This exquisite masterpiece in miniature is a major rediscovery and an important addition to the large corpus of works by Francesco Solimena, the leading Neapolitan painter of the first half of the 18th century. A prolific artist who was esteemed throughout Europe, Solimena created hundreds of altarpieces, large-scale fresco decorations, mythological paintings and portraits, but also executed a few small, highly refined mythological and allegorical paintings on copper, made (as Edgar Peters Bowron has noted) for “the many princely patrons who admired his work” (E.P. Bowron, Copper as Canvas, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1999, p. 289, under no. 56). He produced these from early in his career – Bowron cites Apelles Painting Campaspe and Zeuxis Painting Venus of circa 1685-90 (15 x 19 inches; formerly British Rail Pension Fund), and the Allegory of the Habsburg Rule of Naples of circa 1700 (16 ½ x 23 ¼ inches; private collection) – and continued the practice for decades, including the ravishing Bacchus and Ariadne (14 x 19 inches; formerly James Fairfax collection, Australia), which is usually dated around 1725. All of the known coppers, to which the present Noli me tangere may now be added, rank among the artist’s most perfect and satisfying accomplishments.
Solimena often adapted monumental compositions created in fresco and canvas onto these small copper plates, which served as precious and highly finished objets de luxe for his eager international clientele. For example, the aforementioned Bacchus and Ariadne derives from a large composition (176 x 279 cm.) on canvas, now lost but formerly in Vienna, that was either commissioned by the Emperor or Prince Eugene of Savoy, or brought to the city by one of the Austrian viceroys to Naples, such as Count Harrach (see N. Spinosa, Pittura napoletana del Settecento dal Barocco al Rococo, Naples, 1993, p. 110, no. 30, fig. 35).
Nothing is yet known of the early history of Noli me tangere and no larger version of the composition has been identified. What is clear, however, is that it must have been made for an exceptionally discerning and wealthy patron. From the masterly anatomical exactitude of Christ, the gentle characterization of the pleading Magdalene and the richly conceived garden setting, to the meticulously observed pots of sunflowers and sun-dappled orange tree -- all rendered in a bright, sparkling palette and executed with a shimmering, crystalline paint surface – Solimena employed all his prodigious gifts to create in Noli me tangere a glittering jewel of a painting worthy of display in any of the finest picture galleries in Europe.
The subject, of course, is traditional in European painting dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and appears in celebrated compositions by Titian and Correggio. Here, Solimena represents the moment, recounted in the Gospels by the apostle John (20:17), when Mary Magdalene recognized Christ after his resurrection; as she reached out to touch him, he pulled back and spoke the Latin phrase “Noli me tangere” – “Touch me not”. At first, not believing her own eyes, she thought him a gardener, hence Solimena’a textually accurate elaboration of the garden setting, but also an opportunity to display his gift as a still life painter, said by his friend and biographer Bernardo de' Dominici do be considerable.
Our thanks to Nicola Spinosa (in written correspondence, 19 February 2015), who confirmed the attribution of the present lot to Francesco Solimena, dating it to the early 1700s; he will be publishing it in his forthcoming monograph on the artist.