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Domenico Gargiulo, called Micco Spadaro (Naples 1612-1679)
Property of La Salle University
Domenico Gargiulo, called Micco Spadaro (Naples 1612-1679)

The Adoration of the Shepherds

Domenico Gargiulo, called Micco Spadaro (Naples 1612-1679)
The Adoration of the Shepherds
oil on canvas
29 7/8 x 40 in. (75.7 x 101.4 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 7 July 1978, lot 197, where acquired by the following
with Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., London, where acquired by the La Salle University Art Museum in 1985.
La Raccolta Molinari Pradelli: dipinti del Sei e Settecento, Bologna, 1984, p. 137, under no. 101, citing Carlo Volpe's opinion that the picture should be reattributed to Cavallino.
G. Sestieri and B. Daprà, Domenico Gargiulo detto Micco Spadaro, Milan, 1994, pp. 71-72, no. 8.
C.P. Wistar, La Salle University Art Museum: Guide to the Collection, Philadelphia, 2002, p. 32, illustrated.
London, Royal Academy of Arts and Washington DC, National Gallery of Art, Painting in Naples from Caravaggio to Giordano, 2 October 1982-1 May 1983, no. 145.
Philadelphia, La Salle University Art Museum, Adoration of the Shepherds, 8 December 1992-January 1993.

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Lot Essay

Domenico Gargiulo’s Adoration of the Shepherds illustrates the climactic moment in the story of the shepherds, who have arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Christ Child. It is one of several versions of the Adoration painted by Gargiulo throughout the course his career, which attests to the enduring popularity of the composition. The versions most closely related to the present work are in the Molinari-Pradelli collection, Marano di Castenaso, Bologna, and the Museo di San Martino, Naples, the latter of which repeats the composition in reverse, and repositions the Holy Family closer to the edge of the picture plane. In all, Gargiulo arranges the central group on and around a stepped platform, and within a classical ruin. However, in each, the artist introduces small variations in the positioning and attitudes of the figures: for example, this is the only version in which the Christ Child is depicted lying in a manger, as opposed to sitting upright with the assistance of his mother, the Madonna. However, it is the formality of the present composition which differentiates it most keenly from the other Adorations, in which the drama is heightened and the format is more sprawling and complex.

This canvas unites a refinement and virtuosity of brushwork with an intensely naturalistic observation of surfaces, and, in places, an extraordinary brilliance of palette. The landscape beneath the arch is fresh and spontaneous, the rocky hillside and crumbling ruins awash with vibrant light informed by his youthful sketching expeditions around Naples. The brilliantly saturated areas of bright red, blue and ocher sing out against darker tonalities of the surrounding architecture, which comprises complex layers of light and shadow rendered in opaque tones of grey and beige, and demonstrates an increasing sophistication in the observation of surfaces and the effects of light and shade. His depiction of the human form is particularly refined: the figures are crowded together in complex arrangements constructed on interlocking diagonals of subtle glances and gestures of mannered elegance, which create a dramatic relationship between the characters.

The scene conveys a sincere and realistic approach to the world of agriculture, demonstrative of the artist’s adherence to the naturalism of Ribera and the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds. He was trained from circa 1628 in the workshop of Aniello Falcone alongside Andrea di Leone and Salvator Rosa, and an intimate familiarity with Falcone’s minutely observed genre details is evident here in the intricately described hay, which spills over the sides of the manger, and the saddlebags slung against the wall to the right. The dense, sfumato brushstrokes and abbreviated physiognomy of several of the faces are found infrequently in Gargiulo’s oeuvre. They indicate the prevailing influence of Bernardo Cavallino and suggest a dating to between 1650 and 1655, before the subsequent development of Gargiulo’s baroque style circa 1660. Gargiulo’s authorship was, however, unequivocally asserted by Brigitte Daprà at the time of the exhibition in 1982, and again by Giancarlo Sestieri in 1994, who recognized the similarity of the present work not only to the artist’s other treatments of the theme (above all the work in the Museo di San Martino, Naples), but also to a related drawing in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (fig. 1). That drawing shows a shepherd kneeling before a sheep and served without doubt as the basis for the figures of the shepherds, with some variations, in Gargiulo’s painted Adorations.

Architecture plays a primary role in each of Gargiulo’s Adorations. His decision to stage the birth of Christ in a setting dominated by a ruinous, classical edifice may indicate a knowledge of similar subjects by Poussin, such as his Adoration of the Magi (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, inv. 717) and his Adoration of the Shepherds (National Gallery, London, inv. NG6277), which date from the 1630s. The abandoned church also recalls the innovative architectural sceneries of Viviano Codazzi, with whom Gargiulo is known to have collaborated. Indeed, according to Sestieri, the invention and perhaps even the execution of the architecture should be given to Codazzi in at least the San Martino Adoration, if not in others. However, in the present composition, the absence of overlapping between figures and architecture symptomatic of their collaborations, as well as the uniformity of the handling, definitively discount the possibility of Codazzi’s participation, and confirm Gargiulo to be the sole author.

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