to unravel. The scene takes place in a camp: the weapons and the insignia leave no doubt. The main figure, seated, peremptorily points to another, who could be a surrendered king, since he seems to see his crown on the ground. Just a golden flicker of the brush.
There is excitement all around, as if Pellegrini wanted to bring into play the most fascinating aspects of that story animated by passion.
Therefore the gaze is kept in a state of constant mobilization, inside that improvised place resulting from illusion, and it is precisely the theatrical conception of the action that asks to be experienced or even recited, almost as if it were a musical opera by Scarlatti or Handel . In short, an integrated vision of the painted theater with which we can imagine the artist’s successful future.
We could think of the meeting of Alessandro and Poro, a theme that was dear to Antonio Pellegrini for having replicated it several times.
We are following the story of the battle of Hydaspes, in the places of ancient India, the kingdom of Porus, which resisted the Macedonian advance.
Alexander wants to overcome the tenacity of the valiant enemy, who is hit when he slips from the elephant. This episode ended the battle, as Alexander, believing his rival dead, ordered his men to strip his body. Some rushed to take off its armor and clothing, but the animal began to protect its owner and attack those who tried to strip it; he lifted the body with his trunk and placed it again on his back.
Alexander, moved, spared the life of Porus who, when asked how he wanted to be treated, replied “as a king”.
The situation could adapt to the scene of the painting, but the absence of the elephant, which generally accompanies the main subject, must be noted.
Another possibility could come from the stormy meeting between Achilles and Agamemnon during the Trojan War.
The warrior asks the king to free the slave Chryseis, since her kidnapping had irritated Apollo who had sent the plague among the Greeks.
Then Agamemnon asks for another slave in exchange, in this case also that of Achilles, who, seized by a fit of anger, threatens his king, to the point of hitting him if the goddess Athena had not intervened to restrain him.
The strongest temptation, however, comes from the characters Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, and Demetrius, king of Macedonia.
He ascended the throne after killing Alexander and therefore wants to invade Asia, but Pyrrhus manages to chase him away.
Antonio Pellegrini with Marco Ricci, nephew of the great painter Sebastiano, had been in partnership for some time and therefore we find them busy in London designing the sets for Pirro e Demetrio in the spring of 1709. The opera was on the bill at the Queen’s Theater in the Haymarket.
It must have been truly surprising to take part in those shows full of scenographic tricks, in which the professionalism of the performers very often got out of hand when singing and acting in different languages, as had happened in Alessandro Scarlatti’s opera.
Living creatures and things came to life, breathed together, finding in movement, light and sound elements capable of projecting them into space beyond the sensorial limit of form, leaving one astonished.
This kind of staging with its special effects, that restless and picturesque happiness that naturally came from Italian sensibility, seemed to find a happy consonance in Pellegrini’s creativity, which we would like to also apply to the theatrical purpose of this model of ours. Charles Montagu, Earl of Manchester, during the diplomatic visit to Venice of just over a year, from June 1707, encouraged the artist to leave for London, the first trip which led the master to try his hand at theatrical scenography, fresco painting, in historical paintings and also in portraits.
Antonio Pellegrini could not yet imagine that he would be capable of conquering many European cities in his wanderings, a hero of the Rococo style who knew how to play with his own skill and with supreme disdain; here we find it ready not so much in the intimate poetry, which we would expect from a small painting, but in the free – unmistakable – brushstrokes with which we enjoy the privilege of summarizing a manner that, from solid and pictorial at the beginning, reaches the freedom of the drafting.
We want to trace the painting back to this first English experience, as George Knox2 taught us, as an example of the high-class circuits in which Pellegrini immediately entered: Burlington House in Piccadilly, Montagu House in Arlington Street, Portland House in St. James Square, and the country houses, Castle Howard in Yorkshire and Castle Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire.
Antonio and Angela Pellegrini, sister of the renowned painter Rosalba, arrived in London at the end of 1708; the stay lasted about four years, when in the summer of 1713 they headed for Düsseldorf.
It all began in the summer of 1702, when Pellegrini had completed the frescoed ceiling in the library of the convent of the Saint in Padua.
The artist is less than thirty years old and, for the happiness of the invention, the work can compete with the chapel painted by Sebastiano Ricci in the nearby church of Santa Giustina, among other things in the city of origin of the Pellegrini family.
The two artists seem to be united by the courage to travel: Sebastiano Ricci has already worked in Bologna, Parma, Piacenza, Milan and Rome, while Antonio Pellegrini, very young, follows the Lombard master Paolo Pagani to Vienna and Moravia between 1690 and 1696, acquiring the technical background that prepares him for the fresco.
He doesn’t have time to go to Rome for a year to improve his experience, when Vincenzo Coronelli, as general of the Order, sends him to work in the Padua convent. While publishing his Library of Universal Knowledge, the influential friar was looking for a painter who knew how to appropriately interpret those symbols in one of the most qualified libraries of the time.
In January 1704, Pellegrini had married Angela, the sister of Rosalba Carriera, with whom the family always remained close and, even if the two painters were distant, one certainly supported the other especially with international relations.
The debut at the court of Düsseldorf had been dazzling for Pellegrini, as those qualities of quick application combined with good taste had been sensed in the painter in the speed with which he had completed in a few days the Saint Sebastian curated by Irene (Würzburg, Staatsgalerie) presented to Johann Wilhelm von der Pfalz as a demonstrative essay.
Dying two years later, the prince did not long enjoy the subsequent great decorations completed in 1714, which in themselves represent one of the fundamental chapters of the industriousness of the Venetian masters in Germany.
Antonio Pellegrini, immediately after the death of the Elector Palatine, went to Antwerp and then to The Hague. Later in Paris and Dresden.
Finally, when the Pellegrinis returned to Venice in 1721, they rented a new home to the noble Vincenzo Pisani in Campo Santo Stefano. Beautiful position that was worth one hundred and seventy-four ducats a year, while previously they paid ninety to Lodovico Widmann in the more secluded neighborhood of Santa Maria Mater Domini.
All is well, one might say; in Pietro Guarienti’s update to the pictorial Abecedario, 1753, therefore approximately twelve years after Pellegrini’s death, there is a clear reference to the “faculties collected … the reward of his virtuous labours” during his long journeys in Germany and France and England, as well as his collection of paintings later sold by Angela Carriera to the Englishman Joseph Smith.
There were the famous paintings by Vermeer, the Woman at the Spinet, and by Rubens, Aeneas, and another path was taken by the four youthful views of Canaletto which, alone, proved one of those rare recognitions of mutual merits between contemporary artists.
In this case the interest in the first results of a recognized promise.
1. Bozzetti, modelli e piccoli dipinti del Sei e Settecento veneto, a cura di F. Magani, Padova 2008, pp.22-25.
2. G. Knox, Antonio Pellegrini 1675-1741, Oxford 1995.