The Fondazione de Chirico has confirmed the authenticity of this work. It is recorded in the archives under the number 001/01/15 OT.
“During a trip to Rome in October, after having read the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, I became aware that there is a host of strange, unknown, solitary things which can be translated into painting” (Giorgio de Chirico, 1909).
In the summer of 1915, de Chirico was summoned to Florence by the Italian military authorities for a physical examination and was subsequently assigned to the 27th Infantry Regiment in Ferrara. I Vaticinatori ("The Seers") was executed in the northern Italian city in March 1916. By this time, de Chirico had fully developed his metaphysical approach to painting, which involved his philosophical contemplation of the "solitude of signs," a highly intuitive and personal process that set him apart from the prevailing modes of Cubism and Futurism. De Chirico first formulated these ideas in Milan and Florence during 1909-1911, and then perfected this style in Paris during his stay there in 1911-1915, before returning to Italy during the First World War.
Drawing on the late 19th century philosophy of Arnold Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, de Chirico’s celebrated piazza scenes project a typically fin de siècle mindset of melancholia and ennui. They are perhaps more successful in suggesting the aura of mystery than in stating any deeper profundity. The stronger and more genuinely modern aspect of these paintings is de Chirico's conception of space and form, his manipulation of austerely flat, unadorned facades and ambiguous distances, for which he devised inconsistent and unsettling perspectives by employing multiple vanishing points.
Toward the end of 1913 de Chirico experienced an epiphany which altered his iconography and made his painting more innovatively modern—as modern in its play of imagery and pictorial format as a Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque cubist collage. He dreamed that two enormous artichokes made of iron appeared to him in a piazza. They appear in several paintings done in late 1913 and early 1914 (Baldacci, nos. 42, 47 and 48). This vision suggested that objects might easily be divested of their normal context, or removed from the logical systems of sense and perception that ordinarily determine their meaning, so that they may exist in multiple associational guises. De Chirico described this phenomenon in the Eluard manuscript:
"A revelation can be born of a sudden, when one least expects it, and can also be stimulated by the sight of something—a building, a street, a garden, a square. When a revelation grows out of the sight of an arrangement of objects, then the work which appears in our thoughts is closely linked with the circumstance that has provoked its birth. One resembles the other, but in a very strange way" (quoted in J.T. Soby, Giorgio de Chirico, New York, 1966, p. 244).
The present highly finished pencil drawing marks a turning point in de Chirico’s approach to the medium. Paolo Baldacci has written, "The function of the drawing changed radically during the Ferrara period, continuing the tendency that had begun to manifest itself during the last months in Paris. Almost all the Ferrara drawings are finished, worked over with meticulous care, true paintings on paper" (op. cit., p. 317). Baldacci proposes two reasons why the quality of the drawings changed so radically during this time: "On the one hand, de Chirico had less time and less opportunity to devote himself to painting proper, and thus uses the drawing as a means of completely realizing his visions. While the drawings of the earlier period, with extremely rare exceptions, were destined to remain a private collection of visual notes and ideas for later use, these are instead conceived for circulation and publication. On the other hand, de Chirico’s working method has changed profoundly. With his relatively new and total mastery of the mechanism that transforms "vision" into painting, de Chirico no longer needed to fix the intuitive and enigmatic moment of the revelation on paper" (ibid.).
The present work is closely related to the drawing Il filosofo ed il poeta, executed in February 1916, which in turn is connected to the earlier painting Il filosofo ed il poeta that de Chirico had begun in Paris in 1915 and sent, unfinished, to Ferrara (figs. 1-2). According to Baldacci, "The philosopher and poet of the one are the ‘seers’ of the other, and vice versa, poised to receive the mysterious oracle. In their room is a painting on an easel representing a starry sky crossed by a curved line. The scene, like the unfinished Parisian painting, is an allegory of the metaphysician’s poetic and philosophical quest. The starry sky symbolizes the mystery of the universe, explored by the depicted pair through the telescope of the mind" (ibid., p. 318). In his La note misteriosa of January 1916, de Chirico wrote, "The best new creators are the philosophers who have gone beyond philosophy. They have returned to the here and now; they stand before the rectangles of their tables and walls because they have surpassed the contemplation of the infinite […] The atelier of the metaphysician is like an astronomical observatory, a revenue office, a ship’s captain’s wheelhouse" (G. de Chirico, Il meccanismo del pensiero, Critica, polemica, autobiografia, 1911-1943, Turin, 1985, p. 43).
The figure on the right of I vaticanatori took on several different guises in the development of the subject. In Il filosofo ed il poeta he is depicted as an old man with a twin ellipse on his forehead signifying “second sight,” while the baronial ring on his finger identifies him as the ghost of the artist’s father. In Il filosofo ed il poeta the figure has become a mannequin. In the present work he has, "the physiognomy of Napoleon III and closed eyes…The ringed finger is less evident but nonetheless present. That same hand, the manicured and bejeweled hand of Evaristo de Chirico’s ghost, appears in Il Ritornante…the metaphysical protagonist splits into a couple, the other half of which is either the brother or the father, the latter further doubled in his dual 'Cavourian' or 'Napoleonic-Dionysian' identity" (p. Baldacci, op. cit., p. 318; fig. 3).
De Chirico gifted the present work to his friend, the prominent journalist, poet, novelist and literary critic Giovanni Papini who was living in Florence at the time. De Chirico corresponded extensively with Papini and the letters provide a fascinating insight into the artist’s imagination (fig. 4). On 12 March 1916, around the time I vaticanatori was completed, De Chirico wrote, "Early next month I will be coming for perhaps a week to Florence. I’ll bring some recently painted works with me. You will see things that are new in spirit and form: at once profound, solid and light; images which came to me “sur des pattes de colombes” one sunny market day in a Ferrara square" (quoted in ibid., p. 317).