This remarkable picture was a highlight of the renowned collection of Sir William Hamilton at Palazzo Sessa in Naples. Untraced since 1801, its rediscovery restores to the oeuvre of Luca Giordano one of his most striking and innovative compositions.
Hamilton’s collection and his life in Naples with Emma Hamilton (née Amy Lyon), have long been a source of fascination and intrigue. Appointed British ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, he moved to the city in 1764 and, when not engaged on diplomatic duties, dedicated his time to the study and acquisition of antiquities, sculptures and pictures. He amassed a considerable number of works, the most important of which were displayed at Palazzo Sessa. It became a destination for connoisseurs, artists and writers, including Mozart, Vigée Le Brun and Goethe. There, overlooking the bay of Naples, visitors were invited to indulge their curiosity, and be entertained by Sir William and Catherine, his first wife who died in 1782, and subsequently Emma, whom he married in 1791.
His collection of pictures at the palazzo ‘reflected his character as a man of taste and a connoisseur’ (Jenkins and Sloan, op. cit., p. 81), and included some great masterpieces, notably the Portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez (fig. 1) and Madonna and Child with Saints by Ludovico Carracci (both now New York, Metropolitan Museum; inv. nos. 1971.86 and 2007.330), together with numerous portraits of Lady Hamilton by Reynolds and Romney, including Emma as bacchant (fig. 2; Private collection). Contemporary accounts from the artist Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, who was a great friend of Hamilton, and the author Conte Carlo Gastone della Torre Rezzonico, describe the collection in some detail, and both single out this picture by Giordano as a highlight, alongside the Velázquez. It is listed as hanging on the main staircase, with busts of Democritus and Heraclitus either side, laughing and weeping at the world, setting the scene for Hamilton’s collection – and perhaps his outlook on life. The early history of the picture is not yet known, though it must have been acquired by Hamilton in Italy before the visit of Conte della Torre Rezzonico who, as part of his grand tour of Italy, recorded his impressions of the pictures at Palazzo Sessa in 1789:
‘Fra’ moltissimi quadri del cavaliere Hamilton questi mi piacque di tener vivi alla memoria. Un quadro di Giordano, che figura un uomo, che suona il colascione con vasto cappello alla spagnuola. Dietro le spalle si vede una scimmia, sul corpo del colascione stassi seduto un papagallo, alla sinistra spunta fuori una testa d’asino, alla destra quella d’un montone ben fornito di ritorte corna. Un metis, o moresco di Velasquez…’ (Mocchetti, op. cit.)
(‘Of the many pictures of [Sir William] Hamilton, I like to remember these. A picture by Giordano, showing a man playing the colascione with a large Spanish-style hat. There is a monkey on his shoulders, a parrot sitting on the body of the colascione itself, to the left appears a head of a donkey, and to the right a ram with prominent curved horns. A Metis, or moor by Velasquez…’)
Tischbein recalls Hamilton’s interpretation of the picture (op. cit.), explaining that he saw it as a satire on life itself: its theatricality, and natural draw as a talking point, must have undoubtedly appealed to Hamilton. It was probably this satirical interpretation of the picture that led Tischbein to ascribe it to Salvator Rosa, an attribution that must have been retained in the nineteenth century, given the name plate on the frame.
In late 1798, when Hamilton moved to Palermo, following the court of Ferdinand I and Maria Carolina, the picture was packed to be shipped to England, along with a great part of the collection, and offered for sale at Christie’s in March 1801, together with his other major pictures, including the Velázquez. It was Hamilton who determined how the work was described in the catalogue, as a satire of human character traits: ‘Luca was out of humour with this Countrymen, and made this hasty Picture as a Satire on them, by putting in the following emblems, which he thought adapted to them, viz. a Monkey, a Parrot, an Ass, and a Ram; that they were, according to the Language of the Country, Imitators, Talkative Asses, and contented Cuckolds, Simii, papagalli, cucci e cornuti buoni’. As such, the picture adds to a tradition of animal symbolism, moralisation and bestiaries in western Europe (see S. Cohen, Animals as disguised symbols in Renaissance Art, Leiden and Boston, 2008).
In studies on Hamilton and his collection, the picture’s meaning has been the subject of some attention, despite its not being seen for two centuries. David Nolta (op. cit.) theorised that Hamilton seemed to have ‘identified himself in a personal and rather telling way’ with the work – being himself a musician who liked to surround himself with animals. Hamilton famously kept a monkey named Jack at Palazzo Sessa, whose playful antics – including mimicking so-called connoisseurs with an eyeglass – were recounted in letters from the time. Jack’s unusual role in Hamilton’s life of entertainment inspired the contemporary New York-based artist Walton Ford to produce his own imagined portrait of the creature, Jack on his deathbed (fig. 3). The symbolism of the horned ram was highly apposite. In Hamilton’s words, it represented cornuti buoni or ‘contented cuckolds’, and the obvious allusion to his own domestic situation was undoubtedly lost on no-one: the love affair between his wife Emma and Horatio Nelson, which began in Naples in 1798, was one of the most celebrated romances of the era. Hamilton was lampooned for his short-sightedness, shown in a cartoon focusing all his attention on his collection while Emma and Nelson flirt in the background – shown as portraits of Cleopatra and Mark Antony (fig. 4).
Hamilton owned other works by Giordano, an artist for whom he clearly had a passion. This, though, is a rarity in the artist’s corpus. It is painted with a verve and assurance that dates it to the 1680s, ripe with allegorical allusions and humour. With Giordano’s renowned ability to ape other artist’s styles, the monkey sitting on the musician’s shoulder is likely more than coincidental, underlining the idea that the picture is self-referential, if not a self-portrait. It is worth highlighting the instrument that is being played, plectrum in hand. A member of the lute family, the calascione (or colascione) came in different sizes, with longer or shorter necks, but usually with three strings, as is the case here; it was associated with popular music and entertainment in Naples in the seventeenth century, though is rarely shown in pictures of the time.
We are grateful to Nicola Spinosa and Giuseppe Scavizzi for independently confirming the attribution, the former upon first-hand inspection and the latter on the basis of photographs.