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Art quotes itself

12 January 2017

The Amorino dormiente by Caravaggio: when a masterpiece becomes a symbol of prestige

Today we are revealing a curious anecdote about the circularity of art, of which Florence offers many evidences. We are going to discuss the relationship between the unusual and famous Amorino dormiente  by Caravaggio and the fresco decoration of one of the most special buildings in the city, Palazzo dell'Antella in Piazza Santa Croce.

In fact, few people know that on its colorful facade, among other decorations painted by Giovanni da San Giovanni and his collaborators, including allegories, virtues and plant arabesques, the building hides a tribute to Caravaggio, precisely the Amorino dormiente, a work of the great artist now preserved in the Galleria Palatina of Palazzo Pitti. To be exact, the curious quotation is found in the fourth frame from the left.

But how and for what events the Amorino dormiente came in contact with one of the rare surviving examples of monumental facade decorated with frescoes in Florence?

Here's the story.

The painting was commissioned to Caravaggio by the aristocratic Francesco dell'Antella, who worked at the service of Grand Duke Cosimo II.
This original and unusual version of the Amorino dormiente, was brought to Florence in 1609 by Niccolò dell'Antella, brother of Francesco and, as usual for the Caravaggio works, it immediately created a sensation, especially for the unprejudiced realism and the unprecedented iconographic representation of the subject: the dark background, typical of the artist, a warm and clear beam of light reveals the cupid lying naked and asleep, with strong light and shadow contrasts. The child, overcome by a deep sleep, lies still holding a bow and arrow, using the quiver as a pillow.
An extreme naturalistic realism reveals a gloomy complexion, that the artist should have copied from a dead child. The stark and provocative truth, albeit mitigated by the mythological attributes of the character (wings, bow and quiver with arrows), remains far from the usual iconography of a plump and cheerful Cupid, revealing instead a dramatic contemporary message, attributed to the artist's personal story (the painting was in fact executed in 1608 in Malta, where Caravaggio took refuge to escape the death sentence for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni).

The palace, as we see it today, is the result of repeated architectural interventions, that led to unite under one single structure several adjacent houses with progressive consolidations.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, architect Giulio Parigi, while maintaining the long stone jut facade, applied an ingenious architectural solution aimed at enhancing the effect of perspective wing of the building, in a game of scenic connections between the square and the basilica in the background: as you get closer to Santa Croce, the windows are progressively closer together to give the illusion of greater impressiveness of the building.

So it was that, in the celebratory program that characterized the restyling of the building, aiming at exalting the glories and virtues of dell'Antella family, according to the typical use of the aristocratic families of the time, found its space the original and valuable frescoed quotation of the Caravaggio’s Amorino dormiente, a prestigious property of the family collections.

Other curious peculiarities boasted by this palace will be discuss later...