Rome 1852 – 1930
An old man with a pipe, c. 1895
Oil on canvas, 100 x 60 cm
Ink inscription on a label glued to the back of the stretcher frame: 'Maggio 1920/ di proprietà/ Amelia Ambron'; < br > Printed inscription on another label on the back of the stretcher frame: 'ONORANZE NAZIONALI AD ANTONIO MANCINI/ SOTTO L’ALTO PATRONATO DI S.M. IL RE E LA PARTECIPAZIONE DI S. E. MUSSOLINI/ MOSTRA DELLE OPERE DI/ ANTONIO MANCINI/ ORGANIZZATA NELLE SALE DI 'FIAMMA'/ IN ROMA, AL PALAZZO DELL’AUGUSTEO, IN/ VIA DEI PONTEFICI 57/ GIUGNO-LUGLIO 1927/ [a inchiostro] “Il vecchio con la pipa”/ PROPRIETA’ dell’Ing. Com. Aldo Ambron/ SALA IVa/ NUMERO DEL CATALOGO 10 ”
Provenance: Rome, Aldo and Amelia Ambron collection
Rome, Palazzo dell’Augusteo, sale di ‘Fiamma’, Mostra Onoranze Nazionali ad Antonio Mancini, 1927, n. 10, pl. 8
Giovanni Artieri, In memoriam. Antonio Mancini, in «Emporium», vol. LXXIII, n. 433, 1931, ill. p. 64; C. Virno, Antonio Mancini. Catalogo ragionato dell’opera. La pittura ad olio. Vol. I, photo page n. 444.
This painting is neither signed nor dated but, as a hand-written label on the back of the stretcher frame tells us, it once formed part of the collection of Amelia Ambron, in other words Amelia Almagià, Edoardo and Eleonora Almagià’s daughter who married Aldo Ambron in 1902. Young Amelia was a painter herself and became a pupil of Antonio Mancini, who began in the 1890s in Rome to forge ties with some of the city’s ranking Jewish families such as the Almagià, the Volterra and the Bondi, having painted portraits of many of their members (see Dario Cecchi, Antonio Mancini, Turin 1966, pp. 163-164).
The painting under discussion here may be dated to 1895, a date confirmed by Cinzia Virno, the scholar who is currently editing the catalogue raisonné of Mancini’s work.
Man with a Pipe, published in an article written in commemoration of Mancini by Giovanni Artieri in “Emporium” in 1931 following the artist’s death, also shows a certain similarity in its choice of subject, midway between portraiture and genre characterisation, with other paintings focusing on old men (very often the artist’s father) portrayed in various guises as sailors, poulterers, antique dealers or even as a servant holding out a large tray, as in the Portrait of My Father acquired by the Galleria Pesaro di Venezia (Venezia, Museo di Ca’ Pesaro).
In all of these paintings, and also in the picture under discussion here, Mancini’s painting reveals the impression left on the painted surface by what was known as a “graticola” or “grid”. The impression consists of the marks of a string net with larger or smaller holes left by the stretcher frame which the painter placed both in front of the canvas and in front of the model. Woven strings were fixed to these two stretcher frames following the same pattern. The strings that framed the portions of space – the space of the motif “from life” and the blank space of the canvas – served to frame and to visually “capture” the image, so that within the various panels of the “grid” the painter could rapidly assess with his eye the variations and contrasts in light to which he should entrust the modelling of his forms when painting. Mancini began to use this system in the 1890s. The process accompanied a rapid, immediate and “gestural” style of painting, with a thicker layer of paint applied in the areas of maximum light, as in this case on the book open on the old man’s knees and on his forehead, illuminated by an intense, slanting light from above. The paint is applied with intense freedom, some parts more fluid and others where the paint bunches up into flocks, flashes, scrubs and twists of the spatula and is worked into a texture, conveying surprisingly vibrant and realistic relief effects at a distance. Thus certain details, for instance the hand held over the open page of the book in Man with a Pipe, do not appear from close up to have been painted according to any complete anatomical vision, being almost shapeless, yet from far away they communicate a vibrant illusion of bodily reality. The spread of blacks imparting substance and structure to the picture and out of which the old man’s face proudly surfaces, liken the picture, on account of the dominant palette, to portraits such as that of Signora Pantaleoni dated 1894, or that of Otto Messinger dated 1909, both now in the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome. But – and this is less visible in those two works – in our painting Mancini interacts, thanks to his highly original painting technique, with the memory of the great painting of the past: the man of the people with his proud gaze in Man with a Pipe bears a remarkable resemblance to the nobility of a 17th century prophet, for example Spanish artist José de Ribera’s (1591–1652) Elijah. We should also remember how the illusive truth of the pope’s hands in Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Galleria Palatina in Florence was profoundly meditated on in the course of lengthy observation by Mancini, who sought in the extreme freedom of his brushwork to recreate the complexity of the chromatic and painterly fabric that he so admired in the old masters.
The picture was shown in 1927 at a major exhibition held at the Augusteo in Rome, promoted by «La Fiamma» magazine to celebrate the painter’s 75th birthday. On that occasion fully sixty of his works were on display, including drawings, pastels and caprices on plates and tiles. The memory of the event is preserved not only in Gemma Ambrogetti’s article Un grande artista romano. Antonio Mancini in «Capitolium» (1927, vol. III, pp. 461-462) mentioned above, but also in the favourable reviews of Corrado Pavolini (Le onoranze ad Antonio Mancini, «Il Tevere», 13 June 1927) and of Cipriano Efisio Oppo (Le onoranze ad Antonio Mancini, «La Tribuna», 14 June 1927), Efisio telling us that he took “pleasure in discovering the profound logic underpinning the whole of Mancini’s work». The 1927 exhibition marked the crowning moment in a series of moments of recognition for the ageing artist in the national art system, after he had already achieved immense international success in the first decade of the 20th century. Thus Mancini’s profile was at once that of one of the Italian artists in the 19th century tradition most sought-after by the market, and that of an artist almost universally appreciated by the critics, who devoted successive in-depth studies to his work – from Guido Guida, Saverio Kambo and Guido Marangoni to Ugo Ojetti, despite a number of reservations on the latter’s part, and he even earned the appreciation of Ardengo Soffici, who said in 1923 that Mancini was “the only artist of real value, the sole survivor of a race of creators possibly fated to disappear, or at least in serious danger of extinction” (A. Soffici, La pittura italiana alla II Biennale, in «Corriere Italiano», 16 November 1923). Those extraordinary 1920s began with a one-man room at the 12th Venice Biennale in which Mancini showed twenty-one recent paintings, and continued with the success that he achieved at the 1st and 2nd Rome Biennale, coming to a peak in 1927, and then in 1929, when he was named Accademico d’Italia.
The painting entitled Old Man with a Pipe is due to be published in the forthcoming book Antonio Mancini. Catalogo ragionato dell’ opera. La pittura a olio edited by Cinzia Virno.