Following the defeat of French forces at the Battle of Garigliano in 1503, the Spanish took control of the city of Naples, establishing it as an important center of their empire. This occupation created opportunities for painters living and working in the city to expand their markets and for increased artistic exchange between Italy and Spain. One of the most successful painters in Naples to profit from the Spanish rule during the mid-17th century was Andrea Vaccaro. Native to the city, Vaccaro had by the 1630s become one of its leading artists, working frequently for Spanish patrons and regularly exporting his work to the Iberian Peninsula from 1635 (as a result, the Museo del Prado in Madrid has a significant collection of his works). His paintings graced all of the major local collections of the day, including that of the Viceroy of Naples, Gaspar de Bracamonte (c. 1595-1676).
From early on Vaccaro was drawn to the dramatic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, whose Flagellation, now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, he copied. The present Magdalene reveals the unavoidable Caravaggesque idiom that characterized the prevailing pictorial styles in Naples and Rome, as well as the stark tenebrism of the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, who had moved to Naples in 1616 and whose influence seems particularly evident here in the still life at lower left and the somber simplicity of the background. The Magdelene’s delicate, porcelain features and lyrical pose and expression, however, relate more closely to the works of Guido Reni and Domenichino, whose softer, more elegant styles strongly influenced Vaccaro from around 1630, allowing him to blend the restrained classicism of these older Bolognese contemporaries with the drama and color of Naples.
The evident popularity of the Magdalene as a subject during this period is attested to by the number of paintings Vaccaro produced of the saint. The Penitent Magdalene had become an enormously popular theme for artists during the Counter Reformation when she was celebrated as a model of repentance and reform. Indeed, the saint’s contrition for her sins and her choice to lead an eremitic life after Christ’s death, praying in solitary contemplation at Sainte-Baume in Southern France, was frequently cited as a guide for the faithful during the 17th century, with theologians and religious leaders arguing that ‘imitating the glorious Magdalene’ and her penitent, contemplative life was the best means toward salvation (see Michelangelo da Venezia, in F. Mormando, ‘Teaching the Faithful to Fly: Mary Magdalene and Peter in Baroque Italy’, Saints & Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image, exhibition catalogue, Boston, 1999, p. 119).
This particular composition can be found in a number of pictures of varying quality, including paintings in the Museo del Capodimonte, Naples; the Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo; the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; the Palacio de Liria, Madrid; the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janiero; and the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Although numerous treatments of the composition exist, the present canvas and one in a private collection in Naples are the only two to bear Vaccaro’s distinctively elegant monogram (fig. 1). Dott. Riccardo Lattuada, to whom we are grateful, has confirmed the attribution of the present work, dating it to the 1740s and noting that it is one of the best extant versions of the composition by the artist.