The Italian painter Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749) is best known for his scenes of disembodied, flamelike figures in stormy landscapes or cavernous interiors and for the vitality of his nervous, open brushwork.
Alessandro Magnasco, called Lisandrino, was born in Genoa. His father, Stefano, also a painter, died when Alessandro was young, leaving his family in poverty. His mother remarried, and Alessandro's position in the new family seems to have been precarious. When he was about 10 years old, he was sent off to Milan in the care of a merchant of that city. His new guardian arranged for him to be trained as a painter in the workship of Filippo Abbiati.
Magnasco learned rapidly. His first independent work was in portraiture, but he made his reputation with the landscape and genre paintings for which he is famous today. He painted them for private patrons. A marked increase in the size and secular orientation of the middle class in northern Italy during the first part of the 18th century made it possible for him to sell enough not merely to survive but even to become well-to-do without painting either frescoes or altarpieces.
Having found an appreciative audience in Milan, Magnasco stayed there most of his life, but at heart he was Genoese. In Florence, where he worked for the Medici (ca. 1709-1711), he married a Genoese girl. In 1735, when he was an old man, he moved back to the city he had had to leave as a child. He found that the Genoese did not care much for his radical new style. Besides, palsy made it harder and harder for him to hold a brush. Not long after he arrived he stopped painting altogether. On March 12, 1749, he died.
Magnasco's manner is Genoese. This painterly technique, in which loose, free brushwork becomes a major vehicle of expression, was brought to Genoa (via Venice) by Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck and flowered in the work of such masters as Bernardo Strozzi, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, and Valerio Castello (the teacher of Magnasco's father). It reached its fullest fruition with Magnasco.
Friars by a Stormy Sea exemplifies Magnasco's landscapes. A ruined tower against the darkening sky reminds us of the romantic landscapes of Salvator Rosa. But nothing in Rosa prepares us for waves so wild they seem about to tear off sections of the shore and pull them into the sea. Amplification comes from interaction, in our own mind, between the movement of the wave and the signs of how the painter's hand moved when he painted it: strong staccato strokes slashed one beside another, all sweeping the same way, like the water. The little figures in the landscape are minor accents, signposts of impotence.
In Magnasco's Synagogue it is the background that is neutral and the figures that provide the fire. The figures, wrote Carlo Giuseppe Ratti (1759), who had known Magnasco well, "are painted with rapid, seemingly careless, but telling strokes, that are strewn about with a certain bravura that cannot be imagined by those who have not seen it." The people who populate Magnasco's synagogue are fragile, weightless, ghostlike. They are composed of short nervous strokes that combine into zigzags and corkscrew patterns. These in turn set up an overall agitation. Whether these disturbed visions, and the many other canvases like them, were painted by Magnasco as quaint decorations (bizarie some of his contemporaries called them) or as mystical affirmations or as savage satires, no one now knows.
Further Reading on Alessandro Magnasco
The standard work on Magnasco, lavishly illustrated but with an Italian text, is Benno Geiger, Alessandro Magnasco (1949). An abridged English translation of Carlo Giuseppe Ratti's "Life of Magnasco" (1759) appears in Robert Enggass and Jonathan Brown, Italy and Spain, 1600-1750: Sources and Documents (1970). See also Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750 (1958; 2d rev. ed. 1965), and Mario Monteverdi, Italian Art to 1850 (1965).