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The ''Low" Style of Giovanni da San Giovanni at the Medici Court

Morten Steen Hansen, Independent scholar
Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, 2015–2016


Giovanni da San Giovanni, Venus Combing Lice from Cupid’s Hair, 1627. Galleria Palatina, Florence

Since the seventeenth century, baroque painting in Italy has been described as a reaction against a branch of late mannerism associated with Tuscany and Rome, which had come to be considered too artificial, rhetorically ineffective, and weak in color. The artists who came into their own in Florence after 1600 have largely been excluded from the narratives surrounding early baroque painting, to the point where their insignificance is now taken for granted. My study of the painter-poet Giovanni Mannozzi, also known as Giovanni da San Giovanni (1592–1636), considers how these neglected painters reinvented Florentine style through an immersion in popular versions of vernacular culture.

Giovanni da San Giovanni was, during his lifetime, universally recognized as the greatest fresco painter of his generation in Tuscany and, while in Rome during the 1620s, received important commissions for murals in secular and sacred settings. His fame in the papal capital is attested by Giovanni Baglione’s Le vite de’ pittori, scultori et architetti . . . (1642), which focused on painters who worked in Rome from the reign of Pope Gregory XIII to that of Urban VIII. Upon Giovanni’s premature death, his widow consigned most of his writings to the flames, but I have located a number of his poems in a manuscript in Florence, which I am preparing for publication together with a likewise unpublished seventeenth-century life of the artist. The largely scandalous poems deploy colloquialisms and local dialect while exemplifying a “low” version of the vernacular, harnessed against the prevailing tradition of Petrarchism with its idealizations of love, sensory experience, and the Tuscan language. How Giovanni’s concerns as a poet intersected with his paintings can be exemplified by a work from 1627, Venus Combing Lice from Cupid’s Hair, painted for the villa of Don Lorenzo de’ Medici (1599–1648) at Castello. Unlike Venus’s traditional aristocratic incarnations in Florentine art, this goddess of love is a commoner, and the painting gives an impression of being based on the study of living models. The batlike wings of Cupid call into question the very type of love he inspires. These anomalies, combined with the display of his naked backside and the blushing shadows of his buttocks, place the painting in a tradition exemplified by Teofilo Folengo’s poem Orlandino (1526): “And I am telling you that Cupid is even more of a whore than his mother ever was.” In contrast to the idealized sculptural bodies familiar from Florentine painting, Giovanni da San Giovanni offered a barefooted mother with her naked son, depicted with a kind of realism that revealed his study of the works of the Lombard Caravaggio (1571–1610) and the Neapolitan Battistello Caracciolo (1578–1635).

Giovanni’s Tuscan biographer Filippo Baldinucci (1624–1697) regretted what he took to be the artist’s bizarre behavior. In Baldinucci’s narrative, Giovanni let himself be innocently imprisoned in the Bargello in order to humiliate the grand-ducal guards; sabotaged the sacrament of taking holy orders by an Augustinian friar in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome; served a frittata with mice to unknowing noblemen who had come to dine at the Villa “il Pozzino” in Castello outside Florence; and presented a group of venerable Florentines, who had commissioned from him an allegory of Charity, with a painting of donkeys scratching each other—Christian virtue thus descending to beasts to become a parody of itself. Giovanni da San Giovanni’s conduct as an artist in a courtly society stood in opposition to the ideal promoted in the writings of Giorgio Vasari in the previous century, identified with refinement, grace, and courtliness. Caravaggio was an obvious prototype for the painter-poet’s deeply insubordinate persona, an identity also produced in his art and writings. Similarly, Giovanni’s provocative attitude became a source of fascination for male aristocrats. The painting of Venus and Cupid, for example, offended some but was cherished by the prince. Such erotic and “low” art, devoid of moral pretensions, marked the patron’s elite status, seemingly above the norms and restrictions that the post-Tridentine Roman church aimed to implement at all levels of secular society. By producing such art, and through his erratic behavior, the artist might be seen to have bonded with the patron while claiming a semi-aristocratic license that allowed him to comport himself with little regard for common sociability. In this light the rustic plays an important part in his painterly and literary production. Moreover, this was the artist who chose to sign his paintings “San Giovanni” after the village in the Valdarno where he grew up rather than with his proper last name. To the painter the rustic was a guise of simplicity and a cover for a transgressive art and persona.